The Richmond History Podcast

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Shinny Pyramid of Robert Mills' Washington Monument

Today's Final Jeopardy clue was something  about a 22.6 cm high aluminum  pyramid placed on top of a monument in 1884. (If anyone else remembers the actual wording to the clue post it in the comments below.)

Just like every other "know it all" that talks about Jeopardy, of course I knew the answer, I just didn't say it at the time.  The answer was the Washington Monument, which at its completion in 1884 it was the tallest man-made structure in the world and is still the tallest free standing masonry structure in the world.

Even though I totally knew the answer, I was intrigued.  Turns out it is a lightening rod that is attached to the iron support frame by copper wire.  Now we throw aluminum cans in the trash instead of recycling them like we should, but aluminum was amazingly pricey back then.  The engineer Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey chose the expensive metal mostly because it would look nice and not tarnish. Maybe he was the only one that thought you would be able to see it from the ground almost 2 football fields away...  don't know.
Between 1880 & 1884 when it was put in to place there was no evidence of electric activity but they attached extra copper wire to increase the conductivity (and covering the expensive and handsome pyramid) just to be safe.
Only a few months later it was struck, dislodging a stone and kind of freaking people out.  Luckily they hadn't removed the building scaffolding so it could  be easily repaired and reinforced.

Keep in mind the pyramid was quoted by Frishmuth's Foundry of Philadelphia, the first commercial aluminum reduction facility in the United States of America at $75.  It finally cost $225, and that was haggled down from $256.10, while the average worker on the monument made about $1-2 for a 10 hour shift.

If you want to read a more detailed description of this story go to

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