Go to Home Page Go to Gallery Go to Biography Go to Resume Go to Assignments

EDTEC 700 Educational Video

Dr. Randy Yerrick
Fall 2005




NARRATOR: Just as the Internet has made the world a smaller place at the dawn of the 21st century, a feat of engineering at least as significant had a similar effect at the beginning of the 20th century. Nearly 100 years after it’s completion, the Panama Canal still ranks among the greatest of human endeavors – splitting two continents and more importantly, bringing two oceans together to enhance the commercial and security interests of the Western Hemisphere.

As far back as the time of Columbus, men had sought swifter passage to the other side of the world. Yet, it wasn’t until the late 19th century, when the French — buoyed by successful construction of Egypt’s Suez Canal — undertook the massive project with the idea of carving a sea level canal through the shortest section of the isthmus between North and  South America. But they had seriously underestimated its complexity. From the beginning, the project was plagued with physical and financial obstacles as well as tropical diseases that devastated the work force.

With the difficulties of positioning ships during the Spanish-American War fresh in their minds, the United States Congress under Theodore Roosevelt enacted legislation to take over the project. In his first message to Congress after becoming president, Theodore Roosevelt said, "No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is of such consequence to the American people as the Panama Canal."

For $40 million, the US effectively bought out the French operation — beginning their own effort in 1904 — after helping Panama declare independence from Colombia in exchange for control of the Canal Zone. A key element of the task involved a great investment in eliminating disease from the area, particularly the yellow fever and malaria that had cost so many French lives. Construction with an improved design — incorporating a series of locks and an elevated canal — began in earnest. After 10 long years, the canal was formally opened in 1914.

The most visually impressive feature of the canal is its locks. The lock chambers are 110 ft wide by about 1000 ft long – limiting the size of the ships that can use the canal. This size is known as Panamax and is considerably smaller than many of the freighters, naval ships and even ocean liners that ply the seas today.

Each lock chamber requires 26 million gallons of water to fill. Water from the Gatun Lake enters the chambers by gravity through a system of culverts when the upper valves are opened, filling a lock chamber in approximately eight minutes.

The massive steel gates weigh as much as 745 tons, but are so well counterbalanced that a 40 hp engine is all that is needed to open and close them. End gates on each set of locks are doubled for safety in case of a gate failure, which could release a devastating flood of water downstream.

Ships are hauled through the locks with small railway engines called mules. They use powerful winches to keep each ship centered in the lock while moving it from chamber to chamber. With as little as 2 feet of space on each side of a ship, operation of the mules requires considerable skill.

The canal consists of two man-made lakes, several improved and man-made channels, and three sets of locks. The 2-stage Miraflores lock system has a total lift of about 54 ft bringing ships to the artificial Miraflores Lake. Next the single-stage Pedro Miguel lock is lifts ships another 31 ft up to the main level of the canal. Then the Galliard Cut slices through the continental divide at an altitude of 85 ft, where it passes under the Centennial Bridge. With water from the surrounding rainforests, the Chagres River — a natural waterway enhanced by the damming of Lake Gatún — supplies the millions of gallons of water needed for each canal transit. Lake Gatún is one of the world’s largest man-made lakes and carries vessels 12 miles across the isthmus. The 3-stage Gatún locks drop ships back down to sea level on the Atlantic side after a total transit of 50 miles, taking about eight to ten hours.

The canal was one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, costing nearly half a billion dollars and resulting in the loss of nearly 25,000 lives due to disease and accidents. As Teddy Roosevelt noted in an address to the Canal workers in 1906, “in the future it will only be necessary to say of any man ‘He was connected with the digging of the Panama Canal’ to confer the patent of nobility upon that man.”

Nearly 100 years later, the Panama Canal has proved to be a critical commercial and strategic link connecting the seas, cutting nearly 8,000 miles off of a transit between the oceans and providing safe passage for more than 12,000 ships each year. Nearly 1 million ships – and at least one swimmer - have passed through the Canal since its completion. It remains one of the most successful engineering projects of all time. Even though world shipping — and the size and design of ships themselves — have changed beyond recognition since the Panama Canal was designed, it not only continues to be a vital thoroughfare in world trade, but is in fact carrying more cargo and passengers than ever before.





  Last updated Monday, October 31, 2005 4:25 PM


Home | Gallery | Bio | Resume | Assignments

© 2003, Susan Connell, Educational Technology Student at San Diego State University