Back to WHKMLA Main Index . WHKMLA, Students' Papers Main Page . WHKMLA, Students' Papers, 12th Wave Index Page



Canal Construction in Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Hong
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2007



Table of Contents


I. Introduction : Absolutism
II. Canal Construction History in the 17th, 18th Century
II.1 France
II.2 Great Britain
II.3 Germany
II.4 The Netherlands
II.5 Other Countries
III. Technological Developments
III.1 Pound Locks
III.2 Mitre Gates
III.3 Inclined Planes
IV. Conclusion
V. List of Images
VI. Notes
VII. Bibliography



I. Introduction
            This paper deals with the canal construction in Europe the 17th-18th century, which is from the period of absolutism, and mercantilism until before the Industrial Revolution. In this period there was a bursting of commerce and trade, thus, a reliable source of transportation was necessary; canals became the means to satisfy this need.
            This paper is divided into two sections; the canal construction history, which focuses on the individual canals constructed in this period of time, categorized again by countries; and the technological development, which deals with the technology that enabled the canal constructions to take place.
            Unfortunately, most of the information for this paper had to be obtained on the Internet, due to the fact that KMLA library does not have many books on this topic. The few books and articles this paper is based on include those that were found on Questia or Google Book Search. Also, only being able to read English language sources, the contents on some countries is relatively weaker than that of others, due to the lack of information available in the English.


II. Canal Construction History in the 17th, 18th Century

II.1 France

            Canal building was started in the 17th century in France as a part France¡¯s mercantilist policies. It was purposed to enhance the overall efficiency of the nation by developing means of transportation; it can also be seen as an imitation of the Dutch, who were at the time using the canals with great advantage. In France in the 17th century, two major canals were built that started the history of modern canals in Europe - the Briare Canal, and the Canal du Midi.
            The Briare Canal, linking the Seine and Loire, was the first summit level canal (1) in Europe that was built using pound locks (2). Its construction was started in 1602 by the Duke of Sully, with the support of Henry IV., and was completed in 1642 under the rule of Louis VIII. The Briare Canal fulfilled its initial purpose of developing the trade of grain and reducing food shortage, and thus helped the French embark on a canal construction of much greater scale with little reluctance.

Figure 1 : Map Featuring the Canal du Midi


            That canal is the Canal du Midi. France in the 1660s was ruled by Louis XIV. who had a financial adviser by the name of Colbert. Colbert implemented many successful economic policies (mercantilist policies) and among them was canalizing rivers to enhance the transportation of goods. The Canal du Midi is 240km long; it connects the Atlantic with the Mediterranean, allowing the navigators to avoid the long route around Spain, which used to take a full month. The construction had started in 1665 by an engineer called Pierre-Paul Riquet, who solved the existing problem of supplying the summit sections with enough water by building a huge dam - the second largest in Europe? on the Laudot River; the construction was completed in 1692. The Canal du Midi has importance in that it was the greatest construction of the 17th century, connecting the two oceans, but its greatest significance is in that its success had started the era of canal constructions in Europe outside the Dutch Republic.

II.2 Great Britain

            In the mid 18th century, England was bursting with commerce; it had a society that was more socially equal, and less trade restrictions than other countries of Europe. England was going through the early phase of the Industrial Revolution, from the cottage industry to the industry of factories. In this context, there was great demand for a reliable way to transport goods. Most of the canals in Britain were built based on this need, and the canal that has greatest historical importance is the Bridgewater Canal.
            The person who decided to build the Bridgewater Canal was Francis Egerton, duke of Bridgewater, in 1759. He owned several coal mines in Northern England and saught for an efficient way to transport his coal to the nearby city of Manchester, where the appetite for coal was increasing due to the bursting industries. Francis Egerton, who had visited France and had been inspired by the Canal du Midi, commissioned an engineer in the name of James Brindly to build a canal that would connect Worsley and Manchester. The Bridgewater canal, opened in 1761, was an immediate success; it halved the price of coal that arrived in Manchester and allowed the duke of Bridgewater to accumulate a fortune. The Bridgewater canal was itself a great achievement - its design included features such as an aqueduct (3) carrying the canal over the River Irwell - but its gravity in canal history of England lies in the later consequences that its success had caused.
            For the next fifty years numerous canals were built all over Britain, and this period is called the 'canal mania'. Two thousand miles of canals were built of canals such as the Grand Trunk Canal, Severn Canal, Gloucester and Berkeley Ship Canal. At the early stage these canals were, in many cases, profitable; they were usually horse drawn and one horse was able to pull more than ten times the amount of cargo compared with the cart. But later when there was a surplus of canals, the high construction costs of canals proved to exceed the optimistic estimates, resulting in a loss. From the 1830s, railways began to threaten the position of the canal, as the trains could, at lower costs, transport people as well as goods, also more quickly than the barges of canals. In the end, railway won the competition, and the construction boom of canals slowly petered down.


II.3 Germany

            Brandenburg in the 17th century was going through great change under the rule of Margrave Friedrich Wilhelm (the Great Elector). He, unlike many monarchs of the time, didn't spend money on constructing luxurious palaces or extravagant parties, but spent it on making his country more militarily powerful. As a part of this idea, he built the first notable modern canal in Germany, the 15-mile Friedrich Wilhelm Summit Canal (Spree-Oder-Kanal, connecting the Oder and Elbe river systems, named after himself); completed in 1669, the canal ran from Neuhaus on the Spree to Brieskow on the Oder, enhancing the transportation throughout the region. Friedrich Wilhelm's successor, King Frederick I. in Prussia, continued the policy of canal construction and linked the three great rivers, the Elbe, Oder, and Weser, by canal.
            Later, King Friedrich II. (Frederick the Great) established a more extensive system of waterways, building more canals; the most notable two are the Plauer Canal, and the Finow Canal. The former ran from the Elbe to the Havel, complete in 1746. The latter, was actually rebuilt because it had fell into decay due to the flooding and neglect; it was opened again in 1751, running 25-miles along the Havel to Liepe.

II.4 The Netherlands

            The Netherlands takes great importance in the history of canal construction in that it revived the construction of canals during the 13th-14th century that had generally been discontinued since the fall of the Roman Empire. They also have contributed greatly in the development of canal construction technology, such as introducing the first flash locks (4).
            Significant canal construction in Netherlands in the 17th-18th century would mean the construction that went on in the Dutch Golden Age, roughly spanning the 17th century. Many Dutch canals, unlike the canals of other countries, are embodied in the heart of the cities, and the greatest example would be the three canals of Amsterdam called the "Grachtengordel" (belt of city canals).
            Amsterdam has four main concentric half-circles of canals that are an essential part of the city. Three of the canals - Herengracht, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht - known as the "grachtengordel", were mainly for residential development, and the forth outer canal, the Stadhouderskade, for defense and water regulation. These canals that reached to the doors of the residential homes allowed the individuals of Netherlands to become efficient tradesmen, developing Amsterdam into one of the most important trading centers of the time.
            The Haarlemmertrekvaart (Haarlem's Pull-Canal), was also a significant canal of the time. Built in 1631, it connected Amsterdam and Haarlem in a vertically straight line, improving the previous route, which was along the twisty bay of the Zuiderzee. Commercial freight was not permitted to use this canal, allowing the trekschuit (5) system to remain as a stable source of passenger transport for centuries. The success of the Haarlemmertrekvaart led to the extension of the canal from Haarlem to Leiden, called the Leidsevaart Canal. The Leidsevaart Canal also remained as a major means of transportation between Haarlem and Leiden until the railway was established in the 19th century. Another canal to note is the Pannerden Canal, built in 1709. It cut off a large shallow bend of river Rhine, improving the river traffic and water regulation in the region.

II.5 Other Countries

            Many countries other than the countries I have mentioned above also had, more or less, participated in the canal constructions in the 17th-18th century.
            In RUSSIA, there was the construction of numerous canals built in Saint Petersburg by Peter the Great. Located at the delta of the Neva River, Saint Petersburg was originally modeled after Amsterdam and Venice, and was intentionally built on marshy land that had mazes of rivers; thus, canal construction was done on a great scale. Also in 1718, a nationwide canal system connecting the Baltic and Caspian seas through the Neva and Volga rivers was opened. In SWEDEN, the Göta Canal was built (1810-1832); it crossed southern Sweden to connect Lake Vänern with the Baltic Sea. In ITALY, there were extensions of previous canals, such as the extensions of the canals of navigli (6).

II. Technological Developments
            Causing the numerous canal constructions of the 17th-18th century, there was the need of a reliable source of transportation; but also, there were the technological development that allowed these constructions to happen. These are the three developments that allowed that construction and operation of the canals to be possible.

III.1 Pound Locks

            A pound lock is a device along the canal that allows boats to overcome water level differences; it consists of a chamber (the pound) with gates at both ends, which can be opened or closed to control the water level in the chamber, raising or lowering the boats.
            Pound locks were actually introduced long ago, in 1373, Vreeswijk, Prov. Utrecht (Dutch Republic). The reason this technique is presented here as a development of this period is because this was the time when the technique of pound locks spread out all over Europe, and was first built in countries other than the Netherlands or Italy. An example is the Briare Canal explained above. After its introduction, the pound locks immediately displaced the previous form of lock, which was the flash lock (also explained above), and is still exclusively used in canals as a method to overcome water level differences.

Figure 2 : Pound Lock

III.2 Mitre Gates

            A mitre gate is a double-leafed gate that forms a V-shape, pointing up-stream when closed. It is much easier to operate because it turns on hinges (like doors), and the fact that it points up-stream allows the gate to be tightly closed by the water pressure of its own water. It displaced the previous form of gates used for pound locks, which were the guillotine gates, also known as the vertical gate.
            The mitre gate is believed to have been first devised by an Italian artist and scientist, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), in order to improve the efficiency of the pound lock. The reason it is categorized here even though it was introduced earlier in time is similar to the reason above: 16th - 17th century is the time period it became widespread, and it is one of the key factors that enhanced the operation of pound locks enabling many construction of canals that were unable before.

III.3 Inclined Planes

            An inclined plane, in canal building, is another method of overcoming the water level differences. It consists of a giant water-filled tank with wheels, and two sets of railway on the slope. Boats are to enter the tank, or cassion, and then are drawn up or down on the rail. The expenses were relatively greater than the original pound locks, but inclined planes were preferable when the slope was long and steep, in other words, when its construction could replace a large series of pound locks.
            In 1777 the first inclined plane operated on Tyrone Canal, Ireland, in 1788 another one on Ketley Canal, England.

IV. Conclusion
            In the 17th-18th century, the economic policies such as mercantilism, political structures of absolutism, and the technological developments allowed a great number of canals to be built in massive scales to satisfy the growing needs of transportation. They played a vital role in the economic development of the time promoting trade, which have later produced the revenue allowing the rule of the absolutism rulers. In this sense, canals and its constructions have contributed greatly in forming the history of the 17th-18th century.

V. List of Images

1.      Map of the Canal du Midi, modified after map from Wikipedia. 4 Nov. 2007
2.      Image Canallock, from Wikipedia 2003. 4 Nov. 2007 .

VI. Notes

(1)      a canal that connects two river valleys, going over the summit
(2)      The pound lock is a device first introduced in 1373 at Vreeswijk, The Netherlands, that consisted of two gates and a chamber allowing canal designers to overcome differences in water levels.
(3)      A bridge or an artificial channel that that carries water; constructed to convey water from one location to another.
(4)      A lock placed in the middle of a dam along the waterway, which could be opened suddenly, releasing a torrent that carried a vessel over a shallow place.
(5)      An old style of barge this was common in the Netherlands for centuries as a means of passenger traffic between cities along 'trekvaarts', or pull-canals.
(6)      A system of navigable and interconnected canals centered around Milan, Northern Italy.

VII. Bibliography

1.      Article : Amsterdam, from Wikipedia. 4 Nov. 2007
2.      Article : Briare Canal, from Wikipedia. 27 Oct. 2007 .
3.      Article : Bridgewater Canal, from Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. 27 Oct. 2007 .
4.      Article : Canal - History, from Science Encyclopedia. 27 Oct. 2007 .
5.      Article : Canal Inclined Plane, from Wikipedia. 4 Nov. 2007 .
6.      Article : Canals and Inland Waterways, from Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 22 Oct. 2007 .
7.      Article : Canal, from Wikipedia. 22 Oct. 2007 .
8.      Barbour, Violet. Capitalism in Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century. Johns Hopkins P, 1950. 4 Nov. 2007 .
9.      Ganse, Alexander. KMLA Handbook Modern European History. 5th ed. Korean Minjok Leadership Academy, 2007
10.      Gogarty, Paul. "The Water Road: Paul Gogarty Examines the History of Britain's Extensive Network of Canals and Explains How, After Years of Neglect, It is Undergoing a Major Overhaul." Geographical Apr. 2003. Questia. 4 Nov. 2007. http://www.questia.com/read/5001904614
11.      "History of Canals." History World. 28 Oct. 2007 .
12.      Article : Lock, from Wikipedia. 27 Oct. 2007 .
13.      Article : Midi Canal, from Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 25 Oct. 2007 .
14.      Article : Peter I., from Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 4 Nov. 2007 .
15.      Priestley, Joseph. Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways of Great Britain. Google Book Search. 1831. 4 Nov. 2007 .
16.      Article : Saint Petersburg, from Wikipedia. 4 Nov. 2007 .
17.      UK Canal History. from Canal Junction. 27 Oct. 2007 .

Back to WHKMLA Main Index . WHKMLA, Students' Papers Main Page . WHKMLA, Students' Papers, 12th Wave Index Page