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Channel 5 – Building the Panama Canal (2012)

Ch5 Building the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is already the busiest in the Americas, with 200 million tons of cargo passing through it every year. Now a $5 billion expansion project is set to double its capacity, giving a new lease of life to this vital transport artery. The canal will soon allow ships over a third of a kilometre long to make the journey between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in just 8 hours.

Construction of this 80-kilometre waterway has been made possible by a series of technological innovations. This programme explores the developments in engineering and construction that have enabled the record-breaking project to be completed. Using stunning CGI animation, this film reveals some of the incredible stories behind the building of canals and the innovations that have enabled them to grow in size.

The first problem that is investigated is how a boat can travel uphill. The Briare Canal in France, commissioned by King Henri IV in the early 17th century, was planned to link the River Loire with the River Seine, allowing wine and other goods to be transported directly into the heart of Paris. However, engineers faced a seemingly insurmountable problem– a 45-metre hill directly in the canal’s path. This programme reveals how engineers split the canal into a series of flat pools and worked out how to lift cargo-laden barges safely up and down each section.

Today in Central America, the builders of the Panama Canal needed to work out how to use a similar system to lift the huge cargo vessels of the 21st century 26 metres up in the heart of Panama. The next historical hurdle that needed to be leapt was how to conserve water in canal construction. At the Bridgewater Canal, connecting Runcorn and Manchester, engineer James Brindley planned a canal in an area with no easy access to water with which to keep it topped up. He avoided the need for locks by creating his canal on a flat route and building an ambitious stone aqueduct to cross a deep river valley. This in turn was replaced 100 years later by a unique piece of engineering – an iron aqueduct capable of swinging out of the way of ships passing on the river below. Engineers at the Panama Canal came up with a grand scheme to avoid locks in the mountainous area of central Panama.

This programme shows how a novel design will save water at the new locks. The programme then explores how canal engineers coped with issues surrounding excavation. Faced with the prospect of digging out vast quantities of earth and rock during construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, Edward Leader Williams used a battalion of steam-powered excavators.

Today we see how engineers working on the Panama Canal called in the help of a machine capable of pulverising hard volcanic rock 15metres underwater. Finally we see how technology allows the safe navigation of over 14,000 ships a year through the Panama Canal. The canal is vital to Panama’s economy, so any delay to shipping must be avoided. A control centre tracks traffic and directs powerful tug boats to assist in accidents. In a multi-million dollar simulator, pilots are trained to deal with any situation that might occur in the new expanded canal.

Featuring interviews with the people at the heart of the Panama Canal’s operation and following them as they work, the viewer is taken on a unique journey through history to explore one of the world’s most important waterways.

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