Washington's Monument: And the Fascinating History of the Obelisk
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Conceived soon after the American Revolution ended, the great monument to George Washington was not finally completed until almost a century later; the great obelisk was finished in 1884, and remains the tallest stone structure in the world at 555 feet. The story behind its construction is a largely untold and intriguing piece of American history, which acclaimed historian John Steele Gordon relates with verve, connecting it to the colorful saga of the ancient obelisks of Egypt.
Nobody knows how many obelisks were crafted in ancient Egypt, or even exactly how they were created and erected since they are made out of hard granite and few known tools of the time were strong enough to work granite. Generally placed in pairs at the entrances to temples, they have in modern times been ingeniously transported around the world to Istanbul, Paris, London, New York, and many other locations. Their stories illuminate that of the Washington Monument, once again open to the public following earthquake damage, and offer a new appreciation for perhaps the most iconic memorial in the country.
rise, the state of Alabama in 1850 sent, unsolicited, a block of Alabama marble inscribed with the words, “A Union of Equality, as Adjusted by the Constitution,” to be placed in the monument’s interior wall. There it could be seen by visitors climbing the stairs to the top. The society seized on the idea and issued invitations for other states to donate blocks of local stone and instructed that they should be four feet by two feet with a depth of twelve to eighteen inches. The stones were to
overwhelming physical attribute, which is inertia: the tendency of objects to remain in a state of rest or motion unless acted upon by an outside force. The greater the mass of the object, the greater the force needed to change its inertial state. Mustering and controlling those outside forces in order to get these immense, concentrated weights both to move and—equally important—to stop on command, making use of the technology available at the time, was the task these engineers had to deal with.
paid and, beset with their own fiscal woes, sometimes they did not. By the late 1780s, the situation had reached a crisis point and delegates assembled in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, supposedly to amend the Articles of Confederation. Instead they quickly decided to exceed their instructions and write a whole new constitution. George Washington, one of the delegates, was soon elected president of the convention. Two years later, the constitution having been ratified by twelve of the
largest library in the world, was founded in 1895. By the turn of the century, New York was rapidly becoming the equal of Paris and London as a world cultural center. And among its new cultural icons, as with those two cities, was an ancient Egyptian obelisk. It was, and remains to this day, the only one in the western hemisphere. While France and Great Britain acquired title to their obelisks in the early nineteenth century, when the Egyptian government and people cared little if anything for
point is only a little over 1,000° Celsius, which was easily reached with the technology of the day. But copper, like gold, is soft and while it will take an edge it does not hold it. Only when the discovery was made that alloying copper with tin or arsenic produces a metal, bronze, that is far harder than either, could the age of metal tools and weapons really begin. Arsenic is often found in copper ores, so bronze was probably first found accidentally. But arsenic bronze is hard to cast and