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Intended Audience: all engineers


This course will examine the ethical issues that arose from the attempt by French commercial and government interests to build a maritime canal across the isthmus of Panama in the 1880s. The United States, of course, subsequently successfully constructed a Panama Canal but this earlier French project was an abject engineering, commercial and financial failure that resulted in thousands of deaths and the loss of billions of investor dollars. The primary engineering issues were route and alignment selection, soils engineering, tidal control and seasonal flood control. The ethical lesson is about what can happen when political, financial and commercial goals override engineering considerations and result in a tragic project failure that provides lessons in engineering and public policy ethics that are as valid today as they were in the 19th century.

This course will give engineers and others an insight into the lessons that can be learned from the tragic failure of French commercial and political interests to build a Panama canal in the 1880s.

Learning Objectives

At the successful conclusion of this course, you’ll be able to identify and discuss:

  • Learn about the history of the project and the economic and political issues that shaped its development.
  • Learn about the French commercial and government interests that promoted this project.
  • Learn about the engineering issues that were overridden by the French commercial interests.
  • Learn about the competing routes for the canal, and how the specific route and alignment in Panama came to be selected.
  • Learn how rudimentary soils engineering principles and practices were ignored by French promoters of the project.
  • Learn how the project was undertaken without an engineering plan for the critical transection of the canal and the Chagres River.
  • Learn how the project was undertaken without an engineering plan for managing differential tidal fluctuations in the Atlantic and
  • Learn about the political machinations by French interests to obtain an exclusive franchise to build the canal in Panama.
  • Learn how the pressure on French canal promoters to produce a profitable project overrode good engineering methods and
  • Learn how engineers need to avoid similar ethical traps in the future.

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