Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1257:
THE FIRST SUEZ CANAL

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1257.

Today, we ask, when was the Suez Canal built? The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1869, the Suez Canal was finished under Ferdinand de Lesseps's leadership. The French had wanted a shipping route from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea for a long time. A shortcut from Marseilles to the Orient would give France a fine advantage over England. As early as 1800 Napoleon had surveyors looking at routes.

Napoleon was told that the Red Sea was 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean. Dig a canal, his surveyors said, and the Red Sea will hemorrhage into the Mediterranean. It'll sweep away the Nile Delta. The survey was grossly in error, of course. French scientists tried to point out that sea level couldn't possibly differ that much at two points only eighty miles apart.

But the damage was done; the moment had passed; only the idea wasn't dead. It re-emerged in both England and France after Napoleon was gone. Lesseps finally dug his Suez Canal so it wandered northward from the Red Sea, following two lakes, to a mid-point. Then he dug in a straight line to the Mediterranean.

That southern leg of the Lesseps canal actually followed a vastly older canal. Napoleon had been a latecomer to the canal idea. In 500 BC, the Persian conqueror of Egypt, Darius, had begun a canal along that same route. He meant his canal to swing west at the mid-point and link with the Nile near Cairo. But Darius's experts, like Napoleon's, decided the Red Sea was higher than the Mediterranean. They too thought a canal would result in disaster.

So Darius didn't finish his canal. But the Ptolemies who followed Darius did finish it. By 250 BC, a substantial canal linked the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. It was fifty yards wide and it served ocean-going vessels. Cleopatra probably rode that canal in her royal barge, a few years before the birth of Christ.

Here the plot thickens even further: For Darius had built on the route of an earlier canal, begun in 600 BC. And that canal followed the route of an even older canal that served shipping around 1500 BC. Temple carvings show the Queen of Egypt setting out for Africa on that canal. And, as Egyptian history blends into myth, 4000 or so years in the past, it tells of still other canals.

But the Suez Canal we remember is the one built only 140 years ago by Lesseps. The crowning irony is that the French honored Lesseps so highly for his work that they gave him the job of digging a Panama Canal. But that was another matter entirely. The Panama Canal had to penetrate jungles, cross mountains, and span great fields of mud. Twenty thousand workers died, and Lesseps returned to France in failure.

This time he didn't have the old Egyptians to lead him. In Panama, he undertook a problem that hadn't been solved, millennia before him, by some of finest engineers the world has known.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Kinross, L., Between Two Seas. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1969.

Marlow, J., The Making of the Suez Canal. London: The Cresset Press, 1964.

James, P., and Thorpe, N., Ancient Inventions. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994, pp. 89-92.

See also Encyclopaedia Britannica entries on Egypt, Africa, Lesseps, Suez, etc.

I am grateful to colleague N. Shamsundar for pointing out two things in this episode. One is the ambiguous use of "140 years ago." I wrote this episode 140 years after de Lesseps began the Suez Canal in 1858. It was finished eleven years later, in 1869. The second, more serious issue is my implication that de Lesseps' work in Panama was a disaster while the Suez Canal was not. Actually, de Lesseps conscripted Egyptian labor into conditions of slavery. Over a hundred thousand workers died, mostly of malnutrition. In his first canal-building adventure, de Lesseps had already created a humanitarian disaster of the first magnitude.


From the 1897 Encyclopaedia Britannica

Map of the Suez Canal (Click on the image for an enlargement)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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