October 10, 1731:Birth of Henry Cavendish; 1913: Panama Canal Completed

October 10, 1731: This Day in Science History:  “October 10th is Henry Cavendish’s birthday. Cavendish was a British natural philosopher that made meticulous studies of gases. He made extensive studies of the ‘airs’ he collected including the discovery of hydrogen. He collected hydrogen by collecting the gas given off by the reaction of metals and strong acids and called it ‘inflammable air’. Inflammable air was almost entirely made up of phlogiston, the substance in a body that causes them to burn. He found if he combined three parts inflammable air with seven parts of common air and dropped fire into the mixture, it would make a very loud noise and produce water. He also noted that all of the inflammable air and nearly a fifth of the common air was used up in this experiment. Further investigation found if he mixed two parts of inflammable air with one part dephlogisticated air (oxygen) would produce water.”

October 10, 1913:  Last barrier removed from Panama Canal. “The Gamboa Dike is blown up when President Woodrow Wilson presses a button in Washington, DC. The Dike was the last obstruction along the manmade channel connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The dream of a shortcut began in the early 1500s. Vasco Balboa, the first European to see the East Pacific, built a road on which to haul ships 34 miles. By 1534 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, hoped to build a canal using plans drawn up in 1529. The technology of the time was inadequate to the task. Roads were built instead and goods were moved over land between fleets on either side….The first ship to navigate the waterway was an old French crane vessel. On January 7, 1914 the Alexandre La Valley became the first ship to make a complete transit of the Panama Canal.

The Canal is about 50 miles long and uses a system of locks to transport ships through. The locks are 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. Between 13,000 and 14,000 vessels use the canal each year, accounting for about 5% of the world trade….The number of ships able to be processed through is limited by the space available. Larger ships are being built and the locks are limited by size. These forces combined are leading to the Panama Canal Expansion Project. Work began on a new set of locks in 2007 and is expected to be completed by 2014.”

Commentary: The water history connection is that the filling of the locks is accomplished by draining water from Gatun Lake that is fed by precipitation in the Panamanian rain forest. Over 26 million gallons of fresh water is lost to the ocean during each downward lock cycle. The new canal system of locks will recycle about 60 percent of the water so there will be less pressure on the local water resources. A blog entitled “Ten Things you didn’t know about the Panama Canal” gave a lot of details on the history of the canal.

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