4 Breakthrough Panama Canal Engineering Innovations

by | Oct 4, 2017 | Managing Construction Process | 6 comments

Photo and Map Courtesy Creative Commons by Pixabay

Panama Canal engineering used four breakthroughs from a series of landmark canals. At the heart of each lies a major engineering breakthrough that allowed ever bigger ships to navigate landlocked areas. In this blog post, we will reveal the incredible stories behind these structures, and the inventions that allowed each one to carry tons more cargo than the last.

Panama Canal Engineering Stepped Back, to Go Forward

By Hobbes S Sujith

Through the rainforest of Central America stretches one of the seven wonders of the modern world. It’s the mother of all shortcuts – the Panama Canal. Over 300 million tons of cargo pass through its gates every year. Stretching through the heart of the Americans, this canal has changed the face of global trade. Ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific used to sail thousands of kilometers around Cape Horn. So in 1879 engineers planned to cut a channel through the Isthmus of Panama. And that, was going to become the history of Panama Canal engineering.

To understand how the Panama Canal can carry such a huge amount of cargo, we need to travel back in time to 17th century France.  There, engineers building the Briare Canal (Canal de Briare) faced an big problem. How to make water flow up a hill?

Building the canal proves a Herculean challenge. The first attempt by the French in 1889 was thwarted by disease and disasters, killing thousands of workers. It took 30 years before engineers could finally connect the two oceans. Once completed, the Panama Canal was hailed as an engineering achievement of the century. Now ships can sail from Atlantic to Pacific in just 8 hours, 40 times faster than the journey around the Cape Horn. It’s a masterpiece of canal construction.

Panama Canal Engineering Innovation #1:  Climbing Hills – Make Water Flow up the Hill

At the start of the 17th century, Paris was recovering from the turmoil of civil war, and the citizens started to rediscover the finer things in life. The demand for wine and other products skyrocketed. Unfortunately, getting these goods from the countryside to Paris on bumpy rural roads was slow and inefficient. So the French king decided to ship more goods into the city on the River Seine. He wanted to connect the vineyards in the Loire Valley to the River Seine which leads right into the capital. To do it, he plans on building the Briare Canal. 

But there was a problem, a 40 meter high hill was blocking the path. This obstacle left engineers with a few tough choices. If the canal went around the hill, it would add 200 km to the journey. Going through the hill would be expensive and time consuming. The king’s engineers decided to overcome the obstacle by going over the top. On the top of the ridge, they found a lake fed by a spring which gave a constant supply of water they could channel down the hillside into the rivers. To stop the water from draining from the lake, they added a series of chambers. Engineers then created a chamber in which they could slowly raise the water level and lift the boat up. This invention called the ‘pound lock’ exploits the power of water to lift the heaviest boats over a step in a canal.

The pound lock conquered the hill blocking the Briare Canal. Engineers built 12 of these locks to lift the barges from Loire valley to the top of the hill. To get the barges down the steep drop on the other side, they joined seven more pound locks into a giant staircase that gently lowered the precious cargo down to the bottom. With the biggest obstacle behind them, the barges could easily run to Paris.

At the Panama Canal, engineers used the Briare Canal staircase lock concept at a massive scale. Each ship passes through three, pound locks that raise them 26 meters from the ocean to the top of the canal. Once the ships have cruised across Panama, another set of locks lowers them into the ocean on the other side. The lock chambers are so huge, they take construction to the extreme.

These feats of Panama Canal engineering were the largest concrete structures at the time. The lock gates are as tall as an eight story building. Their steel plates are held together with over three million rivets — as many as the Titanic had. In fact, it took over four years to complete the gigantic locks. When the canal opened in 1914, the largest ships of the time were able to easily fit inside its huge chambers. Today’s ships push even these monster locks to the limit. They are the biggest ships that can pass through the Panama Canal, and they’re called Panamax.

With the Panama Canal Expansion Project, the chambers became twice as big as the old ones, and designing steel gates was a bit challenging. Traditional swinging gates would have been so long and heavy, they could break off their hinges. So the engineers planned to install sliding gates. If the gates were made of steel, they would crush their supports.  But, a hollow chamber inside the steel gates filled with air, cuts the effective weight by half. Now, a small trolley is all it takes to prop up the gates and let them slide in and out effortlessly.

Back in 1642, the Briare Canal proves to the world that canals can climb over hills, but this feat requires plenty of water to fill up the locks. To build a bridge water canal in an area short of water, English engineers must learn how to save every last drop.

Engineering Innovation #3:  Excavation – Dig Massive Canals Underwater

In the late 19th century, the city of Manchester faced a big logistical problem. Its main rival, Liverpool charged exorbitant docking fees for ships with cargo bound for Manchester. So entrepreneurs planned to build a canal on which big ocean-going ships could sail straight into the heart of the city. The Manchester Ship Canal would be the biggest waterway ever built, and required a colossal amount of excavation. The Chief Engineer, Edward Leader Williams recruited the best diggers in the country – the navies. These men were capable of almost superhuman feats of endurance, and could shovel hundreds of buckets of earth a day. 

Unfortunately, there weren’t enough navies to move over 90 million tons of soil to build the canal. Williams invested in a brand new machine designed to make digging easier. It had a huge steam powered excavator belt that gouged out the earth to carve a deep bed for the canal. Then it dropped the soil onto railway trucks to carry it away. One of these steam monsters could dig out more soil than 15 Navies together. And, with a battalion of steam excavators in place, the Manchester Ship Canal rapidly took shape. Everything came to a halt when the great flood of 1890 washed away the banks and brought thousands of tons of silt into the channel. All the machines were completely trashed. The heavy rains caused nearby rivers to break their banks, permanently flooding Williams’ construction site.

The only solution left was to carry on digging under water. He commissioned engineers to make his excavators float. They suspended the excavator belt between two barges and anchored the conveyor belt to two ships that followed behind them. The buckets reached the bottom of the flooded canal to remove the soil and carry it away to the bank. This was exactly what Williams needed to finish his canal.

When the Manchester Ship Canal was completed in 1894, huge ships could sail directly into the center of Manchester. The city, 50 km from the coast, became the third busiest port in the UK, and got the edge over rival Liverpool.

When work on the Panama Canal began on 1881, more than 80,000 workers were recruited from all over the world. An 80 km long channel was twice as long as the Manchester Ship Canal and digging it was a hellish task. The project had a high worker mortality rate killing over 30,000 workers due to tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever.

Workers used powerful machines to dig through the rock. An army of mechanized excavators drove a deep chasm through the mountains known as the Culebra Cut. They removed over a hundred million tons of earth and rock. Huge dredges carved out a channel four stories deep below the water. For the expansion project, engineers had to make the canal deeper. For the task, they used – D’Artagnan, Cutter Suction Dredgers.

The dredger has a cutter head that reaches 15 meters down to the canal floor. Its sharp cutting teeth slice through the rock and break it into small pieces. Even though the cutter teeth are made of toughened steel, they don’t last long. The crew must constantly replace all 70 steel teeth, sometimes every half hour. Each tooth costs up to $250, making this expensive canal surgery. As the dredger gouges out the rock from the bottom of the canal, a powerful pump sucks the debris up the surface. Here it shoots it into a pipeline and takes it away from the dredger to spit it out onto the shore up to 10 km away. At the end of the pipeline, this mega dredger shows how tough it really is, and how machines still figure prominently in Panama Canal engineering.

Back in 1894, the Manchester Ship Canal proved that you can dig massive canals even underwater. Today, its canals carry more and more cargo. There are enormous financial pressures especially on the biggest canals in the world. Ships can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to use the Panama Canal, so the operators must make sure of smooth sailing.

Engineering Innovation #2:  Water – Save Every Last Drop

During the 18th century, Northern England was the heart of the industrial world. Demand for coal to power steam driven machines far outstripped supply because coal was still being moved in an old fashioned way, on horseback. Engineer James Brindley got the job of building a canal from a coal mine in the countryside to the industrial centers of Manchester and Liverpool. Unfortunately for Brindley, there was no river near the mine. For his canal, he had to pump groundwater out of the mine shafts. Upon survey, he found the flat route from the mine to Liverpool and Manchester but discovered that some of the soil was so porous that he would risk losing his precious water back into the ground.

Brindley lined the porous areas of his canal with clay to make them impermeable. But along the route, he also came across another obstacle – the River Irwell. If Brindley built locks down the river, it would drain away the water every time a barge passed, and there is no water source to fill up the canal on the other side. So he built a stone aqueduct to keep the canal flowing across the river. Brindley’s obsession to save water made the Bridgewater canal a huge success. 

A hundred years later, as ships got bigger in the river below, Brindley’s stone aqueduct required an upgrade. To allow tall ships to pass, a new aqueduct was fixed that was no taller than Brindley’s old one, but it could swing open so even the tallest ships could pass.

In the 19th century, engineers building the Panama Canals faced an obstacle even more challenging than Brindley faced. Engineers couldn’t find any flat route across central Panama, and a range of mountains and the raging Chagres River blocked their path. However engineers didn’t start building a lot of locks over this terrain. Instead, they opted for a radical Panama Canal engineering solution.

The main reason for taking the canal across central Panama was the mountain range around the Chagres River, which forms an almost perfect basin. Engineers built a dam, behind the fast flowing Chagres River to form the gigantic Gatun Lake. The ships can easily sail over the Panamanian jungle without any lock in sight. With over 60 billion bathtubs worth of water, it can feed the thirsty locks.

The Panama Canal Expansion Project added six more locks and Gatun Lake didn’t have enough water to feed them. So, the engineers made the new locks with holding tanks, saving 60% of the water from the ships on the way down. The holding tanks cover an area of 43 football fields and can never run out of the water while handling twice as much cargo.

Back in 1761, the Bridgewater canal showed that saving water was the key to a canal success. But as world trade expands, cargo ships grew larger, and canals had to keep up with them. To build a canal that would carry some of the biggest ships in the world, engineers in Manchester, England had to reinvent the art of digging.

  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • reddit
  • Facebook
  • Evernote

Engineering Innovation #4:  Navigation – Smooth Sailing of Ships

In April 2011, disaster struck at the Kiel Canal in Germany. Two large ships collided and blocked the canal. It took five hours to clear the blockage before Europe’s biggest canal could reopen. The delay to shipping cost thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

At the Panama Canal, a similar delay would cost millions. To prevent expensive snarl ups, a network of technology is coordinated from the nerve center of the canal – the Marine Traffic Control. Teams of highly skilled operators work around the clock to make sure the ships get through without a hitch. Each ship navigating the Panama Canal is fitted with a GPS beacon so the operators can track its progress even at zero visibility.

Niels Hansen, Marine Traffic Controller says that “All these little dots are ships, and I can pick the ship I want and actually zoom in and see what it is doing. I can see what the speed is on the ground, and If I want to check it to see what time it is going to get to a certain place, it will give me an estimate of where it is going to be.

The team must keep a close eye on the canals for bottlenecks. Critical places are Culebra Cut and the locks. If anything goes wrong, it shut down the canal. If a ship encounters a problem, a fleet of 24 tugboats is on standby to rescue them. 


The Panama Canal – is an artificial 77 km waterway in Panama, connecting the Atlantic with Pacific, across the Isthmus of Panama.  With the wider lane locks completed in May 2016, the larger, Post-Panamax ships can use it. This makes the Panama Canal the biggest canal in the Western World, and tagged as one of the wonders of the modern world.

Hobbes S Sujith

Writer and Digital Marketing Specialist

Hobbes has more than 10 years’ experience. Currently, he works as a digital marketing lead at Advenser, helping business with search and content marketing.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This