American Collections blog

10 May 2014

Erica Wagner: Credit for Cleopatra's Needle

When I was growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and setting out on a weekend run in Central Park, I knew I was doing okay when I passed Cleopatra's Needle, just west of the Metropolitan Museum. If I got that far I'd already done a loop around the lower Park, and would be heading up and around the Reservoir before pounding my way back home. 

Cleopatra's Needle is in the news; back in 2011, Zahi Hawass, who was then the minister of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, threatened to attempt to take the monument back to Egypt, alleging that the City wasn't taking care it properly. Well, now they've agreed to clean it, very carefully, with a laser. The restoration will take a few months, and will cost half a million dollars – paid for not by the City, but with money raised privately by the Central Park Conservancy.

The Needle has nothing at all to do with Cleopatra, having been raised in Egypt many centuries before her birth to honour the Pharoah Thutmose III – just like its sister obelisk in London on the banks of the Thames. But the name has stuck: people remember what's most convenient for them to remember, and forget what's convenient to forget. And so, for the most part, they've forgotten the name of the remarkable engineer who brought the obelisk from Egypt to Central Park, and saw it safely erected in 1881.

His name was Charles Roebling; and when I saw the story in The New York Times I was, as it happened, at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where much of the Roebling family's archive finds it home. (The other part of archive is at RPI, in Troy, New York, where my last blog post emanated from. I'm at work on a biography of his older brother, Washington, who built the Brooklyn Bridge – completed two years after the obelisk was installed in the park. Washington outlived his younger brother – who he viewed as the greatest engineer in a family of great engineeners. Charles had been running the family firm when he died – John Roebling's Sons Co, of Trenton, New Jersey – the family's fortune was founded on the manufacture of wire, wire rope being the most important invention of Washington and Charles father, who had come to America from Prussia in 1831. At the time of Charles's death his older sibling wrote: 

'He was the directing head, the man who looked ahead, planned and worked and designed and executed with tireless energy year in and year out, and usually successfully — He never copied, was always original even when at times it might have been wise to attain those results in some other way, but it all helps to strengthen one for future efforts.'

It's always struck me as strange how the names of engineers tend to vanish from history. Do we know the name of the engineer who first raised the obelisk Thutmose III in Alexandria? I don't think so. But we know Charles Roebling's name – let's not allow it to fade. 

Erica Wagner is a 2014 Eccles Centre Writer-in-Residence at the British Library.


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