Floating cities & irrigation tunnels

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


Ever since the problems with the Suez canal, I've been thinking about how important canals are (and how ripe for conflict and problems they are). As I flesh out some the geopolitical situation of the fantasy world I'm designing, I realized that I was underutilizing canals. I did a little research into the history of canals in order to understand how they've impacted geopolitics in real-world history.

Quick Facts

Artificial Islands

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was an artificial island surrounded by canals, which served as a very effective moat. Several large bridges connected the island to the mainland, but most people travelled by boat. They managed to build all this without arches, iron, plows, wheels, or domesticated beasts of burden, but what’s most impressive is that the chinampa system is still useful today.

Golden Age

Hundreds of canals were built during the ‘Golden Age’ (1750-1850). In England, for example, thousands of miles of canals were built — mostly the old-fashioned way, with men, shovels, and the occasional cow to tramp the trenches flat. The canals were lined with clay, limestone, or whatever was handy. Eventually, railroads (and later highways) replaced them, but many old canals have been repurposed as recreational waterways.

Painful Passage

The Americas are an unbroken strip of land running from Alaska to Argentina, so of course European powers wanted to cut it in half early on. The Holy Roman Emperor sent surveyors to figure out how to cut a passage through Panama in 1534, but they thought it was impossible. In the 1880s, a French company gave it a go, but between engineering problems and tropical diseases, wound up going bankrupt — its owners were jailed due to the scandal. Over 25,000 people died to build it, but eventually, it was completed in 1914.

Strategic Supplier

The Suez Canal has been central to several wars. The primary objective of WWII’s North Africa campaign was control of the Suez Canal, which was vital to securing British oil supplies — although that strategic objective was somewhat less important to the other Allies. Later, when the Suez Canal was nationalized by in 1956, the British invaded, but had to withdraw due to international condemnation.

📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my article about infrastructure in ancient civilizations, or the horseboat edition of this newsletter.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

🌉 Do you have a favorite story about canals or other artificial waterways? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.


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