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ASK OCE — August 17, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 12


The construction of the Panama Canal, widely considered one of the world’s greatest civil engineering feats, also necessitated one of the largest and most historic electrical installations of the 20th century.

The Canal’s electrical architecture included 1022 electric motors generating 28,290 horsepower. The ambitious system was engineered with a distinct focus on reliability and safety, including an innovative electrical control system that enabled remote lock operations from a central location.

The electrical installations made the construction of the Canal eminently more feasible than the pick-and-shovel work of individual laborers. Most importantly, the electrical system provided the power necessary for the effective operation of the Canal for the next hundred years.

In 1876 the French began work on the canal with the formation of a survey crew to investigate the feasibility of the project. They broke ground on New Year’s Day 1880. Four years later, there were in excess of 19,000 workers on site, but the project was already plagued by problems due to disease and funding. By 1889, construction ground to a halt.

Fifteen years later in 1904, the United States took over the project. Sanitation issues were solved, and new telegraph and telephone systems improved communication capabilities. Chief Engineer John F. Stevens estimated that it would take at least eight years to complete a lock canal and eighteen years to realize a sea-level canal.

Electric power was chosen as the most dependable and cost-effective source of power for the complex operation of the lock construction plants that used cement mixers, stone crushers, cranes, cableways, automatic locomotives, and pumps. Electrical engineer Edward Schildhauer designed the powerful gate operating mechanism with each twenty-foot diameter gate powered by an electric motor. Effective operation of the lock required more than a thousand electric motors. All of the controls were electric.

Electric motors had proven reliability in driving the pumps and operating other equipment. Other power sources, including animal, pneumatic, and steam, were considered and rejected. All of the required power for the Canal’s two construction plants was generated on site by two electrical generating stations. Each plant was outfitted with three Curtis steam turbines producing one and a half megawatts each. The turbines operated at 2,200 volts, 25 cycles, and were connected through a 44 kV double circuit electric line that crossed the isthmus.

After the Panama Canal opened in August of 1914, the new Gatun Hydroelectric Plant generated the electric power required for the complete operation of the Canal. Since its opening, the Canal’s ability to provide uninterrupted service has been due in part to its electrical equipment and the engineers who made the electrical system a reality.

Read more about the history of the Canal’s electrical system.


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