Podcast Episode 335: Transporting Obelisks


In the 19th century, France, England, and the United States each set out to bring home an Egyptian obelisk. But each obelisk weighed hundreds of tons, and the techniques of moving them had long been forgotten. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the struggles of each nation to transport these massive monoliths using the technology of the 1800s.

We’ll also go on an Australian quest and puzzle over a cooling fire.


Science fiction writer Albert Robida proposed a president made of wood.

Norway’s flag incorporates those of six other nations.

Sources for our feature on the Egyptian obelisks:

Bob Brier, Cleopatra’s Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt, 2016.

Martina D’Alton, The New York Obelisk, or, How Cleopatra’s Needle Came to New York and What Happened When It Got Here, 1993.

Charles Edward Moldenke, The New York Obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle: With a Preliminary Sketch of the History, Erection, Uses, and Signification of Obelisks, 1891.

Henry Honeychurch Gorringe, Egyptian Obelisks, 1885.

Erasmus Wilson, Cleopatra’s Needle: With Brief Notes on Egypt and Egyptian Obelisks, 1877.

Bob Brier, “The Secret Life of the Paris Obelisk,” Aegyptiaca: Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt 2 (2018), 75-91.

Henry Petroski, “Engineering: Moving Obelisks,” American Scientist 99:6 (November–December 2011), 448-452.

Bob Brier, “Saga of Cleopatra’s Needles,” Archaeology 55:6 (November/December 2002), 48-54.

P.W. Copeman, “Cleopatra’s Needle: Dermatology’s Weightiest Achievement,” British Medical Journal 1:6106 (1978), 154-155.

“Machinery for Moving Cleopatra’s Needle,” Scientific American 41:21 (Nov. 22, 1879), 322.

“Landing of Cleopatra’s Needle,” Scientific American 39:4 (July 27, 1878), 55.

“Cleopatra’s Needle,” Scientific American 36:14 (April 7, 1877), 215-216.

Paul Brown, “Weatherwatch: The Perilous Sea Journey of Cleopatra’s Needle,” Guardian, April 8, 2020.

Marguerite Oliver, “Cleopatra’s Needle: Egypt’s Gift to England,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 20, 1987.

Cyrus W. Bell, “How They Took Cleopatra’s Needle Down the Nile and by Sea to London,” Toronto Star, Nov. 9, 1985.

“Now It Can Be Told; After 60 Years, Cleopatra’s Needle Identifies Itself,” New York Times, March 7, 1941.

“Cleopatra’s Needle in London,” New York Times, April 17, 1932.

“Obelisk Located in Central Park,” New Britain [Conn.] Herald, Dec. 5, 1928.

Eli Benedict, “Cleopatra’s Needle: Central Park Obelisk Is More Than 3,000 Years Old,” New York Times, May 14, 1914.

“Cleopatra’s Needle: How Well It Stands the English Climate,” New York Times, June 6, 1890.

“Laying the Corner-Stone; Masons Preparing the Obelisk’s Foundation,” New York Times, Oct. 10, 1880.

“Hieroglyphics Deciphered,” New York Times, Aug. 19, 1878.

“The Inscriptions on Cleopatra’s Needle,” New York Times, July 25, 1878.

“Raising the Cleopatra’s Needle,” New York Times, June 30, 1878.

“Cleopatra’s Needle,” Times, Feb. 16, 1878.

“Cleopatra’s Needle,” Graphic, Feb. 2, 1878.

“Cleopatra’s Needle,” Liverpool Mercury, Oct. 22, 1877.

“The Derelict Obelisk,” New York Times, Oct. 19, 1877.

“Cleopatra’s Needle,” [London] Standard, Oct. 19, 1877.

“Cleopatra’s Needle: Loss of the Obelisk Off Cape Finistere a Heavy Gale in Which the Steamer Lost Six Men in Rescuing the Crew From the Craft,” New York Times, Oct. 18, 1877.

“Cleopatra’s Needle in London,” New York Times, Sept. 16, 1877.

“Cleopatra’s Needle,” Birmingham Daily Post, April 22, 1876.

“How Cleopatra’s Needle Is to Be Moved,” New York Times, Aug. 1, 1875.

“Cleopatra’s Needle,” New York Times, June 6, 1875.

“Cleopatra’s Needle,” Illustrated London News, June 21, 1851.

Listener mail:

invaluable.disclaimer.biographer on What3words.

“France Passes ‘Sensory Heritage’ Law After Plight of Maurice the Noisy Rooster,” Guardian, Jan. 21, 2021.

Kristof Van Rompaey, “Buur stapt naar vrederechter voor haan die dagelijks ‘meer dan 3.000 keer’ kraait: ‘Ben wegdoen zou een klap zijn voor onze kinderen’,” Gazet van Antwerpen, June 30, 2020.

“The Gregorian Reform of the Calendar,” Encyclopedia.com (accessed Mar. 6, 2021).

“Gregorian Calendar,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (accessed March 6, 2021).

“Gregorian Calendar,” Wikipedia (accessed Mar. 6, 2021).

“Adoption of the Gregorian Calendar,” Wikipedia (accessed Mar. 6, 2021).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tristan Shephard.

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If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!