MIRAFLORES LOCKS, Panama
I spent last Monday morning in a tropical rainstorm in Panama City, standing on the observation platform of the Miraflores Lock Visitor’s Centre.
From there I watched a freighter make its passage south into the Pacific Ocean.
It has always been an ambition of mine to visit this canal, because, though most people don’t often think much about it, its completion was, quite literally, a watershed moment in the history of technology and commerce, and an awe-inspiring monument to both human tenacity and human stupidity.
Furthermore, it is just a sweet piece of work, and a joy to behold in action.
It takes, on average, about 15 minutes to move a freighter through the Miraflores Locks, and it is all done without water pumps, just pipes and gravity.
The basic premise is this: A ship moves into the northernmost lock, the water in which is some 16 metres lower than in the lock to the south of it.
Two 2.5-metre wide pipes are then opened out of the southernmost lock, and the water flows into a half-dozen other pipes, which in turn feed 100 even smaller pipes, so that the water pours evenly and smoothly into the northern lock.
Once the water level in the southern lock has dropped by eight metres and the level in the northern lock has dropped by the same amount, the gate between the two is opened, and the vessel, operating under its own power, proceeds into the southern lock.
There are two “donkey” railroad vehicles on either side of the locks, one forward and one aft of the ship on either side, with enormously strong metal cables extended to the bow and stern of the ship, providing both drag and lift, to keep it from bumping against the concrete walls of the locks.
As I said, all of this takes an only 15 minutes, and makes for quite a show.
(I, of course, captured it all in movie format on my little digital camera for later delectation.)
In the mornings, the locks are open to south-bound traffic from the Caribbean. In the afternoon it is the turn of the northbound traffic from the Pacific, in which case the fill-and-empty pattern between the two locks is reversed.
All very smooth, very simple and very elegant.
Some modern improvements have been added — those high-tech mechanical donkeys, and hydraulic rather than manual control over the gears that open the gates themselves — but the basic design of the canal locks has remained pretty much unchanged since the USA finished work on it in 1914, just prior to the start of the First World War.
It is just good technology — technology that has worked for more than 90 years, now, without any significant glitch.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the social and political impact of this technological triumph.
The engineers may have got it right, but the politicians certainly did not.
From 1914 until 1977, the Canal Zone ran like a cut across the throat of the country of Panama.
It was a narrow strip of land smack dab in the middle of the country, wholly owned and operated by the USA, which also retained unheard of rights to intervene in Panamanian political affairs to protect US interests in the area.
(It was those rights that Ronald Reagan exploited when he made his warranted, but probably unwarrantedly brutal, intrusion into Panama in 1989 to remove the dictator-cum-drug lord president, Noriega).
Even with the Panamanian take-over of ownership and operation of the Canal Zone in 1999 (under an agreement arrived at with President Carter in 1977), the social wound that is the canal is at best only partially healed.
Panamanians now certainly take pride in being in control of their single most important economic asset.
And, surprisingly enough, the canal has actually proved to be a boon to the area in ecological terms.
The locks heavily on the supply of fresh water coming from the creeks and rivers of the canal zone, which means that the watershed area between the locks on the Caribbean side and the Pacific side has for decades been protected parkland, and a haven for all kinds of otherwise threatened species.
Socially, economically and politically, however. Panama has always been, and looks to remain, in the world-historical trash can.
It has huge gaps between the rich and poor, a floundering economy faced with falling coffee bean prices, an uncertain future as a canal route as freighters grow in size, and it remains in the grip of an unspeakably corrupt and venal political system.
Wealth does not trickle down locally, but surge out of the country, just like the fresh Panamanian water that exits into the two oceans with the passage of each freighter or cruise ship.
All of which just goes to prove the basic point that having access to, or control over, cool and economically vital technology does not necessarily mean you are going to prosper as a people.
The most elegant machinery conceivable cannot accomplish very much for you if you don’t also create and maintain the social and economic machinery to distribute its benefit to the population it was designed to serve.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.