This report on the erection of Cleopatra’s Needle appeared in The Times on September 13, 1878. This ancient Egyptian obelisk had been given to Britain by the Turkish Viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, in 1819, although it was not until 1877, when engineer John Dixon built an iron cylindrical pontoon to tow it out to sea, that it arrived in Britain, where it was erected on the north bank of the River Thames at Victoria Embankment, London. It is now believed that Cleopatra’s Needle was originally erected at Heliopolis in Egypt around 1475 BC.

The Times

Cleopatra's Needle

Without ceremony, but as a matter in which the public take a good deal of interest, the obelisk which, rightly or wrongly, will always be known as Cleopatra’s Needle, was erected on the VictoriaEmbankment yesterday, although its exact adjustment on its pedestal is for a short time deferred. Until yesterday the monolith has never stood erect since, at some time or other between the dawn of the thirteenth century and that of the seventeenth, it toppled over on its site close to what used to be the port of Old Alexandria, some nine miles away from the harbour of the modern city. There, in the eighth year of Augustus, bc 23, and accordingly just 1,900 years ago, it was set up, along with the still standing Needle, in front of the sea-gate of the temple founded by the beautiful Queen in honour of her lover, the deified Julius, on occasion of the birth of their son, Caesarion. The pair belong to the 12 colossal obelisks now standing on the face of the earth— namely, five in Egypt, four in Rome, and one each at Constantinople, Paris, and London. Moreover, both the Cleopatra’s Needles, like the Constantinopolitan monolith, and like the Lateran obelisk at Rome, which, though shortened 3ft. by Fontana, the engineer who re-erected it for Sixtus V, is still the tallest in the world, being no less than 105 y ft. high, are among those quarried under the greatest of the Pharaohs, Thothmes III. So the primary inscriptions tell us. Of all the hieroglyphical legends engraven on our own Needle, including the lateral columns added by Ramses II, a revised translation by Dr. Birch was published in our issue of the 7th ult. Thus Thothmes lays claim by his autographs to a full third of the whole twelve. Indeed, if we leave out of the account the Vatican obelisk, which is uninscribed, he will be entitled to a larger proportion. Nor, mere size apart, does the whole order present any finer specimen than his Lateran obelisk, except, perhaps, that still standing at Karnak, one of a pair quarried by his sister Hatusa, which, accordingly, is of the same noble school of art to which our own belongs. She was the Queen-dowager of his predecessor and elder brother. Thothmes II, after whose death she at first reigned in the surviving brother’s name; but she soon absorbed his authority altogether, and to the last gave him back nothing more than a joint sway along with herself, if not subordinate to her own. It may be added that, save the other standing obelisk at Karnak, which belongs to her father, Thothmes I, and that of Usertasen I, on the site of Heliopolis, the On of the Bible, where Cleopatra’s Needles also at first stood, none of the twelve can boast higher antiquity than the reign of Thothmes III Usertasen I is said to have reigned from bc 2,783, and Thothmes III, from bc 1,515. Like Usertasen’s spire, our Needle belongs to a group of five expressely chronological obelisks, marked off from the rest of the 12, as having been erected on the First Festival of one or other Thirty Year Cycle. Of these, as in the case of the trio just specified, the Campensian at Rome was also originally a Heliopolitan monument. One only of the five, that of Queen Hatasu, or Hasheps, as the name is read by some, is Theban. Now there is an interesting point raised by the comparison necessarily provoked between this Cyclical date on her obelisk, and that borne by our own. Since his reign, including that portion of it usurped by his sister, is known to have lasted 54 years, it is plain that two First Festivals of the Thirty-year Cycle must have fallen within it. Does, then, the First Festival mentioned on our obelisk as its date belong to the earlier or the later such epoch? The question cannot be discussed here in detail, but there is every likelihood that the monolith set up yesterday on the Thames Embankment bears date from the earlier of the two, and so identical with that which dates his sister’s obelisk, which she further states on its pedestal was erected in her 16th year. It should be mentioned that an inscription is extant dated in the 16th year of their joint reign. On this view, it is certain that, Egypt alone excepted, ours is the oldest of the colossal obelisks in any part of the world— a pre-eminence surely worth noting.

The enterprise crowned yesterday with such gratifying, although not quite unqualified, success is but the second instance since the times of the Roman and Byzantine Emperors of the transport of a colossal obelisk from Africa to any other portion of the Eastern hemisphere; the first was the removal of the Luxor monolith of Ramses II, the Sesostris of the Greek and Roman writers, to the Place de la Concorde, at Paris. It was set on its pedestal on the 25th of October, 1836, in the presence of Louis Philippe and the Royal family, by the engineer Lebas. The concourse of people was immense; but the three or four hours during which the work of elevation was going on tired out their enthusiasm so that there was little cheering when it was over, at least until some sailors climbed up the monument and planted the tricolor on the top. The French plan of erection did not differ materially from Fontana’s in 1586, when he set up the Vatican obelisk. Fontana built round his obelisk what the Romans named his “castle,” a stupendous pile of timber higher than itself. By the joint labour of 1,500 men and 140 horses, straining for a month at blocks, ropes, and tackles, the monolith of 360 tons of granite was lifted into its place. Lebas had to deal with but 220 tons. He effected, however, a more than proportionate economy of material and labour. He did not build his staging higher than the 76 ft. or 77 ft. of his obelisk that he might get hold of it by ropes, and hang it from the top, but ingeniously devised shear legs which would rise and fall at his will, to bring about its elevation. As against Fontana’s 46 capstans, he used but 10, each worked by 48 men. Our Needle measures 2 in. or 3 in. over 68 ft. long, and weighs 193 tons, which, with 16 tons added for the jacket, and seven for the girders, will still make up no more than 216 tons, a difference quite inapplicable. What made a dozen men under the orders of Mr. Dixon’s superintendent of works, Mr. Double, more than a match, as we shall see, for Lebas’s 480, was the appearance of the new factor of the water-giant. The time announced for swinging the obelisk and placing it on its pedestal was 3 p.m. Between 1 and 2 o’clock a heavy downpour of rain proved more effectual in scattering the gathering crowd than any fear of the police. But after an hour or so of decidedly bad weather there was a gradual return of sunshine, and behind the line of constables barricading the Embankment some few thousands of people clustered and watched what was going on with the keenest interest. The pavement of Adelphi terrace was densely thronged, and there were many eager spectators on Waterloo-bridge. For long distances on both sides the river pavement of the Embankment was crowded. From an early hour the Duke of Connaught steamer was on its station off the Adelphi-steps, the guests of Mr. Dixon and Professor Erasmus Wilson, reinforced by the members of the Metropolitan Board of Works, being conveyed on board by its tender the Prince of Wales from Westminster Pier at short intervals until the large vessel became almost overloaded. Several small steamers were also in waiting, freighted with full cargoes of earnest sightseers. Four Thames Police boats and a Thames Conservancy boat kept the water way, and the flag of the Port Medical Officer floated from his steam launch.

Exceptions to the rule of the strict reservation of the space within the hoarding for the workmen and the engineers were extremely rare. But Captain Carter was naturally regarded as a privileged person, and Professor Erasmus Wilson, who of course possessed the entrée, put in an appearance at about half-past 2. Besides Mr. John Dixon, C.E., and his consulting engineers, Messrs. Benjamin Baker, C.E., and H. Palfrey Stephenson, C.E., Sir Joseph Bazalgette, C.B., C.E., represented the Metropolitan Board of Works, and among others in attendance were Mr. Rapier, C.E., (Ransom and Rapier), Mr. Gotto, C.E., Mr. R.M. Ordish, C.E., and Mr. J. S. Whitlock, C.E., Messrs. J. Dixon and B. Baker. Mr. Dixon’s superintendent of works, Mr. Double, won warm approval from all the professional gentlemen present for the intelligence with which he executed his share of the work, nor must the men under his orders be denied their due meed of praise. The starting point of yesterday’s operations was the monolith’s rise in a horizontal position to a height just sufficient to allow of its clearing its pedestal when swung. This implied a space of four inches or so, which the obelisk, when vertical, would have to descend in order to reach its pedestal. Before the swinging, the pair of iron girders carrying the entire weight were brought to rest on pieces of packing four inches thick, reposing on the solid timber of the framework, the four supports of which, it may be remarked, are now compacted masses more than a yard square, bolted together in the firmest manner. The operation of swinging the stone was then performed, the motion being controlled by ropes and checkchains slung round each end of the monolith. One at either extremity was a splendid steel wire rope from the works of Mr. R. S. Newall’s firm, the gentleman, who, it will be remembered, gave the noble steel tow lines for the Cleopatra’s homeward voyage. The undertaking was no every-day task, such as any civil engineer could manage offhand, but, as an adept in the profession, who was watching it with the liveliest interest, observed, the first time in engineering experience that anything approaching 200 tons had been carried on iron knife-edges. The tackle was worked by a pair of winches at each end, which five minutes before 3 were manned by three men each, making a dozen in all. A minute or two before the hour, the Needle having been unlocked, as in the previous day’s rehearsal, the winches began to turn, and the huge monolith's motion was almost instantaneously perceptible, as the thin end left behind it a chock of timber on which it had rested. At 3.10 p.m. the obelisk was already at an angle of about 45 degrees, considered a most critical juncture, and at the end of five minutes more 60 degrees was reached. By the time the half-hour had chimed from the Clock Tower the rose granite single-stone spire of the grand old Pharaoh Thothmes III, had, to any save a mathematical eye, taken an upright position. The heavier end had, in fact, travelled, as an engineer present calculated, 43 y ft. in the 32 minutes, or, as Captain Carter put it, an arc of 90 degrees in half an hour— i.e., at half the rate of the minute-hand of the clock. After this there was a pause, which, as there were no signs visible of the next and final operation, the dropping the Needle on its pedestal, became more and more ominous, and by 4 it began to be known that nothing further would be done that day. Then, strangely enough, so far from displaying any chagrin or disappointment, the enthusiasm of the crowd, as though the wonder they already saw before them had now for the first time struck them in all its grandeur, burst forth in ringing cheers, which were renewed from river, road, terrace, and bridge as the Union Jack was run up on the flagstaff which overtopped the pyramidion on the north side, and again when the Egyptian (Turkish) flag followed on the south. These cheers for the colours were in honour of the Queen and Khedive; but the first burst was for Mr. Dixon and his coadjutors, and in recognition of a great triumph already won. Uneasiness of the engineering conscience as to the geometrical perpendicularity of the line joining the centre of the pedestal with the monolith’s centre of gravity we understand to have been the cause of the postponement for a short time of the final act.

The party on the Adelphi Steps joined, soon after 4, the company on board the Duke of Connaught, among whom, besides members of the Board of Works, were Sir Charles Reed, Admiral Sir Erasmus Ommaney, C.B., Major-General Sir James E. Alexander, C.B., F.R.S.E., Professor Owen, F.R.S., Sir G. Elliott, M.P., Mr Grantham, M.P., and Alderman Sir C. Whetham. Addresses were delivered, and healths drunk and acknowledged. The parts taken in the obelisk enterprise by Professor Erasmus Wilson, Sir James Alexander, and Mr. John Dixon respectively were heartily recognized on all hands, and three loyal cheers for Her Majesty brought the festivities to a close.

Source: The Times []