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Construction And Operation

Engineers who are designing a canal must take several things into consideration. They must formulate the dimensions of the canal to accommodate the numbers and sizes of ships that are predicted to use the waterway. Natural obstacles in the path of the canal, such as rock formations, must also be modified, removed, or avoided. There must be adequate vertical clearance above the canal and the clearance afforded by pre-existing bridges must be able to accommodate the vessels that will use the canal. Finally, engineers must decide the scale and location of associated structures, such as bridges, tunnels, and locks.

The paths of most canals are affected by variations in the levels of terrain. Engineers compensate for these variations with either locks or inclined planes. A lock is a segment of the waterway that is closed off by gates at either end. When a vessel enters the lock, the front gate is already closed. The back gate is then closed behind the vessel, and the water level within the lock is raised or lowered to the level of the water on the outside of the front gate. Valves on the gates control the level of the water. Whereas locks are the most common means of compensating for elevation changes, the procedure is slow and uses a large amount of water. Inclined planes can be used to elevate and lower smaller vessels; they use no water and often allow more rapid passage of vessels. When vessels reach certain stations along the waterway, they are pulled out of the water and moved on trucks up or down the plane.

Canal operators must monitor the canal's supply of water. If the natural supply of water at the upper end of the canal is deficient, it must be supplemented by water pumped into the reservoirs. If nature supplies the reservoir with excess amounts of water, some of the water must be diverted from the canal. Otherwise, excess water may strengthen the current and disrupt canal operations.

Although canals are among the oldest civil works, they play a major role in commerce because they are by far the least expensive form of inland transportation yet devised.



Hadfield, Charles. World Canals: Inland Navigation Past and Present. New York: Facts On File, 1986.

Payne, P. S. Robert. The Canal Builders: The Story of Canal Engineers Through the Ages. New York: Macmillan Co., 1959.

Spangenburg, Ray, and Diane K. Moser. The Story of America's Canals. New York: Facts On File, 1992.


Panama Canal Authority. The Panama Canal. (October 17, 2002). <www.pancanal.com/eng/index.html>.

Leonard C. Bruno


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Contour canal

—Usually early canals that followed the meandering natural contours of the earth.

Flash lock

—A simple wooden gate that was placed across a moving body of water to hold it back until it had become deep; the sudden withdrawal of the gate would cause a "flash" of water that would carry a boat downstream and over the shallows below.

Inland waterway

—An artificial waterway or channel that is cut through land to carry water and is used for transportation.


—A compartment in a canal separated from the main stream by watertight gates at each end; as water fills or drains it, boats are raised or lowered from one water level to another.


—An inclined path or road leading into a body of water over which, in ancient times, boats were dragged or rolled from one body of water to another.

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