david lindsley FIET; Hon Fellow, Kingston  University

… communicating engineering

How the Pyramids got built


The great Pharaoh sighed. “I may be called the 'Lord of the Two Lands’ and 'High Priest of Every Temple’,” he said, “but I’m having a great deal of trouble with the day-to-day running of my Kingdom.”

“How so, Your Supreme Highness?” asked the head vizier, Kyky, who was the Pharaoh’s chief minister and acted for his boss in the routine management of the country. (A previous Pharaoh had decided that, even though he was immensely powerful, and even though all the rich people obeyed his rulings and ensured that the lesser mortals did the King’s bidding, there were so many important tasks to do that some form of senior manager was needed from time to time.)

“Well,” said the Pharaoh, “You know that I’ve had this dream of building an enormous monument to me, so that the people will know how grand and important I am.”

“Oh no,” thought Kyky, “Not those huge conical things in the desert again!” This was because the Pharaoh had mentioned the idea once or twice before. (Well actually, many more times than once or twice; in fact, poor old Kyky was getting quite bored with this particular subject and had taken strenuous steps to deflect his master’s train of thought whenever the matter was raised. But this time the Pharaoh was dead set not to be deflected.)

“I am getting quite ratty about it. Every time I try to get the project going, all sorts of excuses are thrown at me. So nothing actually happens.”

Your Highness, that is because the construction of such a colossal size requires great skill and care. Those huge stones have to be cut out from cliffs many leagues away and then transported across the trackless desert before they are piled on top of each other.”

“I know, I know,” the Pharaoh growled. “I’m given the same string of excuses every time. I am told that it needs skilled architects to make the plans and to scribe them onto parchment, that the people who take those plans and construct the thing have to be trained.”

“That is true, Your Highness. You cannot pluck a farmer from his fields and get him to understand the ins and outs of technical drawings, you cannot ask a labourer to heave massive rectangular rocks on top of each other …”

“Yes, yes, yes,” the Pharaoh snapped exasperatedly. “so let’s get the work done by simpler means. Cut out all unnecessary stages.”

Kyky started to speak but stopped when he saw the fire in the Pharaoh’s eyes.

“Besides,” the Pharaoh said,” I have now had another dream.”

“Crikey no,” Kyky thought.” What’s next?”

“Yes,” his boss said, his eyes now blazing with a different fire. “It’s a huge statue of a dog, lying in the desert, admiring the conical things.”

I really must think up a name for those conical things,” Kyky thought, “We can’t go on like this forever.” And then inspiration came to him and he blurted out, “Your Highness, shall we call those conical things Pyramids?”

“What’s a pyramid?”

“It’s a mathematical term, Your Highness. A polyhedron with a square base and an apex.” (In his spare time, Kyky was a dab hand at mathematics, and he knew how to impress his boss – and how to dazzle him into meek submission.)

The Pharaoh gave him a baffled look for a few seconds and, deciding that he didn’t understand his man’s gobbledygook, but unwilling to show ignorance, he beamed with delight.

“Excellent thought!” he cried, clapping Kyky on the shoulder. “Well done, old chap!”

Kyky felt a warm glow of pleasure at this accolade, and then decided to push his luck, while the fire was hot.

“About that dog, Your Celestial Highness …” he started, but was interrupted by his boss.

“Dog, schmog. It could be anything. Perhaps a mixture of things: a dog or, say, a lion … yes. With a cat’s face, perhaps. Or even a human face? It wouldn’t matter, but it has to be BIG.”

Kyky groaned inwardly at the prospect, but decided that the best thing would be to deflect the Pharaoh by returning to the matter of constructing those … those pyramids.

“Your Supreme Highness,” he said ingratiatingly. “You are concerned at the time it will take to build the pyramids …”

‘Quite right! A ridiculously long time.”

“But it takes a long time to train the specialists, Your Highness. Three, maybe even four years.”

“Why so long?”

“They have to be given a thorough grounding in things like astronomy, trigonometry, materials science, physics, and even thermodynamics …”

(Kyky was pushing his luck here; he had absolutely no idea what most of these words meant, but he had heard them from the sages, and he knew they would be a good smokescreen, at least for the moment.)

“Just to build a pyramid?” the Pharaoh squeaked.

“Absolutely, Your Highness.”

The Pharaoh pondered this for a while, stroking his small pointy beard while he did so.

“I have it!” he exclaimed suddenly, shaking his head so vigorously that his elaborate headpiece slipped down ove his eyes. He pushed the piece back into place and continued, “We shall set up organizations that will award certificates to these people, showing that they have the necessary skills. There will be no long years spent in getting properly trained.”

Kyky gave him a puzzled frown. “Organizations, Your Highness?”

‘Yes, yes.’ The Pharaoh snapped agitatedly. “Like the big dog in the desert – it doesn’t really matter what you call them or what they are. How about ‘Trade Associations’?”

Kyky frowned, deep in thought. Then he decided it probably wasn’t a bad idea after all. And the more he thought about it, the more the possibilities began to look appealing.

*Your Serene Highness,” he exulted. “You are truly blessed with the wisdom of ages. You are right! These Trade Associations, as you have so wisely called them, we shall give them great powers. And, best of all, it will cost the State nothing.”

This went beyond the Pharaoh’s fairly limited deductive powers – Supreme Highness he might well have been, but that was by birth, not by mental acuity. To tell the truth, he wasn’t by any means the brightest scarab in the Royal jewel-box.

“Go on,” he said, hoping that Kyky would be able to explain everything in enough detail so that he could expound on it at Court, and thereby give the impression that he had thought it up himself.

So Kyky began to explain it all, making much of it up as he went and hoping that he would be able to remember it all afterwards.

His idea was that people wanting to win business would be forced to join a relevant Trade Association. They would have to pay a joining fee to the organization, in return for which they would be entitled to claim that they were experts. The Trade Association would carry out regular inspections of their work, which would entail visiting them, and drinking tea with the bosses while encouraging them to buy advertising spaces in the monthly parchment scrolls that were delivered by messenger-boys to the population at large. The trader would have to pay an expensive annual fee to remain accredited, but that was all.

The Pharaoh’s part in this, Kyky explained, was to issue edicts that no work could be done by anybody – no matter how experienced they were, or otherwise qualified they might be – who was not a member of a relevant Trade Association. In return for this guarantee of a lucrative income stream, the Trade Association would pay fees into the Pharaoh’s coffers.

It was brilliant!

The Pyramids and the Sphynx got built in record time, and everybody praised the Pharaoh for his wisdom.



And that, children, is why we have the extraordinary situation that now prevails, where ticky-tacky logos and persuasive advertising have replaced genuine knowledge and competence.

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