On 17 June 1889, Jacobus de Koning found himself on the banks of a river. Armed with a pencil and notepaper, he had been writing down the water levels and flow rates at various depths over the course of the day, in very much the same way as he would have done as a ‘clerk of works’ for Rijkswaterstaat in Nijmegen. However, this was no Dutch river on whose banks he was standing: it was the Nile, the longest river in the world. This time, the readings he had taken were not intended for the normalisation or improvement of the river, as would have been the case in the Netherlands, but were being used as a basis for a design he was making for a colossal railway bridge close to Cairo.
He had made the journey from Nijmegen to Cairo alone: since 1888 his partner, Johan van Hasselt, had been increasingly occupied with work as engineer for the Amsterdamse Duinwater-Maatschappij, the public utility supplying drinking water to the Dutch capital. As it was, the salary he received from there was paid into the firm’s account. Van Hasselt had hardly any time to carry out normal project work for the firm and from 1894 onwards, De Koning would continue its activities without his friend.
De Koning was not the only engineer in the race for the bridge assignment: there was fierce competition from other Europeans in the call for tender that had been issued by the Egyptian Railways. The contract was for the construction of four railway lines and a railway bridge.
The need for Egypt to expand its rail network was due to the success of the Suez Canal, which had been opened twenty years previously. This immense excavation project had been made possible by the efforts of Europe’s engineering elite, a huge number of forced labourers and the most state-of-the-art excavators. The Suez Canal had also turned Egypt into an important trading hub: European countries were now able to reach their colonies via much shorter routes than before.
The new canal was considered a major success by the Dutch too. The faster connection to the Dutch East Indies had, as expected, significantly boosted the “material interests of trade, shipping and industry”. Questions remain however, as to whether the canal had produced the “outpouring of prosperity by Western civilization upon a number of peoples currently still deprived of it,” as the famous Dutch engineer Conrad believed, and whether it had served the “moral interests of humanity”.
Map showing the route of the Suez Canal, photographs of places along the way and of Ismael Pasha (principal) and Ferdinand de Lesseps (mastermind), ca. 1890. (source: Map, anon. Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal- Land- en Volkenkunde.)
The call for tender
In Egypt, the new canal had brought about a surge in modernisation and attracted major investments. But it also led to rising national debt, forced cutbacks and, later, British occupation of the country – even though the supreme leader of Egypt, otherwise known as the Khedive, officially remained in charge. After an economic downturn caused by drastic cuts and political chaos, in 1888, the Egyptian Railway Administration was at last able to make funding available to expand its rail network. In 1889, this led to a public call to tender for 189.5 kilometres of new railway track – shared out over four lines - and “a railway bridge across the Nile, between Boulac (Cairo) and Embabeh (Bridge for rail traffic only, with walkway for pedestrians and carts drawn by animals.) Length approx. 500 metres, with a movable section, for use by shipping.”
The planned budget for the bridge was 150,000 Egyptian pounds (1,854,000 guilders). Bidders had to submit prices ‘per kilometre and per bridge’. Once constructed, the Egyptian Railways would lease the bridge and track from the winning candidate for an (unspecified) percentage of the construction price. The railway company was quick to point out that it was financially robust, with an annual revenue stream of 1,300,000 Egyptian pounds.
Various European bankers eagerly submitted bids for this (investment) project. One of these was a combination of Berlin bankers, Robert Warschauer & Co. and the Berliner Handelsgesellschaft. Their request for a bridge design was received by Jacobus de Koning, who at that moment was single-handedly running the offices of J. van Hasselt and De Koning at St. Annalaan in Nijmegen.
No one quite knows how the German bankers found their way to the door of the Dutch engineer. It is probable that they first had contact with R.A.I. Snethlage, a Dutch engineer and railway specialist. The consortium commissioned Snethlage to carry out an extensive study for the construction of the railway and to assist him in this, he called in the services of fellow engineers. It is certain that Snethlage knew both Van Hasselt and De Koning: all three of them were active members of the society of Dutch civil engineers, the Vereeniging van Burgerlijke Ingenieurs. De Koning and Snethlage even sat on the editorial board of the newly founded De Ingenieur, the society’s official journal.
On 19 April 1889, Snethlage travelled to Egypt, together with his colleagues C.C. Groll and J.J. Israëls, to carry out the study. De Koning followed them two months later in June 1889, travelling in style, that is, mainly by train. After a stopover in Paris, where the world exhibition was then being held (highlight: the Eiffel Tower), he travelled onwards in first class to Marseilles. It was there on 7 June that he signed the contract with Robert Warschauer & Co. for his work on the bridge design.
The purpose of De Koning’s trip was clearly defined: he was to survey the situation on the ground and collect the necessary data. Once back in the Netherlands, this information could be used as a basis for a complete bridge design, along with calculations, drawings, weight tables and - not unimportantly - a cost estimate. Ten days after signing his con-tract in Marseilles, he arrived in Cairo where he performed the measurements in question from the banks of the Nile. He had taken his own measuring instruments to do this work.
It was a highly prestigious assignment: a colossal railway bridge – the very first – across the longest river in the world, for a country that was viewed by the whole of Europe as a strategically vital trading hub. This Egyptian adventure must surely have suited De Koning as he was known for his love of travel and his excellent language skills, which were a great help as the whole package was to be submitted in German and French. More importantly however, this bridge project offered the perfect opportunity to underline the rapidly spreading name and fame of Dutch engineers in the field of bridge construction.
Apart from the challenging technical (and cost-related) aspects of the project, the Nile itself also appealed to people’s imaginations at the time. Ever since Napoleon’s 1798 Egyptian campaign Europe had been in a permanent state of Egyptomania. With the improved travel possibilities, the obsession had only intensified.
Pyramids along the Nile in Egypt, ca. 1890. (source: Photo, anon, Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal- Land- en Volkenkunde)
Writing, drawing and calculating
De Koning returned to Nijmegen on 14 July 1889. During his absence, the firm’s business correspondence had practically come to a halt, so he lost no time in dealing with the backlog. On 15 July, he wrote to Snethlage and Robert Warschauer about the project and the insights he had gained in Egypt. He was hugely motivated to win the order and this was clear in his letter to Warschauer: not only did De Koning wish to make the earliest possible start on the job, he was also willing to negotiate with the constructors about the price and any necessary design modifications so that “they will come up with the lowest possible offer”. He suggested that the bankers ask for quotes from Gute Hoffnungs Hütte in Oberhausen, Harkort in Duisburg, Eiffel in Paris, a Belgian firm and a British company, as well as businesses that the bankers may themselves have had in mind. For the ‘bother’ of having to modify designs in any further negotiations, he reassured them, he would not be asking for a higher fee.
For the whole of the summer and the early part of autumn in 1889, De Koning was occu-pied with preparing the submission, that is, the bridge design and calculations, both in terms of weight and price. He would take care of the substructure himself. For the design of the superstructure, he called upon Schroeder van der Kolk, a railway engineer. The bridge should be constructed in Flußeisen (or ‘steel’). This material was preferred by the Egyptians, as well as some of the greatest constructors of the moment, including “Mr Eiffel, to whom I spoke on the matter”. Together De Koning and Schroeder van der Kolk worked out a plan for a bridge of 540 metres in length, with four spans of 119.5 metres each – fixed sections – and a swing bridge section with a length of 50 metres. The overall width of the bridge would be 14 metres, as specified.
Drawing by De Koning with weights and loads of locomotives and rolling stock. These were the loads with which the constructed bridge would be tested by Egypt. (source: Company archives Royal HaskoningDHV)
On 21 August, De Koning sent the package of drawings, calculations and other specifications to Snethlage, written in French and German, so that manufacturers could be asked to send their price estimates. One sensitive matter was the weight of the whole construc-tion, not least the (excessive) additional costs that would probably be involved. De Koning continued to look for weight-saving alternatives.
Five spans (instead of four) would indeed reduce the costs of the steel, but would mean an additional (expensive) pier. De Koning then focused his attention on the track surface on the bridge: if the weight of the track and the walkways were reduced, this would make the bridge 149 tons lighter overall. Cost savings: 104,370 French francs.
He sent his new solution to Snethlage on 5 November 1889. It arrived just in time, before the last date for submission: the railways administration office in Cairo had set a deadline to receive all documents of 12 noon on 2 December 1889.
The result of the public call for tender was made known in De Ingenieur on 11 January 1890. The Berlin-based bankers had won the award with their tender for the four railway lines. But De Koning’s bridge design remained just that: a bridge design. The construction of the bridge – quoted at 93,000 Egyptian pounds – was lost by the bankers to the construction company of Daydé et Pillé. The Egyptian Railways only needed to pay this French company 80,000 Egyptian pounds for their bridge over the Nile, a much lower sum than the 150,000 pounds budgeted for. The call for tender by the Egyptian government had resulted in a ‘keen international contest’.
Festive opening of the Daydé et Pillé-designed bridge, engraving from a photograph. (source: l’Illustration 50, no 2573, 18 June 1892)
In 1892, the Egyptian Khedive opened the French-built bridge. “One railway track, two cart tracks and two pedestrian walkways represent the absolute, irreversible conquest of the river by modern industry,” the French press cried in jubilation. But the bridge, supposedly a shining example of modern industry, proved too lightweight (or was offered too cheaply): not long after the official opening, the bridge required major strengthening.
After the initial strengthening in 1898, the bridge was replaced completely in 1920, because the weight of (rail) traffic had increased significantly over the years. This new, stronger Embabeh bridge looked a lot more like the design submitted by De Koning than the lightweight French-built version of 1892. This might explain why a previous company history described the new Embabeh bridge as being a piece of Royal HaskoningDHV heritage - erroneously, as would appear from the above. As it happened, failing to win the tender did not do the firm any harm at all: the bridge design still delivered a handsome fee of 6,000 French francs.
The old Daydé et Pillé bridge at Embabeh (above) and the new bridge built by Belgium-based Baume et Marpent (below). (source: Lionel Wiener, L'Egypte et ses chemins de fer)
About this project
In October 2021 Royal HaskoningDHV will celebrate its 140th birthday. To mark this milestone, we have commissioned a series of striking stories highlighting key moments in the firm’s history. We are proud of our heritage and this is a great opportunity to share our stories with a wider audience. From January to October 2021, we will publish a new story each month.