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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sunday Ship History: "The Pathfinder of the Sea"

Near Lexington, Virgina, a road runs through a gorge carved by a river. The river is now called the Maury River. The gorge, known as the Goshen Pass, is a link to millions of years of geological history. But the road also passes a little noticed link to the history of man on the sea.

At a pull-out on that road there is a monument to a one-time Lexington resident for whom the river is now named: Matthew Fontaine Maury, "The Pathfinder of the Seas."


Maury was an oceanographer. As is noted, here, Maury perhaps was not the first oceanographer, but he was the first to think bigger than those who preceded him. When an injury ended his sailing career, he made the most of the assignments he could get:
Maury's maps of ocean currents, sea surface temperature and surface winds are among his greatest accomplishments. Maury devoted nearly all this time to assembling information on the physical properties of the ocean across the globe. His charts proved invaluable for reducing transoceanic shipping times and revealed for the first time the worldwide patterns of oceanic currents and winds.
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Maury joined the Navy in 1824 and between 1825 and 1834, he sailed on three expeditions, visiting the South Pacific and Europe as well as traveling around the world. It was likely during these voyages that he realized the importance of understanding global patterns of winds and ocean currents for commerce as well as warfare.
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As with many twists of fate, Maury's put him in the right place at the right time. In 1842, he was appointed as Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments for the Navy Department in Washington. It was here that Maury began to study the huge assemblage of ship's reports in the Depot's archives. From this information, be began to put together a global database on currents, winds and weather patterns across the globe. He began to publish his own charts which quickly gained a following. In such demand were his ocean maps that he could "hold them for ransom," not distributing them until the ship's captains provided the most recent logs of their journeys.

Maury's charts soon became internationally famous. In the fall of 1853, he was appointed as the U.S. Representative to the International Congress in Brussels. He urged the recording of oceanographic data aboard naval and merchant marine vessels and soon his system of recording currents and winds was adopted world-wide.

In 1855, Maury published what is considered to be his greatest contribution to oceanography, a book called The Physical Geography of the Seas (which you can view here). The book contained detailed information on the Gulf Stream; bathymetric maps with contours at depths exceeding 4.5 miles deep; and a wealth of information on currents and meteorology. Some call Maury's book "the first textbook of modern physical oceanography."

As a result of Maury's work, sailing times between the British Isles and California were reduced by thirty days. His charts took twenty days off trips to Australia and ten days off trips to Rio de Janeiro. Of more lasting impact, Maury's work forged the bonds between ocean science and national and commercial interests. In this respect, he did set the stage for modern oceanography.

But Maury's greatest contribution was that he was among the first to recognize the importance of a global way of thinking. His zeal for oceanographic data from all parts of the world ocean and his ability to synthesize massive data sets into coherent atlases of ocean properties distinguish his work from others. Clearly, Maury was a big thinker, one who could see the big picture and appreciate its relevance to understanding ocean processes.
See also here.

There is more to the story, something that kept Maury from greater national fame. At the start of the American Civil War, Maury, like many Virginians, chose to side with the Confederacy instead of the Union. Accepting a commission as a Commander, he was the source of one of the greatest dangers confronting the Union fleet, because he developed the "electric torpedo":
In Richmond, Maury set to work upon the development of underwater torpedoes. Others before him had experimented with such electrically charged devices, but Maury was the first American to use them successfully in battle. Their effectiveness was attested to by Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles, who reported to Congress after the war that the federal navy “had lost more vessels from Confederate torpedoes than from all other causes combined.”(photo from here)
His choice of Confederate side in the Civil War made him unemployable by any federal agency, so he bounced around a little before landing a position as a professor of physics at the Virginia Military Institute. His anti-Union choice, however, has not prevented modern federal agencies which owe a debt to his work from paying homage, such as was done by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)here:
Maury wrote The Physical Geography of the Sea to celebrate this new, collective interest in studying the oceans. This work introduced the new science of oceanography to a 19th century audience awed and fascinated by the mystery and majesty of the world's oceans. He covered subjects ranging from the Gulf Stream, the great ocean currents, whales and whalers, the Northwest Passage, coral reefs, sea salts, ocean climates, hurricanes, deep-sea sounding, and the Atlantic basin.
Although it also notes:
While many of Maury's theories advanced in this volume have since been disproved, The Physical Geography of the Sea remains one of the seminal treatises on oceanography. Nine editions of this work have been published, the latest in 1963.
Today, in addition to the memorial in Goshen Pass, a memorial also stands in Richmond, Virgina to this pioneer. An oceanographic research vessel operated by the United States Navy once bore his name (though it was transfered to the California Maritime Academy and renamed Golden Bear).

Today, the Goshen Pass and the Maury River are part of a Virginia state recreational area.

But there is that memorial to Maury. And on it are these words:
The Pathfinder of the Seas," it calls him. "The genius who first snatched from ocean and atmosphere the secret of their laws."
Which may matter little to the canoeists and tubers who float down the lovely Maury River. But it matters a great deal to those who put their lives at risk on the oceans of the world.

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