The Atomium is an extraordinary building in Brussels that consists of nine large spheres connected by tubes in a way that mimics the atomic structure of an iron crystal. It was constructed for the World's Fair of 1958, and left standing after the fair because it was so greatly appreciated.
Compare the Eiffel Tower for a similar story.


History
The Atomium was built by private enterprise, not by government contract: In 1954, three trade associations, the Federation of the Metalworking Industries, the Belgian Blast-Furnace and Steelworks group, and the Union of Non-Ferrous Metals Industries, promised the organisers of the 1958 World's Fair that they would construct a fitting symbol for the occasion.

The engineer André Waterkeyn came up with the idea of constructing a giant model of the atomic structure of an iron crystal. It was to represent the way atoms are organised on an infinitesimal scale, which was one of the most important fields of research in the 20th century.

The idea was approved of by the trade associations, which then joined together in a nonprofit organisation whose managing director became André Waterkeyn. Mr. Waterkeyn was assisted by M.E. Greiner. Further members of the team were the engineering consultants Beckers, Joukoff and Daniel, the architects A. and J. Polak as well as Director F. Hébrant.

Despite the many problems that are inevitable when building such an extraordinary structure, they managed to get it completed on time. The Atomium was so greatly appreciated during the exposition that the city of Brussels asked for it not to be dismantled. So it is still standing in Brussels, open for visitors.


What It Looks Like
Eight of the nine spheres of the Atomium are arranged cubically, connected by tubes. The ninth sphere is exactly in the middle of that cube and connected to all the other spheres by tubes. This shape stands on only one outer sphere, so that there are three spheres arranged in a vertical line going through the center of the cube.

                       _____
                      /     \
                   __|  U 0  |__
                __/   \_____/   \__
             __/       __|__       \__
          __/         /     \         \__
      ___/_         _/   1   |_         _\___
     /     \      _/  \_____/  \_      /     \
    |   0   |   _/       |       \_   |   0   |
     \__|__/\__/       __|__       \__/\__|__/
       /   \_/ \__    /     \    __/ \_/   \
      |   _/ \_   \__|   C   |__/   _/ \_   |
    __|__/    _\_/    \_____/    \_/_    \__|__
   /     \___/   \_    __|__    _/   \___/     \
  |   1   |        \_ /  |  \ _/        |   1   |
   \_____/\_         |   |0  |         _/\_____/
            \__       \__|__/       __/
               \_        |        _/
                 \__   __|__   __/
                    \_/     \_/
                     |  L 1  |
                      \_____/
                     /_______\
                      
C: Center Sphere
L: Lowermost Sphere
U: Uppermost sphere
1: Closer Spheres
0: Farther Spheres

If the description and ASCII "art" was not helpful, I suggest you look at a picture of it. Just search for "atomium" at some image search site like google to find one.

The structure is supported by three pylons holding up the three next to lowermost spheres. There are escalators in the tubes connecting these spheres with the lowest sphere, which is the entrance. There is also a lift in the central tubes leading all the way to the topmost sphere. The three next to uppermost spheres are not accessible to the public.


Some Technical Information
Height: 102 metres
Sphere Diameter: 18 metres
Tube Diameter: 3 metres
Weight: 2439 tons
Atomic structure magnified 165 million times


Location
Boulevard du Centenaire, 1020 Brussels, Belgium

Opening Times
Daily 1000-1730 (1 Sep-31 Mar); daily 0900-1930 (1 Apr-31 Aug). Closed one week at the end of January.

Admission Fees
BFr220 (adult), BFr160 (child).

The information above is from the 7th of December 2001, and may have changed. Sources:
http://www.worldtouristattractions.travel-guides.com/attractions/ato/ato.asp
http://www.skypoint.com/members/jkm/atomium/atomium.html
http://www.atomium.be/ (official website)

As Zarkonnen said, the Atomium was built for the World's Fair of 1958. But the most important reason was that Belgium needed something to represent them at this fair. Someone soon came up with the idea of building the Atomium.

Why build the Atomium? Why build a giant structure of nine atoms, to what purpose?

At the time that the Atomium was constructed, Belgium was divided into nine provinces. Therefore the Atomium has more significance than a mere structure of nine atoms. But it represented our nine (small as they may have been) provinces.

Later a tenth province was added (as the province Brabant split in two) , but the atomium can still be found in our capital Brussels, where it once stood symbol for our nation.

Nowadays it is a restaurant, well... part of it anyway.

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