Suez Canal

The Suez Canal connects the Arabian and Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The canal is one of the two most important human-engineered waterways in the world.


Think your remodel took a long time? Or your software project went horribly over time and budget? Maybe a movie took too long to make? North Korea has been building the Ryugyong Hotel since 1987 and it’s nowhere near complete. The Suez Canal is far worse.

The Suez Canal is the hands-down winner for projects that went over time and over budget. Pharaoh Senusret II, or maybe Ramesses II, started the canal. Completion was in 1869, about 3700 years later.

Worldwide interest in the never-ending construction project never waned. Aristotle wrote about the canal and so did Pliny the Elder, a Roman, about 350 years later. The Suez Canal took so long to complete that the earliest parts are archeological artifacts.

All the usual suspects slowed down the project. There were political, social, economic, and engineering hurdles. Also, some less usual problems including invasions, the replacement of Egyptian political and religious society, and possibly divine intervention.

Colonial Times

During colonial periods Venetians, French, and Ottoman’s thought about finishing the canal but nobody got around to it.

Finally, the British, in 1830, took up the project in earnest. F.R. Chesney reported no difference in elevation between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, making the completion of the Suez Canal a genuine possibility. Somehow, the French became involved. Ferdinand de Lesseps received permission from the then ruler of Egypt to create the canal and a guarantee to operate it, as a private company, for 100 years.

After lots of sniping between Britain and France, in which Britain objected to French labor conditions (while simultaneously working to addict over ten million Chinese to opium), the canal opened in 1869.

Eventually, the British unofficially took control of Egypt from the Ottoman Empire primarily to control the canal. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser nationalized the canal, blockaded it, sparking a war with Israel that Egypt lost. The UN intervened and eventually secured the canal as a shipping route available to anybody.

Electronic Airline Reservation System (SABRE)

As the Cold War heated up during the 1950s, the United States installed an enormous number of missiles, radars, and nuclear weapons to track and respond to nuclear war. WWII radars were good enough for propeller planes but the delay between detection and analysis proved too slow for jet engines and missiles.


As the first step in a master defense plan, the United States created a series of computer-assisted command-and-control centers. These featured an MIT-designed computer system called Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE.

Enormous computers automatically translated input from radar stations into graphics showing airborne threats and trajectories around large parts of the world. The SAGE systems were finished in 1963, just in time to be rendered obsolete. They were replaced by better systems under the control of North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD).

Mr. Smith, meet Mr. Smith

In 1953, American Airlines president C.R. Smith sat next to IBM salesman R. Blair Smith. C.R. described American Airlines’ travails handling an ever-increasing number of flights around the world. Blaire thought a commercial version of SAGE, the tracked countless flights, might be the starting point of a solution.

Eventually, IBM and American Airlines worked together to build a “Passenger Name Record” (PRN) system, to track all people and flights. Declassified SAGE technology formed the core of the system. Reflecting that the project was experimental, American Airlines named the system Semi-Automated Business Research Environment (SABRE).

Sabre went live in 1964. Rather than the slow and error-prone card-based system in use, an IBM mainframe computer tracked everything. Reservations, flight check-ins, schedules: Sabre handled it all. It took 400 FTE years and cost just under $40 million ($385 million adjusted to 2019) to develop. Other airlines created their own reservation systems but Sabre went online first, a year earlier and proved more reliable.

Sabre Takes Over the World

In 1972, travel agents still called airlines to inquire about routes, fares, and availability. Some knew about Sabre and asked to access the system directly, adding value and lowering costs for both the travel agents and airlines. American Airlines agreed and, during the 1970s, granted access to authorized third-parties.

Eventually, other airlines joined and Sabre offered the ability for travel agents to find the lowest priced fare across all airlines, not just American Airlines flights. By the 1980s the system, in use by 130,000 travel agents worldwide, enabled basic searching through proprietary consumer computer networks.

By the 1990s it became clear that Sabre did not belong in the American Airlines IT department. In 1996 it spun off into its own company, The Sabre Technology Group. Today, Sabre technology powers online airline search technology.

Autonomous Vehicles (Self-Driving Cars)

DARPA, the US government agency that invented the internet (among other things) created a contest to build a self-driving car.

The first DARPA Grand Challenge, in 2004, was a 150 mile (240 km. route). The robot-car that drove the furthest before breaking down, built by Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), lasted 11.78km.

Undeterred, DARPA tried again. Subsequently, the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge involved driving about 132 miles (212km) autonomously. Five cars finished, with Stanford coming in first. By 2007, DARPA issued their third and final challenge, to navigate the streets of a fake city. Carnegie Mellon won.

Sebastian Thrun, Stanford’s team lead, and Red Whittaker, of CMU, were former colleagues and friendly rivals. Autonomous cars built by their students repeatedly came in first or second in the various challenges.


Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin attended the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge in disguise. They soon after hired Thrun. Initially, most analysts assumed Google would lean on his expertise in artificial intelligence – the core of a self-driving car – to improve the core Google search engine. However, the company eventually built out a separate business for self-driving cars. In late 2016 Google spun the self-driving car division into its own company, Waymo.

By 2018 Waymo was testing self-driving cars, albeit with safety drivers, around Phoenix. By late 2018, they commercialized the service. In 2019, Waymo announced plans to build an auto plant in Michigan to convert ordinary cars to autonomous vehicles to scale up their AV taxi service.

Today, every automaker is working furiously to perfect self-driving technology for cars, busses, and trucks.

Overnight Mail

FedEx is the first overnight mail delivery service. At the time, the idea was widely derided. Before FedEx, the only way to reliably deliver a package quickly was via overnight courier, an extremely expensive option.

In 1965, Yale undergrad student Fred Smith wrote a paper describing the idea as an undergraduate in Yale. Smith reasoned that rapid package transport required different air routes and systems than transporting people. Despite urban legend, his professor did not fail the paper or describe it as unworkable.

In August 1971, Smith purchased tiny Arkansas Aviation. Eventually, on April 17, 1973, he renamed it Federal Express. The initial system was a 25-city network. The first day there were 389 employees delivering 186 packages.

Growth was phenomenal: FedEx grew 40-percent per year.

“You’re not delivering sand and gravel,” he tells his ubiquitous couriers. “You’re delivering someone’s pacemaker, chemotherapy treatment for cancer drugs, the part that keeps the F-18s flying, or the legal brief that decides the case.” (Evans)

FedEx remains as important as ever, though customers have become accustomed to rapid package delivery from a multitude of vendors.

Container Shipping

Before container shipping, trucks were manually unloaded by longshoremen, loaded onto ships, and the process repeated at the destination. This added enormous cost, slowed shipping times and increased the risk of breakage.

Inspired by WWII standardization, McLean designed containers that fit directly on ships. His standardized containers and ships enable faster and less expensive loading and unloading of ships.

Container shipping puts the cargo part of trucks, the “container,” on ships, no unloading and reloading needed.

McLean’s containers move directly between trucks and ships. To spur scale and encourage standardization, he licensed his patents for free.

In 1969, McLean sold his company to RJR Reynolds for $500 million, pocketing $160 million personally. A later company, that envisioned super-shipping ships, went bankrupt. McLean made money, lost much of it in a later venture, and died comfortable but without recognizing the bulk of the wealth he created.

In total, he founded three companies that went on to be listed on the NYSE. At one point, he was one of the 400 wealthiest men in the US. However, due to bad investments, he went bankrupt.

Container shipping remains the dominant form of shipping. The OOCL Hong Kong is 400 meters long (5.5 football fields), 60 meters wide, and 32.5 meters deep.

Vessel Photo at Venue F (002)2
OOCL Hong Kong

Catalytic Converter

Catalytic converters prevent knocking in engines without leaded fuel.

Houdry was a Frenchman working on high-octane fuels. His initial focus were race cars. Sun Oil sponsored the early work, in the 1930’s, moving Houdry to the US. The fuel work was a success but could not be use in mass production because the catalysts that allow the use of high-octane fuel would be destroyed by lead, which was then used in gasoline to increase compression to prevent knocking.

Time went by (during WWII, Houdry was a vehement anti-Nazi). Eventually, it became clear to Houdry and others that lead fuels caused serious environmental problems.

Houdry developed “catalytic cracking” to create high octane fuels via the use of a catalyst. Initially, fighter airplanes relied on high high-octane fuels. Correspondingly, this gave a substantial edge to Allied forces during WWII.

After the war, Houdry created and patented the catalytic converter allowing engines to run on lead-free gasoline. He patented the innovation in 1956 with a 1952 innovation date, assigning the rights to his company, Oxy-Catalyst Company.

His patent expired Apr. 16, 1970, less than a year before the newly created US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), established Dec. 1970, labeled leaded gasoline as a threat.

Subsequently, the United States and most European government banned cars that required leaded gasoline in the 1970s.

Commercial Jetliner

Jets vastly increases productivity. Early iterations of the industry also enhanced fun and image once the technology improved.

The first commercial passenger jet, the Comet, tended to disintegrate mid-flight. Large windows and a poor understanding of metal stress created a literally fatal design flaw.

After three crashes the public refused to board the jet. Eventually, the British Comet was redesigned.

Canadian company Avro invented the term for their plane, the Avro Canada C102 Jetliner. While the name flew, the plane didn’t. But at least it didn’t kill anybody.

The Soviets released their own jet, the Tupolev Tu-104. They claim it was reliable safe but, owing to secrecy in the Soviet Union, nobody really knows. If nothing else, the interior was a beautiful mix of mahogany, copper, and lace.

The French Caravelle was the first safe, reliable, and popular jet in the west. Following a familiar pattern for the French, just as the company began to gain traction they abandoned it to build the Concorde.

Eventually, the Boeing 707, Douglas DC-9, and Convair 880 from the US won the bulk of the market for passenger jets.

Jet Engine

An RAF pilot he thought up the jet engine and tried convincing the English military to fund development. When they refused, he created a private company to develop his jet engine, Power Jets Ltd. Undercapitalized, development of the new engine plodding along slowly.

During WWII, the Allied forces realized the military potential of the jet engine.

The United Kingdom nationalized Whittle’s company, Power Jets, in 1944. Rolls-Royce and GE received Whittle’s work under the assumption they could accelerate the production of workable engines. Investors tripled their initial investment, but Whittle received nothing. A lifelong soldier there is no record that he complained.

Knighted in 1948, Whittlemoved to the US in 1977. He spent the remainder of his life in military academia, never from his jet engine.

Later in life Whittle met former Nazi jet engineer Hans von Ohain who proclaimed Whittle was years ahead of the Germans. But for a lack of funding the jet engine would have been finished significantly sooner.

“If Hitler or Goering had heard that there is a man in England who flies 500mph in a small experimental plane and that it is coming into development, it is likely World War II would not have come into being.”

Hans von hain


In 1914, Goddard patented the first rocket and, in 1926, Goddard fired the first liquid-fueled rocket. Goddard predicted rockets would one day enable space flight, a prediction widely ridiculed as science fiction.

Eventually, in 1929, Oberth fired his modern liquid-fueled rocket. Oberth eventually taught Wernher von Braun, who perfect modern rocketry. In time, both Oberth and von Braun built rockets for the Nazis and may have been Nazi Party members.

Rockets were first used as weapons. No sooner did they perfect the technology than nazi’s launched their V-2 rockets indiscriminately into the United Kingdom towards the end of WWII. Slave labor in Nazi concentration camps built the V-2 rockets. Consequently, after the Nazi surrender, the German rocket engineers – including von Braun – surrendered to the United States. The Soviet Union also captures significant Nazi rocketry technology.

Eventually, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first manmade orbital satellite. After several attempts with monkeys (and, some say, people), the Soviets followed up launching Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961.

In a rocketry program overseen by former Nazi von Braun, the US followed up by blasting American Alan Shepard into Space. von Braun went on to oversee the US space program, supervising the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

Traffic Signal

A manually-controlled gas-powered light-switch on London Bridge was the first traffic signal. It was never popular and, in 1869, exploded and hurt the policeman controlling the switch.

Subsequently, there were countless versions of semaphore lights to control traffic. None gained commercial acceptance.

Morgan, who invented the gas mask, also invented and patented the modern traffic signal. General Electric purchased his traffic signal patent for $40,000 in 1923.

As an African American, Morgan (“the Black Edison”), repeatedly struggled to gain acceptance in business circles.

Morgan lost all his money in 1929, due to the Great Depression. He sought government funds as a reward for a daring rescue in 1916, where he and his gas masks saved the lives of 32 people.

He had been written out of the account due to racism, despite that the town Mayor confirmed his ingenuity and heroinism.

Traffic Light History: Note No Mention of Morgan