Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, the "father" of oceanography

I'm going to engage in a little more history bashing here. Upon recounting the brave adventures of native peoples, scientists and explorers in previous sections, we now come to a man who is often called the "father" of oceanography.  How someone can be a "father" and have so many "children" before him is a mystery to me. I guess history likes to magnify the man, so to speak. Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury was an incredible oceanographer, of that there is little doubt. But it is clear that he was not the first oceanographer, nor, as Garrison proposes, the first to study the oceans full-time. He was but another in a succession of great men and women who studied and continue to study the ocean. Let's leave it at that and dispense with the inflated title.

Of his accomplishments, Maury's maps of ocean currents, sea surface temperature and surface winds are among his greatest. 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.

Matthew Fontaine Maury was born on January 14, 1806 near Fredericksburg, Virginia. In the eyes of those of us who grew up in the South, that makes him a rebel. Southerners are quite proud of their heritage and Americans are quite eager to claim any American achievement as "the first" so by virtue of his birth, Maury had a lot going for him from the get-go.

Maury had an older brother who chose a career in the U.S. Navy and it's likely that this served as his inspiration to go to sea. 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.

The world ocean under his belt, Maury married Ann Hull Herndon in 1834 and settled in Fredericksburg. In the ensuing years, he published the details of his expeditions, works on sea navigation and political essays on naval reform as well. But as fate would have it, his sea-going career was cut short when he was badly injured in a stage-coach accident at the age of 36 in 1842.

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. 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 Janiero. 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 goes unpublished in any of the accounts I've read so far. To my way of thinking, Maury 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.

Now, in most ocean textbooks, Maury's story ends here, with his crowning achievements in oceanography. But his importance as a world figure does not end here. You will recall that Maury was a rebel.

Here's the untold story from the web page Who's Who Among Confederate Heroes; The Biography of Matthew Fontaine Maury:

Maury had always been very interested in the commercial construction of the South. As tensions increased between the South and the North, his regional interests became solidified. On April 20,1861, three days after Virginia seceeded from the Union, Maury resigned from the United States Navy. Several days later, he accepted the position of commander in the Confederate States Navy. Because of his international fame, he was sent to England as an spokesperson for the Confederate government and the Southern cause. During the Civil War, Maury was successful in acquiring war vessels for the Confederacy and in the progress he made in harbor defense, experimenting with electrical mines.

Of course, his efforts came to naught as the Confederate Naval Ship CSS Shenandoah, surrendered to British authorities in Liverpool on November 4, 1865, almost seven months after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.

While an account of U.S. Civil War History isn't the purpose of this section, Maury's participation in the Confederate Navy gives me license to add this little known tale of the Shenandoah in his section. Check out this short blurb from MIT's FAQs on the Civil War web site:

4 Nov 1865, The raider CSS Shenandoah surrendered in Liverpool to British authorities. For several months after the surrender of ground forces, this last of the CSA's naval vessels had been burning USA shipping, with her captain, James I. Waddell, still thinking the war was in progress. Her last fight was against a whaling fleet in the Bering Sea on 28 Jun 1865. After this, the vessel was the object of a worldwide search. On August 2, Waddell had contact with a British ship, whose captain informed him that the CSA was no more. With this in mind, he put guns below decks and sailed to England, where the ship was surrendered to the British Admiralty. Upon the boarding of the vessel by British authorities, the last sovereign Confederate flag was furled. [contrib. by PDunn]

Of course, it wasn't until a year later that the politicians got around to officially declaring the war ended. On April 2, 1866, "President Johnson proclaimed the insurrection ended in all the former Confederate States except Texas" and finally on August 20 1866, "President Johnson proclaimed that Texas had complied with the conditions of his Reconstruction proclamation and declared the insurrection in Texas at an end (Mess. & Paper, V, p3632)."

I found that information interesting and ocean-relevant and I wanted to share it with you here. Back to Maury...

When things cooled down a bit stateside after the war, Maury returned from England in 1868 and took residence in Lexington, Virginia. There he was appointed a professor of meteorology (wait...I thought he was the father of oceanography...?) at the Virginia Military Institute. However, his health soon failed him and on February 1, 1873, he died. A monument and his body now reside at the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

This ends our tale of Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, one of America's greatest oceanographers.

The Matthew Fontaine Maury Papers; selected letters

MIT's FAQs on the Civil War web site

Who's Who Among Confederate Heroes; The Biography of Matthew Fontaine Maury

The Confederacy's Pacific Fleet