Changes in Transportation and Accessibility

Throughout history, the diffusion of new innovations in transportation technology has reduced friction of distance. At various times, dramatic reductions in the friction of distance have resulted from large-scale construction projects. Examples of such transitions include the construction of bridges, canals, and tunnels.

The construction of the Suez and Panama canals are two of the most profoundly influential improvements in transportation history. The Suez Canal is located in northeastern Egypt. The 100-mile-long canal (162 kilometers) connects the Indian and Atlantic oceans via the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Canals connecting the Nile River delta and the Red Sea had been constructed by the ancient Egyptians about the thirteenth century B.C. These canals continued to be maintained by Egyptian and Roman rulers off and on until about a.d. 750. Excavation of the present Suez Canal began in 1859, and the Canal opened for navigation ten years later.

The Suez Canal enabled a much shorter route for ocean-going vessels traveling from the Middle East, India, and East Asia to Europe. Previously, transportation between these places required either the circumnavigation of Africa or expensive and dangerous land shipment across the harsh deserts and explosive polities of Southwest Asia.

Over the years, the developed countries worked to ensure free international access to the Suez Canal. An 1888 treaty guaranteed international access and prevented the blockade of the Canal except in wartime. Despite this treaty, Egypt refused to allow Israeli ships to use the Canal until 1979, when Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty.

The Panama Canal, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) in length, connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Isthmus of Panama. The Panama Canal expedited transportation between the east and west coasts of North America, avoiding the lengthy circumnavigation of South America. Hernando Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who led the Spanish takeover of Mexico and Central America, first suggested the possibility of a canal across the Central American isthmus in the early sixteenth century. The Spaniards developed plans for a canal in the region as early as 1529, but construction of the Panama Canal did not begin until 1905, and it was not opened to international navigation until 1914.

The United States played a major role in construction of the Panama Canal. The now-independent country of Panama had been part of Colombia. In exchange for American support for Panamanian secession, the Panamanian government agreed that land would be ceded to the United States for canal-construction purposes. The Panamanians subsequently ceded sovereignty over the Panama Canal Zone, a strip of territory approximately ten miles wide, to the United States. In 1977, a treaty assigning sovereignty of the Canal Zone to Panama was ratified by the governments of both countries.


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