Today in History – July 12, 1920 – Official opening of the Panama Canal by Woodrow Wilson; although used since August 15, 1914. Ever since Europeans discovered the new world, sailors dreamed of linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow neck of land connecting North and South America in what is now the country of Panama. The construction of the Panama Canal meant that ships no longer needed to take the long and arduous route around the tip of South America and could shorten that voyage by weeks and thousands of miles.
The United States built the original canal at a cost of about $380 million, employing thousands of laborers over 10 years. Using steam shovels and dredges they cut through jungles, hills and swamps, removed 211 million cubic yards of earth and rock and workers suffered from malaria and yellow fever.
The United States controlled the Panama Canal Zone from 1903-1999. Now owned by Panama, the Canal operates as an international enterprise in character. For example, the Panama Canal is the one place in the world where a Captain must surrender command of his or her ship to go through the canal.
The Panama Canal is an amazing feat of engineering and is sometimes called the Eighth Wonder of the World. The canal operates as a ship elevator using three sets of water-filled chambers (locks) to raise and lower ships from one level to another. The ships must move between sea level (the Pacific or the Atlantic) to the level of Gatun Lake in Panama (26 meters above sea level) and then sail the channel through the Continental Divide. Per command of the canal authority, ships move through the locks slowly. Since the clearance between the ship and lock walls are very small, ships are tethered-pulled and controlled by locomotives on the port (below left) and starboard (below right) sides of the ship in a highly synchronized manner (below center, video clip).
For nearly a century, the Panama Canal has accommodated a wide range of ship types and sizes and is reported to handle nearly 5% of global trade. In the same period, ship design and design-objectives have also gone through major evolution: thousands of deadweight tons (DWT) vessels have grown to hundreds of thousands of DWT giants. In recent times, ships have been designed with a beam (width) restriction of “Panamax” (that is, it cannot exceed the maximum width of the canal locks). Now larger container ships cannot pass through and in July 2006 Panama voted to widen its Canal. This large-scale expansion project will have many challenges and will definitely be a feat of Extreme Engineering.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway’s educational resources on the Panama Canal and extreme engineering. For related curricula, visit the Naval Architecture & Marine Engineering Education, Ocean Engineering Education, Civil Engineering Education and Construction Engineering Education disciplinary communities.