For over four centuries, ships travelling between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean had to sail all the way to the tip of South America where the Strait of Magellan provided passage between the two oceans. This changed on August 15, 1914 when the United States officially opened the Panama Canal. Located in the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow strip of land connecting North America and South America, Panama Canal has for over a hundred years served as the link between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Despite being over a century old, there remains much to admire about this structure, and for this reason has been the subject of study by scholars as well as a topic for research papers among students. The Panama Canal is not only an astounding feat of engineering, but it also plays an important role in global trade and the world’s economy.
The Panama Canal represents one of the greatest feats of engineering in the history of humanity. How it came to be is a story of imagination, struggle, and success through perseverance. Though the canal is located in a narrow part of Panama, the endeavor still involved the bisection of an entire continent. Thousands of workers had to toil over the earth in order to clear the way and connect two oceans. The history of the Panama Canal began in the mid-19th century, when the United States and Great Britain came together in a plan to dig a canal right through Panama. The plans, however, did not materialize and it fell upon the French to initiate the project. Under the supervision of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who dug the Suez Canal, the French began digging in 1880. But the task proved to be too daunting to the French. The dangerous working conditions prevented the builders from accomplishing their goals and funding eventually ran dry. By the time the French halted the project, more than 20,000 workers had already died from the harsh climate and tropical diseases (“Building the Panama Canal”).
The United States, which had not lost interest in the project, took over French builders. After aiding Panama in their assertion of independence from Colombia, the United States started construction in 1913 (“Building the Panama Canal”). For 10 years, American engineers and workers toiled through dense jungles, harsh climate conditions, and tropical diseases to build the 82-kilometer waterway. The project itself was also far trickier than digging a canal; it involved the designing and construction of sophisticated locks that would raise ships above sea level at one end of the canal and lower them again at another end. By the time the project was completed, the United States had spent around 500 million in 1914 dollars, or equivalent to over 12 billion in today’s money (Panama Canal Authority). Even to this day, few projects surpass the Panama Canal’s scale. In fact, the canal has been hailed as one of the wonders of the modern engineering.
More than just a wonder of engineering, the Panama Canal also plays a crucial role in global trade. By linking the Pacific and the Atlantic, the canal shortened the distance ships traveled when sailing between the east and west coasts of the United States by 15,000 kilometers (Cho). The shortened distance, of course, is highly advantageous for global trade. As ships no longer need to sail all the way to the tip of South America, ships are able to conserve resources such as time, fuel, and labor. For instance, it takes fewer days to transport cargo through the Panama Canal as compared to rounding the tip of South America. Ships’ ability to transport goods translates to greater efficiency, especially in the current era of fast-paced fluctuations in supply and demand. This is especially true for time-sensitive cargo such as perishable products.
The Panama Canal’s benefits to global trade, in turn, positively impact the economy. More efficient transport of goods means greater profitability for companies, which ultimately means lower costs for consumers. People would pay higher prices for goods that require more time, fuel, and labor for transport. But because a considerable portion of all goods save on resources by passing through the canal, companies are not compelled to pass on the cost to consumers. Every year, thousands of seafaring vessels pass through the canal, and these vessels represent billions of dollars in terms of resources saved that consumers need not cover. The low cost of goods also helps lower the rate of inflation. Thus, even if a person does not directly use the canal, he or she indirectly benefits from its operation. The impact that the Panama Canal has on the global economy and on individuals living across the world is testament to how this engineering feat contributes to the different effects of globalization made possible by innovation.
Although the Panama Canal was completed over one hundred years ago, it is still an important structure. As one of the most ambitious projects, the Panama Canal continues to symbolize the feats humans are capable of achieving through intelligent design and engineering. On the more practical level, this waterway has a significant role in making global trade more efficient and in keeping prices lower for consumers across the globe. As the Panama Canal continues to transform to meet new demands, it remains a vital role in the life of countries and people and will continue to do so in the future.
“Building the Panama Canal.” Office of the Historian, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1899-1913/panama-canal. Accessed 3 January 2021.
Cho, Aileen. “Panama Canal.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Panama-Canal. Accessed 3 January 2021.
Panama Canal Authority. “A History of the Panama Canal.” Canal de Panama, http://www.pancanal.com/eng/history/history/index.html. Accessed 3 January 2021.