Order of Multitudes

Building Blocks of Information: Concrete Slabs and the Construction of Knowledge in the Panama Canal Zone

Henry Jacob is a Henry Fellow at the University of Cambridge pursuing an M.Phil. in World History. Before that, he graduated from Yale with Distinction in his major, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors; he also received the Alpheus Henry Snow Prize. His research analyzes Panama’s role as a cynosure of imperial designs and desires across centuries and empires.

In 1904, Aurin Bugbee Nichols became one of the first employees to join the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), the governmental body tasked with building the Panama Canal. Trained as a civil engineer and guided by his eye for detail, Nichols earned several promotions in quick succession and ascended to the position of Office Engineer in 1906, a job he held until his retirement in 1914. While in Panama, Nichols managed a staff that kept all official records for the project and prepared maps, charts, blueprints, diagrams, and statistics. In this multifaceted job, Nichols ensured that the ICC reachedits construction targets, while tracking its progress. From surveying on site to gathering data at his desk, Nichols organized information to keep the ICC running smoothly. Despite creating a monumental chronicle of Zonian life at the turn of the 20th century, the engineer’s work disappeared almost completely from historical consciousness after his death in 1929.

            Though few remember him, Nichols’s copious papers were well-maintained. Since a 1995 transfer from the Engineering Society Library in New York, librarians at Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri, became the custodians of the engineer’s considerable archives. Through a substantial digitization effort, they preserved the Aurin Bugbee Nichols Panama Canal Collection with its thousands of manuscript pages and photographs. However, Nichols’s perspective—one of the most extensive available of life on the Canal Zone during the construction era (1904-1914)—remainedlargely unknown to scholarly and public audiences.

            Nichols’s techniques for recording information, however, deserve more attention. He formulated a unique approach rooted in completeness and exactitude. Interestingly, the engineer connected his diaries through a series of cross-references, often linking multiple binders based on a shared theme. To elucidate this organizational style, I will examine Nichols’s multiple references to a single seemingly banal artifact: concrete blocks left behind by the French company that attempted to build a canal in the 1880s. The index and peripheral commentary on images of these blocks in Volume 48a of his papers exhibit how the engineer’s encyclopedic impulses led him to an intricate ordering of knowledge and objects, files, and rocks alike.  

Neat lines of information on page and in Nichols’s mind. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.

            The cover of Volume 48a (Figure 1) lists a series of photographs with commentary held within the binder, offering insights into this cross-referencing system. Written on a brittle sheet glued onto the folio itself, the table illuminates the arrangement of these files; Nichols outlined precisely how each entry corresponded to his wider collection. Reading from left to right, he split the page into three interrelated categories: “Subject,” “Refers to,” and “Page this volume.” On the whole, this methodology is internally coherent and fastidiously presented: the words and numbers are underscored by the exact lines drawn by pencil and ruler on the paper.

            Nichols did not classify his “Subject” section according to alphabetical, chronological, or thematic principles, but instead inserted items according to their spot within this compendium of journals. For example, “Concrete Blocks – Cristóbal” appears first, but other topics such as “Approach Wall — Pedro Miguel,” “Dredge ‘Corozal,’” and “Gatun Dam” follow in quick succession. Thus, his log performs as a kind of atlas of the construction process. Each labelled picture serves as a companion to another, as the “Refers to” column falls alongside “Page in this volume,” 2-3 in this case. Thus, “Refers to,” unites the listed “Subject” with a similar subject in another folder. In one instance, the citation “Concrete Blocks – Cristóbal” matches a depiction of the bricks in an earlier notebook. These ties across diaries indicate that the ICC depended upon a meticulous manner of filing to facilitate its production processes. The record-keeping practice demonstrates how both the building of the Canal and the archives can only be understood through their composite wholes and smaller components.

A close-up of the time-worn but sturdy bricks. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.

As indicated on the cover of the binder 48a, an annotated 1909 photograph appears on page 2 (Figure 2); the slabs’ pitted surface and uneven coloration is shown up close. Detailed notes about the 23-year-old concrete blocks complement the picture. The tidily written text recounts that the abandoned French creations had stayed on this beach since 1886. The engineer displayed even greater precision when calculating the volume of each block to three decimal places, a round 1.000 meters cubed. The document also describes the state of the concrete bricks, noting their exposure to, but not full submersion in, the ocean. Moreover, as on the cover of Volume 48a, this image couples with related sets of pictures and notes, some in the same, and others in a different, album. Whether it be a promise for more discussion of “blocks which have been fully immersed” or simply a directive to “see” a pertinent file, Nichols wrote with the same impartial third-person voice, lending an objective, analytical tone to his account. Indeed, this entry reflects how these blocks doubled as potential construction tools and historical artifacts.

From beach to pier, Nichols ensures the conversion of blocks into structure. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.

            In Nichols’s archive, the assemblage of information about the blocks intertwined with the manufacturing of the Panama Canal; taken on September 30, 1911, the photo in Figure 3 reveals the usage of the blocks in the two and a half years since the picture in Figure 2. No longer lying on the beach, these objects were relocated and piled together to bolster a new pier. Another note, added on June 25, 1912, testifies to their “excellent condition.” This supplementary message reads like a brief progress report, suggesting that the snapshots, notes, and cross-referencing strategy had a concrete impact on construction processes. The movement of these materials on the site would not have been feasible without the depersonalized agency of paperwork: these blocks helped construct the Canal, while pictures of them recorded part of its history. In this sense, the archive literally and figuratively built upon previous knowledge of Panama.

            This special collection provokes further thoughts relevant to the Sawyer Seminar and today’s technological age. Specifically, these tables of contents reflect a contemporary form of cross-referencing: hyperlinks. Just as this web of information spanned subjects and notebooks, so can researchers today seamlessly proceed from one related webpage to another. Indeed, encountering this pre-Internet form of hyperlinking made me reassess my relationship to the archive. Nichols’s organization of vast amounts of information, as well as his penchant for photographing construction artifacts, prioritizes the connections between pieces of information, foreshadowing the Internet’s connective abilities.      

            Despite possible analogies to the digital, Nichols wrote his journals and developed his film on paper and by hand, rendering these items fragile to exposure and contained in scope. Although Nichols died long before the invention of the modern computer, it is fitting that his small grid of information joined a larger network through the Linda Hall Library’s digitization initiative, a network that will allow his record to be preserved. Certainly, Nichols would have remained unstudied had librarians not scanned his work. Now, these minutiae can exist as part of an even larger archive. And, in a sense, his papers—in relation to the Internet—are like a single block in the mammoth structure that became the Panama Canal, the passageway that cracked open the world.