Panama Canal in Action

SDHC Panama Canal Exhibit

The Panama-California Exposition of 1915 celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal to draw attention to the fact that San Diego was the first American port of call on the Pacific. This year is its Centennial and in commemoration the History Center wanted a working model of the lock system to put on display. Where’d they turn to for help? To San Diego makers.

The goal was to build a physical model which in a compelling way demonstrated a boat’s movement through the locks. As you watch the video below I’m certain you’ll agree. There’s no way to watch the model and not understand. The goal was most certainly achieved!

It took several months to complete but they finished just in time for a major event.  The History Center will be hosting a delegation from Panama as part of their sister-city celebration of the Canal on April 23 and now they have something very special to show off.

As with any sophisticated maker project, to pull it off took a team working together in a good maker space, in this case the Fab Lab. Jim Larson spent hours in the mural warehouse tinkering away. Travis and Stephanie pulled together the most important physical parts of the display. The linear system works beautifully, and everyone loves the boat and they keep asking were it’s from. Their minds are blown when they learn that the team made it. Allen McAfee of Fab Lab San Diego lead the project.

After watching the video I asked Allen how the system reset and he told me, “The reset was activated at the very end of the cycle – it will jog back to the home switch, then the water levels will reset, then the gates reset. I really dig the reset cycle at the very end, the motor resets are a quick wave back and forth.”

I also asked about the buttons we see in the video. “The green and blue paddle buttons are for manual control (boat and water respectfully), while the white button puts it into auto mode starting from anywhere in the cycle. Holding the green and white buttons together resets the system from anywhere as well. The lights are triggered during the auto mode as if they were receiving manual input from a user.”

Next time I’m near the History Center I’ll definitely stop in.
Not only do I like to see the results of skilled makers,
but I really want to see that system reset action!


Update: below is a picture of the inner workings of the exhibit. For those of you who have built 3D printers or CNC mills this should look familiar. Lots of similar components: threaded rods, extruded aluminum, stepper motors, Arduino control, etc. And why not? As with those tools, this is a special-purpose robot!

Innards of the Panama Canal exhibit.

Innards of the Panama Canal exhibit.

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