Building the World

Canal des Deux Mers, France

Canal du Midi, part of the Canal des Deux Mers, from the Daily Mail, at



France has a tradition of public/private works on a grand scale that may be traced to  April 5, 1693, when Louis XIV’s “alliance with the people to build the future of France” led to the founding of the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis, France’s first decoration granted to non-nobles. This decoration is the forerunner of the Légione d’honneur, as signified by their shared iconic red ribbon.


When Pierre-Paul Riquet was just a boy of twelve, his father took him along to a business meeting of the Council of the Counts of Languedoc. Expecting to be bored, the child instead became transfixed when he stared at a map of France. As the meeting droned on and his father discussed business, the boy stared, his eyes wide in a “wild surmise.” One look at the map and young Riquet saw a way to link the Atlantic and the Mediterranean:


Map of the entire canal system as it exists today, from Building the World.

It would be 46 years until Pierre-Paul Riquet could realize his vision. As he worked for four decades as Controller of the Salt Tax (a big job at that time), he continually used his spare time to plan for the day when he could build the canal. He sketched drawings, walked the route, puzzled on problems, researched technologies, and drew organizational charts and process flows.  At 58, he retired; having acquired both wealth and influence, he made an appointment.

Calling on Colbert, Louis XIV’s Minister of Commerce, Riquet proposed a plan. Not only would an inland waterway avoid the long and perilous voyage through the pirated Strait of Glbraltar in order to get from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic (and vice versa), a canal running through France would bring prosperity to all the realm, with many villages becoming major economic centers.

Colbert was intrigued but doubted that water could be made to flow uphill in the area of the route between Toulouse and the Mediterranean. Riquet was just waiting for that question. He had an answer ready; not for nothing had he spent 40 years in his study foreseeing every problem. He countered with a unique proposal, perhaps the first its kind in history.

One summer later, he closed the deal.


To prove the canal could work, Riquet proposed to construct a miniature canal along the entire route, complete with working locks. Called by the French a ruisseau d’essai (or what in English might be termed a working model or test model), this miniature version was – in its time — a unique idea. In the case of earlier canals (the oldest in history is Egyptian, and China began the Grand Canal in 600BC), there are instances of sections being built as demonstrations, but the Canal des Deux Mers may be the first to have a complete miniaturized working model used to test the engineering.

But Riquet’s creativity extended further. Instead of starting at both ends and meeting in the middle (think “Golden Spike” of the United States’ Transcontinental Railroad), Riquet stationed groups of workers every few kilometers along the route. Because of this brilliant organizational work design, time needed to complete the entire canal was essentially the same time required complete just a single section. Amazingly, in just one summer, Riquet built the whole miniature canal and proved to Colbert that water could indeed flow uphill.


Perhaps one has heard of NIMBY (“Not In MY Back Yard”) a phrase heard when neighborhoods do not want to be disturbed by construction and development. Such aversion is especially strong if the project is perceived to be hazardous, dangerous, toxic, or polluting.But Riquet went on the road to sell PIMBY – “PLEASE in MY Back Yard.”

When planning the canal, Riquet visited towns along the route, signing them up to be the place where a lock would be located. He reminded townsfolk of business that would soon come their way. If he didn’t get a contribution from the town, it was taken off the route and another village was selected.

Naturally, there would be commercial opportunities for towns along the route, especially just before and after locks. Villages from the interior of France might be able to ship their furniture or wine to anywhere in the world via the canal. Another economic boon would result from increased business for restaurants, bakeries, stores, and vintners. Inns would open up along the route, offering overnight accommodations to shipboard crew and passengers.

Modern harbor at Sete, by Alamy from Daily Mail, at

Riquet was not unaware of the commercial potential, reserving for himself the proceeds from the new harbor of Sete (originally spelled Cette) on the terminus at the Mediterranean. Sadly, Riquet died in 1680 while work was underway on this harbor. The next year, in 1681, the waterway, averaging over 10 meters (30 feet) wide and up to 2 meters deep (6 feet), was officially opened in the month of May, by Colbert himself, but was not fully completed until more than a decade later.

It was a great success. Even today, the Canal des Deux Mers contributes 26 million euro to the economy of France.

Old postcard, from

The Canal des Deux Mers is no longer a transitway for industrial commerce, but it did morph into its own industry – floating tourism. Since it became a World Heritage Site, designated by UNESCO (December 7, 1996), tourism has increased 20%. An Internet search for canal travel on the waterway resulted in over 10,000 entries for those who want to relax on a commodious barge sipping a French drink, savoring local cuisine, and enjoying a float through history.

Is it any wonder that lucky Pierre was rewarded for his work with the title Baron de Bonrepos? The title might translate to “Baron of Good Rest.” But one can note that the Proprietor enjoyed certain pursuits; the edict of October 1666 grants him exclusive hunting and fishing rights.


Considered one of the most significant engineering achievements in Europe between Roman times and the 19th century, the Canal could also be heralded (and emulated) for its successful financing structure.

1) Entrepreneurial Participation: The canal cost 17 million livres, 4 million of which came from Riquet.

2) PIMBY: Towns along the route paid to participate. Don’t forget – Riquet was a tax-collector by profession.

3) SEZ – Specialized Economic Zone: Was it Colbert or Louis XIV who came up with the idea to make the whole canal a specialized economic zone? The proclamation announcing the contract states that the new work will be administered as “an independent Fief” with its own financial arrangements including the right to construct houses, buildings, stores, and warehouses and mills.”

4) No New Taxes: Because Riquet came up with a significant financial sum (4 of 17), and also because of Riquet’s collections from the chosen towns along the planned route, Louis XIV was able to announce “funding without charging our subjects of the Province of Languedoc and of Buyenne with any new taxation which they would be obliged to contribute, because they will receive the first and most considerable advantages.”

5) Jobs: More than 10,000 people were hired to build the Canal. Even today, that’s a lot of workers and new job creation, but in 1670, it was even more amazing. There are 63 locks, with some sections of the waterway featuring 8; their distinctive oval shape has been praised from operational and aesthetic aspects.


The Canal des Deux Mers, like China’s Grand Canal, had the advantage of being an inland water route that could provide security. Until Riquet’s Canal, getting from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic meant sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar where rocks and pirates lurked.

But a strategic route from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic also had its vulnerability. In a notable statement that would dedicate the waterway to purposes of peace, Louis XIV stated: “We were persuaded that this would be a work of great peace,” and the proclamation invites participation by “all the nations of the world.”

Document of Authorization

Below is a translation from the Edict of 1666, dictating that the canal should be built and why:

Edict of October 1666:

Louis, by the grace of God, King of France and of Navarre, in the presence of all and to give salutations, states the proposition that we make a joining of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea…We were persuaded that this would be a great work of peace, most worthy of our application and our care, capable of perpetuating over the centuries in the memory of its Author, and well marking the grandeur, abundance and happiness of our reign. Indeed, We have known that the communication of the two seas would give to all nations of the world, as well as our own subjects, the capability to complete in a few days the assured navigation by means of a Canal to traverse the lands of our jurisdiction, and a few new ones, which we could not undertake until today.

We will create and will set up an independent Fief, with all the Justice – high, middle, low, and mixed – the said Canal of communication of the Seas, the channels, the stores and warehouses, the border banks to slack or loosen to a fixed measurement on each side, the tow-paths, the locks and dikes which are from the river Garonne, to the foundation that empties in to the Mediterranean, including this Canal of derivation.

And also the said Proprietor will have the right of hunting and fishing in this said Fief to the exclusion of all others.

– From M. De La Lande, Des Canaux De Navigation, et Specialement du Canal de Languedoc (Chez la Beue Desaint), in Building the World, pages 126-128.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Access and Security: The strategic issue of who controls access to a transit-way between two critical shipping points remains relevant to this day. When there was threat of closing the Madiq Hurmuz as it known in Arabic or in English, Strait of Hormuz, connecting the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf (MAP), world oil markets reacted. What does this interdependency suggest for our world’s future?

An Independent Fief: Was 1666 the date of the first Specialized Economic Zone (SEZ)? Making the entire route of the Canal into an independent fief was an innovation that may suggest how to finance infrastructure in the future. How might the modern equivalent of “an independent Fief” be organized?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following: 

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(* indicates printed in notebook series)

Andreossey, Comte Antoine-Francois. Histoire de Canal de Midi ou Canal de Languedoc considere sous les rapports de’invention, d’art, d’administration, d’irrigation et dans ses relations avec les etangs de l’interieur des terres qui l’avoisinnet. Paris: Impre. De Crapelet, 1804.

Davidson, Frank P. MACRO: A Clear Vision of How Science and Technology Will Shape Our Future. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1983, p. 75.

Davidson, Frank P. and Pierre Gerard, Archives, Toulouse, France: correspondence of 1992 requesting the edict of construction of the Canal du Midi.

Davidson, Frank P. and Gerard Ermisse, Director General of the Archives of France, June 1991.  Original correspondence along with related correspondence between Gerard Ermisse and Madama Elisabeth Ricard-Rossignol, April 1990.

De La Lande, M. Des Canaux De Navigation, et Specialement du Canal de Languedoc (Chez la Veue Desaint)

De Roquette-Buisson, Odile, and Christian Sarramon. The Canal du Midi. Thames & Hudson, 1983. Excellent photographs.

Gerard, P. Le Voyage de Thomas Jefferson sur le Canal du Midi. Alibris,  1995. ISBN: 2862662208.

Petroski, Henry. Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering. New York: Knopf, 2004.


* For general description of the canal, see:

For information on a book by Andrew Smythe on the Canal, see:

For engineering and technical aspects of building process with illustrations of the tunnels and locks, see:

For leadership of Pierre-Paul Riquet, see:

For a VIDEO on the canal, see:

*For ASCE exhibit:
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) did an exhibit in 2002 named “Centuries of Civil Engineering” featuring canals, water supplies, monuments, bridges, lighthouses, and viaducts. One may view sections of the exhibit online and download a brochure on the exhibit, via the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri (Linda Hall Library, 5109 Cherry Street, Kansas City, MO 64110-2498. Tel: 816-363-4600). More information can be obtained at or visit and search 2002 for “Centuries of Engineering.”

* For UNESCO designation, see:

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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