Editing the Future in the Past

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The Lincoln Memorial is one of Washington, D.C.’s top tourist attractions. The monument, erected to honor the 16th President of the United States, is a painstaking work of architecture and sculpture. It features a 19-foot high sculpture of Abraham Lincoln himself, seen above, and the attention to detail is breathtaking. The medium of the entire building makes these details even more impressive. Like many other monuments, the Memorial is crafted out of marble — and that’s not an accident. It’s designed to be resilient, solid, and made to last. And also, hard to change.

Which would have been OK except for a teensy problem.

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If you’re facing the statue of Lincoln pictured at the top, the picture above is to your right. It’s a gorgeous inscription of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. (The Gettysburg Address is on the wall to Lincoln’s left.) It’s just under 700 words long and takes up three full columns; you can read the full thing here.Let’s focus on the first column.

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Okay, now, look at the second to last line of the first paragraph — it’s a sentence fragment which reads “all with high hope for the future no.” See the problem? No? Okay, let’s zoom in a bit. Take a look at the word “Future.”

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That smudge under the “F” isn’t a problem with your screen or, for that matter, with the camera that took the picture. (Don’t take my word for it — here’s a larger version of the three-column picture if you want to zoom in on the “Future”.) It’s a problem with the F, or, more accurately, with the E that the F originally was, but was never supposed to be.That’s right: the Lincoln Memorial has a typo. As originally sculpted, it says “EUTURE” instead of “FUTURE.”

The National Park Service (NPS), on a web page addressing some myths associated with the Memorial, acknowledges the existence of the typo and its correction. In an audio file on that web page, a park ranger named Mark Reagan complains that “too often people ask about the mis-carved word,” but asserts that “there is none,” despite images like the ones above. Reagan’s explanation? “When it was carved, a letter ‘E’ was inadvertently carved instead of the intended letter ‘F’. Almost immediately, this error was corrected, yielded an ‘F’, removing any misspelled word forever.” Well, at least until you take a close-up picture of the word.

The NPS, asserting that the problem has been fixed, therefore only credits the rumors of there being a typo as “partially true.” But fixing an error carved out of marble, unlike other typographical errors, is a hard one to fix entirely. You can’t just edit it like a Word document or erase it like a pencil mark. So despite efforts to patch up the problem — and despite the protestations of the National Park Service — the ghost of the accidental E remains to this day, and probably will for the foreseeable euture.

 

Bonus Fact: Across the Reflecting Pool is the Washington Monument, which has its own oddity — it has two different hues, with the bottom third noticeably lighter than the upper two thirds. The National Park Service explains (and yes, there’s a picture at that link): “When the monument was under construction in 1854, the Washington National Monument Society ran out of money and the project ground to a halt. Twenty-five years later, the U.S. Government took over and completed the upper two-thirds of the structure by 1884 using marble from a different quarry. The two sections closely resembled each other at first, but time, wind, rain, and erosion have caused the marble sections to weather differently, thereby producing the difference in color.

From the Archives: A Bone-Headed Crime: Despite some belief to the contrary, Abraham Lincoln isn’t buried in the Lincoln Memorial. He’s buried in Illinois — despite the best efforts of grave robbers. Here’s one of those stories.

Take the Quiz: There are 271 words in the Gettysburg Address. How many do you know?

Related: A LEGO Architecture Lincoln Memorial Model Kit. Typo not included.