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Mr. Merrill is a retired engineer from the New London Division of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. John is a frequent contributor of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.


In a millennial hall of maritime fame, we could probably find a great candidate for each century. The particular defining contribution may not be as earthshaking as the impact on maritime navigation of our contemporary high technology Global Positioning Satellite (GPS). But in his own time and place, the contribution by the candidate could have been as significant. For example, the creativity, patience and genius of 18th century John Harrison with his chronometer and Salem’s own Nathaniel Bowditch quickly and easily come to mind. Matthew Fountain Maury, a candidate for the 19th century, sometimes seems to be lost from the pantheon of maritime fame.

In retrospect, Maury was always interested in large problems and questions frequently of worldwide interest. It is his development and introduction of reliable and useful charts of the seas beginning in 184 7 that take highest place. One hundred and fifty years ago, Maury understood the need for and the value of charts of the sea made from complete and up to date oceanographic findings.

Maury succeeded in spite of the attitudes of some of his peers, superiors, and others regarding his interest in scientific matters and methods that were considered unusual for a naval officer at that time. He spent nearly twenty years in Washington, where, even with his consistent integrity and desire to achieve in ways to help others, the always rampant political scuffling hounded him and later followed him south to the Confederacy in 1861 with a cost. Optimizing the use of limited resources with a tendency toward the practical are other Maury trademarks. Further characteristics include his creative ability in a variety of scientific areas, which continued productively throughout his entire life. The extensive Maury holdings at the National Archives attest to his legacy.


If Lieutenant Matthew Fountain Maury USN, the sitting superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments, found time in his busy mostly fifteen-hour days, he could look back with perhaps more than modest pride on his thirty years of Navy service and his family life. The next decades would demand as much from Maury as the preceding ones.

His work at the Depot starting in 1842 and national and international acknowledgment of his achievements as superintendent by the 1850s were a matter of record. In his position, he came to know nine Presidents. The fact that he was 19 years in the grade of Lieutenant while promotion remained elusive probably caused some consternation. International honors he had, but at the moment, the continuing bickering with Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian Institute and Alexander Bache at the Coast Survey must have been annoying to him. The underlying source of the friction seems to have arisen from Maury’s great practical successes on a grand scale and his perception by the general public and others as a man of science. His self-education and lack of academic credentials seems to have made a difference to some in the Washington scene.

Looking Back

In 1855 and 49 years old, Maury’s life divided into several stages, connected but distinct. First there was his early life with his family on a rural cotton farm in a remote part of Tennessee until he was 19. Next, the initial phase of his Navy career as a midshipman and passed midshipman included almost nine years of consecutive sea duty on three cruises mostly in the South Pacific. By the end of his second cruise from September 1826-June 1830, Maury was on the sloop-of-war VINCENNES when it made the first circumnavigation of the globe by an American warship, the second to go to China. By June 1831, Maury was making his second trip around Cape Horn, this time as acting sailing master on the sloop-of-war FALMOUTH bound for squadron duty off the West Coast of South America.

His duties on FALMOUTH included directing the officer of the watch on the vessel’s course and how much sail to carry. He would also be the captain’s navigator. In preparation, Maury looked for information on the winds and currents to be expected in rounding the Horn. His searches in New York and elsewhere were unsuccessful. He consulted libraries, merchant ships, and ship chandlers but failed. Lack of accurate information on winds and currents shaped his planning for the forthcoming voyage and did not go unnoticed.

During the following three years off the West Coast of South America, he served as first lieutenant on several Navy ships in the squadron and returned on the frigate BOSTON. Upon returning, probably highlighted in his memory was his marriage in 1834 to his Virginia cousin Ann Herndon from nearby Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the following year the birth of the first of his eight children.

At that time, the Navy had a very limited number of vessels with one ship of the line, three frigates, and some small ships. The number of officers’ billets was small. This could mean years on the beach at half pay for officers waiting a ship assignment. Maury was ashore for the next several years, with the exception of a short tour aboard a Navy ship doing hydrographic work along the East Coast of the United States.

In 1839, while visiting his parents in Tennessee whom he had not seen in nine years, he received orders for sea duty aboard the brig CON SORT, then at the New York Navy Yard. In October, returning north for duty by mail stagecoach, the coach overturned. Maury’s right leg was severely damaged by a thighbone fracture badly set, and for the rest of his life he walked with a limp. Slowly recovering in Ohio, he missed his ship in New York but by January1840 was at his home in Fredericksburg. From then on, his fitness for sea duty would always be in contention and occasionally questioned. Convalescence was slow, and during these years his writing skills emerged further.

Two years after recovering from the accident, 1841 brought hope for a possible return to sea duty in the Pacific Squadron aboard the frigate UNITED STATES. Then, as a result of efforts by his friends, relatives and several of Fredericksburg’s medical doctors, a letter was sent, unknown to Maury, to the Secretary of the Navy advising him that, Maury, because of his leg injury was in no physical condition for sea duty aboard a man-of-war. In November, surprised and possibly embarrassed by the letter, he asked the Secretary to be relieved from orders to sea. His request was approved.

Superintendent of the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments

After three years of inactive duty, Maury reported July 4, 1842 as superintendent of the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments in Washington. Established in 1830, the Depot was the first scientific institution in the Navy. It was the center for all Navy nautical and astronomical research.

What did he bring to his Depot assignment? His nine years at sea in all the oceans certainly provided a good credential. Between 1838 and 1841 while ashore, he wrote widely on civilian and Navy matters and built up a favorable public readership. Prominent among his topics were the need for a Naval Academy, the use of steam-ships, and recommendations for the Navy to establish Bureaus in lieu of a Board of Commissioners. His pen names included Will Watch, Union Jack, Ben Bow and Harry Bluff. The public interest created by the articles made it necessary to reveal Maury as Harry Bluff in July 1841. For his views, comments, and recommendations, Maury was not only popular, but highly regarded and very well known. His popularity led to his being considered forthe position of Secretary of the Navy. Maury was not interested.

His publications on navigation and oceanography prior to his superintendence included On the Navigation of Cape Hom and Plan of an Instrument for Finding the True Lunar Distance, published in July 1834. These were followed in 1836 by a navigation book, A New Theoretical and Practical Treatise on Navigation. The motivation for writing the book stemmed from his desire to provide a text appropriate for the novice navigator and midshipmen, not the veteran mariner. He felt the existing texts were aimed at those whose sea experience was extensive.

This was the first scientific book written and published by an American naval officer. In the Southern Literary Messenger, a Richmond, Virginia publication frequently dealing with Anny and Navy topics, the assistant editor and critical reviewer Edgar Allan Poe lauded the book.

The book was a success. Professors, naval officers, and Nathaniel Bowditch commended it. It took the place of Bowditch’s Practical Navigator as a textbook for junior Navy officers and in 183 7 was placed on every ship in the Navy. Later in 1845, when the U. S. Naval Academy was established, it became one of the standard texts used. From the textbook and his other writings for Navy reform, Maury was well known when he arrived at the Depot. He brought his seamanship, experience, his published book and papers, and a totally inquiring nature. A few months after the initial introduction of the navigation book in 1836, Maury, the Passed Midshipman and author, became a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.

Almost immediately after assuming the superintendent’s work, Maury became involved in developing improved charts of the sea. However, there were additional assignments. The Depot’s work included building the new Navy astronomical observatory, equip-ping, staffing and placing it in operation. Between 1845 and 1855, under Maury’s leadership the Observatory catalogued 100,000 stars and became known as one of the nation’s important scientific institutes.

Maritime Scene Mid-19th Century

With sails still the predominant propulsion mode, wind and current charts were significant. By the middle of the century, merchant shipping and the number of ships around the world continued to grow. In competition with the sailing vessel, the steamship was a strong and growing presence in the 1840s and 50s but not in the large numbers that would prevail by the end of the Century. An examination of the front page of the New York Shipping and Commerce List reporting ship arrivals and clearings for January 22, 1851 shows the numbers of steamers and steamships to be very small compared to hundreds of barques, brigs, and schooners listed for that day.

Sails for propulsion, especially on the longer voyages, ruled for another quarter century. The Navy itself only gradually warmed to the notion of using steam for warships, and by then it was past mid-century. A coal burning Navy vessel was difficult to accept by some. With sails dominating, the winds and currents still were among the main challenges to ship masters.

Increased shipping came in part from the discovery and exploitation of gold in California. The sea paths from the East Coast to California around Cape Hom or to the Isthmus of Panama with a trek to the Pacific Ocean side and up to San Francisco by sail were long. From England merchant ships sailing to Australia and return took significant amounts of sailing time with the limited information and understanding about seaways available before Maury’s wind and current charts. Further, steamers at that time frequently were equipped with sails either in an auxiliary or predominant propulsion role and winds and currents still counted. The I 50 clipper ships at their peak validated Maury’s wind and current charts.

Wind and Current Charts

Assuming office at the Depot, Maury remembered his experience in 1831 when as a sailing master preparing for his second trip around the Hom at the tip of South America he was unable to locate adequate wind and current charts. Not long after arriving at the Depot, Maury took action to increase understanding and knowledge of wind and currents, which he knew was lacking.

“Less than two months after he took up his post he had to admit that the files of the office could furnish no hydro graphical information as to certain portions of the Gulf of Mexico. Charts of naval vessels were found to be over one hundred years old and quite useless. In 1845 he wrote to the Secretary that the office did not know whether there was a frigate harbor on the east side of Florida, a remarkable circumstance since we have owned Florida for more than a quarter of century and since we purchased it chiefly for national defense.

Maury started his research for developing better charts by making use of what was available. The Depot was the archive for Navy ship logs and official Navy records, not in the sense of an organized collection but as a place for storage. Initially, old ship logs were examined to determine the nature of winds and currents on the Atlantic. Because many of the available logs covered the north-south path to and from Rio de Janeiro, these were the first analyzed. This effort required scrutinizing thousands of pages to find data on wind, rain, current, fog, and other navigational information in the logs. From these efforts, charts were made showing the best sailing paths for the seasons of the year.

As Maury worked with old logs, their inadequacies were realized. He came up with the idea for a new type of abstract log sheets for mariners to use to provide data that would lead to making useful wind and current information for future navigators.

He requested and received approval from Commodore William M. Crane, head of the newly established Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, to implement the log sheets and have the data sent to the Depot. In the fall of 1842, a Bureau circular to captains and masters of merchant vessels requested that they send navigational, meteorological and hydrographic data observed by the ships to the Depot. Maury needed information on currents, depths, salinity, temperatures of the oceans, and of wind patterns from direct observation to develop his charts.

Navy captains were slow to respond to the request to fill in and forward the blank charts provided. However, the response overall provided enough data so that the following March Maury published Directions for approaching the West Coast of Sumatra based on the newly collected information.

By 1851, 1000 sets of abstract logs were sent to Washington. The number grew and by the latter part of the century, in 1887, 26 million filled-in charts had been provided from all sources.

The first wind and current charts for ships in the open seas were published in 184 7. During the first year of publication, 5000 copies of the charts were made available. Charts saved time and dollars in long sea voyages. The trip from New York to Rio de Janeiro was reduced from 55 to between 35 and 40 days.

Sailing tracks for the North Atlantic came out in 184 7. As charts covering the South Atlantic and the Pacific became available in 1849, sailing times steadily lowered. An 1850s estimate indicated $1 S million savings per year from the use of charts. The round trip from Great Britain to Australia and New Zealand dropped from 240 to 160 days. In 1852, the passage from New York to San Francisco decreased to 92 days from 118. With as many as 145 clipper ships using charts and saving time and money on their extended voyages, Maury’s celebrity status grew. Savings in Indian Ocean crossings were estimated at $1 million. Overall, British commerce saved $10 million per year and United States more than $2 million per year.

In a celebrated New York-to-California race in the fall of 1852 between four clipper ships, Maury’s Wind and Current Charts played a significant role for all the contestants. Maury criticized Captain Nickels of Flying Fish, the winner. “So forgetting that the charts are founded on the experience of great numbers who had gone before him, Nickels, being tempted turned a deaf ear to the caution, and flung away three whole days and more of most precious time, dallying in the doldrums.

After this, captains used the charts and sailing directions and filled in the Abstract Logs and sent them to the Observatory. “By the end of 1851, Maury could report a thousand American ships on the high seas were faithfully recording this information and at the end of each voyage sending it in to him.

In the decade before the Civil War, Maury became one of the most famous men in the world. These years were marked by success after success always in some practical scientific area. However, adversity did strike at mid-decade.

International Science

In part due to his instigation and in conjunction with British scientists, Maury helped to foster the first International Conference on Meteorology held at Brussels August 23, 1853. The goal of the conference was to create an environment of cooperation between the attending nations leading to a universal system for observations at sea. Initially Maury would have preferred the conference to cover both land and sea. Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia,Sweden and the United States accepted invitations. The meetings continued until 8 September and concluded with the acceptance of an international standard for abstract logs, one for men-of-war and one for merchant shipping, and the establishment of the International Hydrographic Bureau.

Maury attended as the United States representative and was well received. Through these meetings he came to know and develop close relationships with important international European scientists. In particular, he came to know Baron Von Humboldt, a major figure in physical geography.


Transatlantic Telegraph Cable

Charged with the laying of a transatlantic telegraph cable, Cyrus W. Field began discussions with Maury in 1853 regarding best placement of the cable. Maury’s knowledge of the ocean bottom and depth derived from several years of measurements made earlier at the behest of Maury and with help from Congress. In 1854, Maury published the first bathymetric chart of the Atlantic Ocean from 10° S to 50° N and provided guidance to Field. The depths identified were to 24,000 feet. Later, when the project was successfully completed, Field is reported as saying, “Maury furnished the brain … England gave the money .. .I did the work. This brought more praise and fame to Maury.

North Atlantic Steamer Lanes

In the 1850s, as steamer traffic across the Atlantic increased, ship collisions and loss of life caused great concern. A particular tragedy on September 20, 1854 on the Grand Banks 50 miles east of Cape Race, Newfoundland called the public’s attention to collisions at sea on the paths between United States and Europe. The French ship VEST A, with watertight compartments and iron construction, struck ARCTIC, a side-wheeler passenger liner en route from Liverpool to New York.4 ARCTIC sank in four hours; 350 people died; and the 87 survivors were all men. The sinking was a highly publicized event and brought about attention to the increased density of steamers in transit at one time on the high seas.

Maury was asked concerning the practicability of laying down separate lanes for ships plying between Europe and America. He conceived a plan for two lanes, one to go and one to return on appropriate great circle paths with room to maneuver. The plan,“Chart showing two steamer lanes each twenty miles wide, North Atlantic, was published in 1855. The U.S. Navy encouraged the use of the plan. Some steamship lines put it to use, but it was near the end of the century before it was fully subscribed. Like a great deal of Maury’s work, the end results provided practical solutions to difficult problems.

During the next seven years, his recognition at home and abroad saw him made a member of 45 learned societies, 20 of which were in foreign countries. Denmark, France, Portugal, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Holland, and Austria found it appropriate to recognize and reward Maury. Jn 1860, the Pope, whose papal fleet was involved in the data collection and benefited from Maury’s wind and current charts, sent him a set of thirteen medals in appreciation.

Physical Geography of the Sea

The sweep of Maury’s interests is probably best reflected in his book Physical Geography of the Sea. As a personal enterprise, he wrote at home after working hours, completing and publishing it in a little more than a year. The book had five printings in the first year, 1855. This first modern oceanographic textbook remained continuously in print for 25 years in the United States and England and was printed in six continental languages. Like most things having the Maury stamp, the book was large, almost 500 pages. With the book the science of oceanography was opened. There were many early critics, but a 1930 comment called the theoretical treatment remarkable considering the time when Maury wrote it.

This friendly comment aside, some of Maury’s contemporaries and other scientists later in the century were not always in agreement with some of his explanations and hypothetical generalizations of the sea. That he contributed to science and navigation is not challenged.

It was Maury’s interpretations and speculations in the Geography that were brought to task during his lifetime and after his passing. In 1963, the same year that Williams’s book appeared, John Leighty of the University of California at Berkeley edited the Geography.’ In a 30 page Introduction, Leighty documents many of the challenges and strongly attests to Maury’s flaws in his scientific thinking. Leighly does not entirely excoriate Maury. He does allow that the book did exert some limited scientific influence. Frances Leigh Williams in her 1963 precise biography observes “But Maury was a pioneer investigator of the phenomenon of the seas; and although research in later years proves some of his concepts wrong, he was a bold workman who believed beginnings had to be made.

The introduction to the first edition in 1855 clarifies his rationale for wind and current data and how the new book came to be. He wrote “The primary object of the Wind and Current Charts out of which has grown this Treatise on the Physical Geography of the Sea was to collect the experience of every navigator as to the winds and currents of the ocean, to discuss his observations upon them, and to present the world with the results on charts for the improvement of commerce and navigation.


In 1855, when Maury was a highly recognized international scientific figure, Congress passed the Navy reform bill, which Maury favored. His published writings under several pseudonyms encouraged reform and changes in the Navy. His recommendations included the Navy’s adaptation of the Bureau system for managing the Navy and establishment of a Naval Academy, both of which came to pass.

Another of the reform measures passed by Congress created a selection board of Navy officers to review the careers and suitability of Navy officers for sea duty. The board was sometimes referred to as the plucking board. The convening board of Navy officers held secret deliberations and kept no records. It was their recommendation that Maury be placed on inactive duty. Unaware of this action Maury, with thirty years of service, was advised of this in September 1855. It took more than two and a half years of vigorous contesting involving Congress, a court of inquiry, and others for this action to be rectified. In January 1858, Maury was reinstated by President Buchanan and promoted to Commander.

During the Congressional hearings related to Maury’s return, Senators Stephen R. Mallory of Florida and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi strongly opposed returning Maury to active duty. It is ironical that a few years later in April 1861, when Maury elected to return to Virginia and join the Confederate Navy, he would encounter Davis as the President of the Confederacy and Mallory as the Secretary of the Confederate Navy. Most of Maury’s service to the Confederate Navy seems to have been impacted by their attitude toward him.

In April 1861, a little more than three years after his reinstatement, Maury began his career in the Confederate Navy as a scientist. During his first year with the Confederacy, he investigated and successfully demonstrated electrically detonated mines both underwater and on land. Partially due to Maury’s innovative work, more of the 58 Federal ships sunk during the Civil War were lost due to mines than from all other causes combined. The uneasy relationship with Mallory and Davis probably brought him the role of Confederate Envoy in England for the last three years of the Civil War .

Without amnesty to return home from England, Maury served briefly in Mexico as an advisor on scientific and colonization activities for Emperor Maximilian. While in Mexico, he was instrumental in the successful introduction of cinchona plantations as a source for quinine. Back in England, and with President Johnson granting amnesty, Maury was able to return to U.S. during September 1867. Several offers to lead academic institutions in the south were proffered. He chose the Virginia Military Institute and, on September 10, 1868, and was appointed professor of physics. His productivity never faltered as he entered the last five years of his life. The state of Virginia honored Maury by placing his tomb between Presidents Monroe and Tyler.

Captain Miles P. DuVal, Jr., in his book Matthew Fontaine Maury: Benefactor of Mankind summarizes a great deal of Maury’s goal: “the military role of Navy is to control the seas, to accomplish this goal the Navy must know all about them.


LCDR Richard Coupe, USN(Ret)
LT J. Harvey Gleberman, USN(Ret)
CDR Stanley Hecker, USN(Ret)
CAPT James T. High, USN(Ret)
ADM Thomas Moorer, USN(Ret)
CAPT Norman Shriver, USN(Ret)
CAPT Albert H. Thomas, Jr., USN(Ret)
CAPT Leif Tollefson, USN(Ret)

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