Skip to main content

Dig This: The Panama Canal Expansion Used Enough Steel To Build 22 Eiffel Towers

Tomas Kellner
July 01, 2016
The Cosco Shipping Panama freighter made history Sunday by being the first working ship to slip through the Panama Canal's huge new locks. The expansion project swallowed enough steel to build 22 Eiffel Towers, cost $5.2 billion and took nine years to complete. It will allow the giant “New Panamax” class of container ships and supertankers to sail through the 48-mile-long waterway that slices through the narrow isthmus that separates North and South America. These ships can carry as many as 14,000 containers and the star freighter on Sunday had almost 10,000 stacked on board like Jenga blocks. That’s nearly twice as many as the largest ships that have been motoring through until now.
The two news sets of locks—one each for the Atlantic and Pacific side— and bigger and deeper navigation channels will speed the delivery of goods and give more bandwidth to the global economy. The canal already serves more than 140 maritime routes connecting some 80 countries, with roughly $270 billion worth of cargo passing through every year.

Aerial view of the Third Set of Locks construction site, Panama Canal, Panama Top image: Some 60,000 workers used 25 million pounds of dynamite to cut through the Isthmus of Panama a.k.a. the “backbone of the Western Hemisphere.” The GIF was created from a documentary movie GE made about the canal's construction in 1926. GE electrified the canal's locks. GIF credit: Museum Innovation and Science Schenectady. Above: An aerial view of a set of new lock during construction. Image credit: Getty Images

Political map of Panama Canal - with cross-section, cities, rivers and lakes. Vector illustration with english labeling, description and scale. Above: A map of the Panama Canal. Images credit: Getty Images

That volume will grow as ports from Miami to Boston have also invested in dredging their waterways and building up infrastructure to handle plus-size vessels carrying everything from trucks to TVs. The canal could also reduce truck traffic on American highways.

The work was financed with U.S. Treasury bonds, and the Panama Canal was GE’s first large government contract. “Such a large-scale collaboration of private and public organizations was unknown prior to this time,” wrote management expert Tom Kendrick. “The relationship used by [the Panama Canal construction supervisor George] Goethals and GE served as the model for the Manhattan Project during World War II and for countless other modern projects in the United States and elsewhere.”

[embed width="800"][/embed]

In 1926, GE made a documentary movie about the construction of the Panama Canal.

GE also built the power plants that provided the canal with electricity and designed the centralized control equipment for the locks. Acconding to  one account, GE “produced about half the electrical equipment needed during construction and virtually all of the permanent motors, relays, switches, wiring and generating equipment. They also built the original locks towing locomotives and all of the lighting.”

Because ships were not permitted to pass through the locks under their own power, these “lock mules” rode on rails next to the canal and pulled them through the locks. Today, the canal is still using a fleet of tugs powered by 12-cylinder marine diesel engines made by GE Transportation. We went through archives at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady and found historical films and photographs about the original project. Take a look.

[embed width="800"][/embed]

In 1934, the company dramatized the canal's construction on film.

229728 Miraflores upper locks rising stern gate valve machine installed by workers June 1913 Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

Panama Canal, Gatun Spillway, 6000kW hydroelectric station, 1914 The 6,000 kilowatt GE hydroelectric station built next to the Panama Canal's Gatun Spillway. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

112654 USS New Mexico, 1919 Passing through Panama Canal

PC2Panama Canal1 GE also supplied the electric "mules" that pulled ships like the USS New Mexico (see above) through the locks. GIF credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

232134 Operation of Gatun Locks with USS Severn, April 1914229729 Control house and center wall, Gatun Locks, 1913

Three electric locomotives ready to help ships transit the Panama Canal The mule system is still in place. Image credit: Getty Images

229734 Man stands next to Gatun spillway gate, July 1913

Panama Canal, Culebra Cut under construction, 1913 The construction of the Panama Canal's Culebra Cut in 1913. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

Panama Canal, USS Missouri in the cut at Culebra, 1914 USS Missouri is powering through the Culebra Cut in 1914. Image credit: Museum Of Innovation and Science Schenectady

Towing locomotives ( electric mules) - first trial run returning barge through Gatun Locks to Atlantic Level, Panama Canal, 1914. The electric mules are returning a barge through Gatun Locks to Atlantic level during the first trial run in 1914. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

PanamaClocksIMG_3524 This drawing shows the GE-designed centralized control board for operating locks and electric mules. The control room is on the left on the top of the lock building. Credit: Schenectady Museum of Innovation and Science

231811 Centralized control board for remote control of lock machinery May 1914

308965 Gatun Lock control board under construction June 1913

228466 Assembling stoney gate valce indices for Panama Canal lock control boards in Schenectady July 1913

239737 Miraflores lower lock miter gate moving machine installation, June 1913 1914 Panama Canal