Benjamin Baker
introduction  •  early life  •  Sir John Fowler  •  London Underground  • 
Tay Bridge disaster enquiry  •  Forth Rail Bridge  •  Cleopatra's Needle  •  Hudson River Tunnel  •  Aswan Dam  •  character & legacy  •  selected works  •  sources
The transportation of Cleopatra's Needle
In commemoration of Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby's victory at the Battle of Alexandria, the British government was given in 1819 an ancient Egyptian obelisk by the then ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali. The government accepted the gift, which lay buried under under the sand near Alexandria, but was reluctant to pay for its transport. So the obelisk stayed where it was, until 1877 when Sir Erasmus Wilson provided funds together with subscriptions raised from the public. The financial problem was solved but there was still the issue of how to get the solid stone monument safely shipped.
Cleopatra's Needle — the obelisk's popular name — is one of pair that once stood outside a temple in the ancient city of Heliopolis. They are made of Aswan granite, stand 21m high and weigh some 228 tonnes each. The second obelisk is now in New York City.
Engineer John Dixon undertook the task of arranging the transport to London. He consulted Baker, by then well-known in engineering circles for his work on London Underground and for his internationally renowned technical papers. Baker came up with the design for a large, hermetically-sealed metal casket to be constructed around the recumbent obelisk as it was excavated. The idea was to tow the casket back to Britain behind a ship.
As it was excavated, the obelisk was supported along its length by diaphragms with cushioned material for protection. It was located to the rear of the casket to give more buoyancy to the front section, aiding movement through the water. The casket was named Cleopatra, and was towed to London by the steamship Olga, to which it was attached by huge iron chains. The dramatic voyage was avidly followed by the British press — things didn't go smoothly.
By October 1877, the convoy had reached the Bay of Biscay. A storm caused the Cleopatra, with its five man crew, to break free of the Olga. The captain, fearing the Cleopatra would sink, sent a rescue boat with six volunteers. But sadly the rescue boat capsized and all six were drowned. Olga managed to draw up alongside the casket and rescue the crew. However, the indestructible Cleopatra drifted for four days before being picked up by Spanish trawlers.
A Glasgow steamer eventually brought Cleopatra into the port of Ferrol in Spain for repairs, claiming a large salvage reward. A paddle tug brought her up the Thames to the cheers of children from Gravesend given the day off school for the purpose. The project to bring the obelisk to London had captured the public's imagination and made Baker a household name.
Cleopatra's Needle arrived in London 18 months after excavation and was erected on the Thames Embankment on 12th September 1878 — using scaffold specially designed by Baker and Fowler — where you can find it to this day.
introduction  •  early life  •  Sir John Fowler  •  London Underground  • 
Tay Bridge disaster enquiry  •  Forth Rail Bridge  •  Cleopatra's Needle  •  Hudson River Tunnel  •  Aswan Dam  •  character & legacy  •  selected works  •  sources
All items by Sir Benjamin Baker  •  Everything built ... 1840 - 1907
main references  BDCE2, DNB
portrait of Baker  courtesy Institution of Civil Engineers

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Sir Benjamin Baker
Fact file : Cleopatra's Needle
The monument Londoners know as Cleopatra's Needle in fact dates from more than a thousand years before Cleopatra's reign. It is one of a temple gateway pair erected at the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis for Thutmose III in around 1450 BC — the other is now in New York City. Its hieroglyphics were added by Ramsses II 200 years later to commemerate battle victories. The Romans moved the pair to Alexandria in 12 BC where they were set up at Cleopatra's temple to Mark Antony.
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