ASCE Celebrates the Panama Canal’s 100th Anniversary With Historic Insight

October 20, 2014

“Every professional goes through a maturation process that shapes their approach to the challenges they face daily,” Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Merdith W. B. Temple, P.E., PMP, F.ASCE, told the attendees of the ASCE/EWB-USA Leadership and Awards breakfast in a video presentation delivered during the Global Engineering Conference 2014 in Panama City, Panama.

Now viewable online,  Temple’s presentation about what engineers can learn from an exemplary leader captured the enormity of the original Panama Canal project, the men who designed and built it, and the challenges that they faced.

“One could also say that Goethals’ entire career, his professional development, the connections he made serving in such a broad variety of jobs, and his tremendous reputation made him the right person to lead the canal’s construction,” said Temple, referring to the Canal’s third chief engineer, George Washington Goethals.

“What I think we need to take from his experience is that leading large complex projects is as much art as it is science and, like any craft, leadership only improves with practice.”

How Goethals’ Experience Applies to Civil Engineers Today

Drawing a direct line between the design and construction of the Panama Canal and the need for decisive leadership, Temple said of Goethals, “It wasn’t just his management and technical skills that made him successful, it was the power of his leadership that truly made the difference. His style was to strike the right balance [of] being intimately involved in the details of the project without micromanaging. That is, use of strong delegation skills.”

Temple closed his presentation by considering the implications of Goethals’ experience for the civil engineering profession today.

“All projects face technical challenges, but often it is not the technical that proves most difficult,” he said. “Getting clarity of scope from the owner, locking in financing, choosing the appropriate delivery method, coordinating multiple primes or project efforts simultaneously, dispute resolution, change and risk management, logistics, safety, quality, and politics all come into play.

“I believe that ASCE’s Vision 2025 provides a good foil for addressing this question. In particular, the call to be a master builder – that is, one who plans, designs, constructs, and operates the built environment for the benefit of society.”

Temple concluded, “There is no manual to teach us how to lead and manage all of these activities successfully. Only the right combination of academic preparation, experience, and life-long learning – or apprenticeship, journeyman, and expert experience – can give us the best chance to become – as Goethals did, in my view – a master builder.”

Engineering the Panama Canal


Published in the October issue of Civil Engineering magazine, “Engineering the Panama Canal”, gave a detailed account of the decisive role 8 American engineers played in building the Panama Canal. Photo Credit: Civil Engineering Magazine

Temple’s presentation was one of several activities through which ASCE, with its conference, publications, and social media, celebrated the canal’s 100th anniversary. The ASCE History and Heritage Committee also paid tribute to the Panama Canal – which was accorded Society Historic Civil Engineering Landmark status in 1984 – with the publication of the book Engineering the Panama Canal, a Centennial Retrospective, edited by Bernard G. Dennis, Jr. The book is a collection of 9 papers presenting the lives and experiences of the engineers who successfully designed, built, and have operated the canal for the past 100 years.

For good reading, the magnificent article published in the October issue of Civil Engineering magazine by J. David Rogers, Ph.D., P.E., P.G., CEG, CHG, M.ASCE, also entitled “Engineering the Panama Canal,” gives a detailed account of the decisive role that 8 American engineers played in building the Panama Canal. The article tells the story of 3 of the Canal’s chief engineers, John Findley Wallace, John Frank Stevens, and George Washington Goethals; Harry Harwood Rousseau, the assistant to the chief engineer; Harry Foote Hodges, the assistant chief engineer; David DuBose Gaillard, the central division engineer; William Luther Sibert, Atlantic Division engineer; and Sydney Bacon Williamson, Pacific Division engineer, all of whom were commemorated on Canal Zone postage stamps.

Wrote Rogers, “The Panama Canal changed the course of world shipping and remains an essential gateway of world trade. But had it not been for the extraordinarily enterprising and exceptionally inventive accomplishments of eight determined American engineers, it would have not come to be when it did. The world owes much indeed to these remarkable men.”

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