Readers may have come across news stories concerning the conversion of petrol pumps in Panama from US gallons to litres. In this article, Metric Views aims to provide some background information.
This story appeared on the web site of ‘Newsroom Panama’ on 20 April 2013:
Further information is provided in this blog article:
Note the photos of the petrol station before and after the change. Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. The official name for it is the balboa, but it is the same bank note, and in practice people use the ‘dolar’ and ‘balboa’ interchangeably. So that makes the price of regular petrol in Panama equivalent to about 72 p/litre.
We at Metric Views were curious about US influence in Panama, a country which is unfamiliar to many in the UK. We decided to investigate further.
“Panama broke with Spain in 1821 and joined a union of Nueva Grenada, Ecuador, and Venezuela, named the Republic of Gran Colombia. When Gran Colombia dissolved in 1831, Panama and Nueva Granada remained joined, becoming the Republic of Colombia. With the backing of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903, allowing the Panama Canal to be built by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914. In 1977 an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the Canal from the United States to Panama by the end of the 20th century.”
A treaty between Panama and the US, signed in 1903 shortly after Panama achieved independence from Columbia, provided for the construction of the canal and the creation of a canal zone. This would comprise the canal and an area generally extending five miles on each side of the centre line, but excluding Panama City and Colon, which otherwise would have been partly within the limits of the Canal Zone. The zone would be under US control.
The US scheme for the canal required twin sets of locks at each end to lift vessels to an artificial lake, 85 feet above sea level. It is the dimensions of these locks that limit the size of vessels permitted to transit the canal, known as Panamax. The canal was designed and constructed in US customary units with the locks being 110 feet wide and 1050 feet long with a usable length of 1000 feet.
The Canal Zone, as an entity, ceased to exist on 1 October 1979. The transfer of operation of the canal from the US to Panama took place on 31 December 1999.
In the 1990s, it was forecast that demand for the Canal would exceed its maximum sustainable capacity by 2012, and in 2009 the Canal management published the “New Panamax” standard, that will take effect when a third set of locks, larger than the current two sets, becomes operational in 2015. The new locks on the Atlantic and Pacific entrances will each consist of three chambers measuring 427 m (1400 feet) long, 55 m wide and 18 m deep. The design-build contract to construct the new locks was won in July 2009 by Grupo Unidos por el Canal, composed of Spain’s Sacyr Vallehermoso, Italy’s Impregilo, Dutch contractor Jan De Nul and Constructora Urbana of Panama.
US consultants were involved in the conception of “New Panamax”, but are not responsible for the construction work, which, as one would expect in the 21st century, is metric. So it is not only the petrol pumps in Panama that provide reasons for optimism.
Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, it comes as no surprise that the departure of the US from the Canal Zone in 1979 and the subsequent transfer of operational control of the Canal would result in a lessening of US influence in Panama. But knowing only too well the inertia that accompanies proposals for changes in weights and measures, Metric Views is pleased to see that in Panama there is now the will to make progress with the adoption of the international system of measures (SI).
We would like to thank the readers who drew our attention to this story.