Leonardo da Vinci Created the Design for the Miter Lock, Which Is Still Used in the Panama and Suez Canals

“A Man, a Plan, a Canal — Pana­ma”: we all know the piece of infra­struc­ture to which this famous palin­drome refers. But who, exact­ly, is the man? Some might imag­ine Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt in the role, giv­en his over­sight of the pro­jec­t’s acqui­si­tion by the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca. But it’s more com­mon­ly thought to be George W. Goethals, the Roo­sevelt-appoint­ed chief engi­neer who brought it to com­ple­tion two years ear­ly. Then again, one could also make the case for French diplo­mat Fer­di­nand de Lesseps, who orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived of not only the Pana­ma Canal but also the Suez Canal. And as long as we’re reach­ing back in his­to­ry, how does Leonar­do da Vin­ci strike you?

True, Leonar­do died rough­ly four cen­turies before the Pana­ma Canal broke ground. But that its mech­a­nism works at all owes to one of his many inven­tions: the miter lock, doc­u­ment­ed in one of his note­books from 1497. The design, as explained in the Lesics video above, involves “two V‑shaped wood­en gates” attached with hinges to the sides of a riv­er.

Giv­en their shape, the water flow­ing through the riv­er nat­u­ral­ly forces the gates to close, one side form­ing a neat joint with the oth­er. Inside, “as the water lev­el ris­es, the pres­sure on the gate increas­es,” which seals it even more tight­ly. To facil­i­tate re-open­ing the “per­fect water­tight lock” thus formed, Leonar­do also spec­i­fied a set of sluice valves in the gates that can be opened to even out the water lev­els again.

The twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry builders of the Pana­ma Canal ben­e­fit­ed from tech­nolo­gies unavail­able in Leonar­do’s time: pow­er­ful motors, for instance, that could open and close the gates more effi­cient­ly than human mus­cle. And though it has under­gone improve­ments over the past cen­tu­ry (such as the replace­ment of the geared sys­tem attached to those motors with even more effec­tive hydraulic cylin­ders), its struc­ture and oper­a­tion remain vis­i­bly derived from Leonar­do’s ele­gant miter lock, as do those of the Suez Canal. About 80 ships pass through those two famous water­ways each and every day, and ships of a size scarce­ly imag­in­able in the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry at that: not bad for a cou­ple pieces of 500-year-old engi­neer­ing.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Explore the Largest Online Archive Explor­ing the Genius of Leonar­do da Vin­ci

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inven­tions Come to Life as Muse­um-Qual­i­ty, Work­able Mod­els: A Swing Bridge, Scythed Char­i­ot, Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine & More

Watch Leonar­do da Vinci’s Musi­cal Inven­tion, the Vio­la Organ­ista, Being Played for the Very First Time

The Inge­nious Inven­tions of Leonar­do da Vin­ci Recre­at­ed with 3D Ani­ma­tion

How to Build Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inge­nious Self-Sup­port­ing Bridge: Renais­sance Inno­va­tions You Can Still Enjoy Today

Leonar­do da Vin­ci Draws Designs of Future War Machines: Tanks, Machine Guns & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Bob Schallip says:

    I am a Cap­tain at the Orig­i­nal Soo Locks Boat Tours in Sault Ste Marie Michi­gan. We have been tak­ing peo­ple through the Soo Locks for 89 years. We think we know a lit­tle about Locks. I read your arti­cle on the Pana­ma and Suez Locks. I was sur­prised to find that Da Vin­ci had the first doc­u­men­ta­tion of the miter gates.
    Also in your arti­cle you men­tioned èlec­tri­cal­ly oper­at­ed locks but no men­tion of the Cana­di­an Soo Locks which were con­struct­ed in 1895 and were the first elec­tri­cal­ly oper­at­ed Locks in the world. I enjoyed your infor­ma­tive arti­cle.

  • David says:

    Last I checked Suez does­n’t have locks.

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