Today, we learn to bend to the shape of the land.
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.
The Panama Canal is a
stranger thing than most of us realize. To begin
with, Panama twists so the Atlantic side is
northwest of the Pacific side. And cutting through
that strip of land cost a third of a century of
frustration and death.
The idea of a canal across Panama had been around
for centuries in 1879. Then the French engineer de
Lesseps convened an international congress to
consider building one. De Lesseps had been the
driver behind the Suez
Canal. It'd been a brilliant success, but it
was a sea-level cut through sand that didn't rise
fifty feet above sea level. The rainfall was only
an inch a year.
Panama was another cup of tea: fifty miles of
swamp, rock, clay, forest, fault lines, and rivers.
The Culebra ridge rose 350 feet above sea level.
The annual rainfall was 120 inches. It was infested
De Lesseps was as naive as he was charismatic. He
proposed to slash another sea-level Suez Canal
through all that. The engineer de Lepinay had
already built a railway across Panama. He knew
Panama and he fought de Lesseps. He wanted to shape
the canal to the land. He proposed to dam the
Chagres River on the Atlantic side and make a
natural channel halfway across Panama. Then he
wanted to march up and over Culebra Ridge, using
The Suez success had blinded people, and de Lesseps
won out. Digging began in 1880. For nine years de
Lessups lied to the press while clay stuck to
French shovels and mud slides undid each day's
work. The French gave up in 1889.
We gained the rights to build a canal in 1903. Then
we argued the old argument -- de Lesseps's
sea-level trench or de Lepinay's locks. The
majority wanted a sea-level trench. But another
engineer, John Stevens, took de Lepinay's plan to
Congress. He won. We began the locks in 1906.
It was still a terrible task. We still had to
overcome mud slides in the Culebra Cut. We had to
move far more dirt than we had ever dreamed. At one
point, mosquito-borne yellow fever was killing
twenty percent of the workers. Islands rose up in
the new waterways as mud slipped along fault lines.
The Canal finally opened in 1914, and it completely
changed the shipping trade. But straight-line
thinking kept calling for a straight-line canal.
Government inquiries recommended a new sea-level
canal in 1947, and another one during the 1960's.
Wiser heads prevailed. But the Canal played out the
basic tension of technology: do we yield to nature
or try to conquer her? Something in us wants to be
the master. We have the Canal because we bent to
nature, but not all technology does.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kerisel, J., Down to Earth. Boston: A.A.
Balkema, 1987, Chapter 9.
See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica
article. It's pretty complete.