BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

The "Pathfinder of the Seas" ...

There was a time when I “stocked up” at the Newberry Library Book Fair, however in recent years (when I've been broke – and since I discovered the dollar stores as a source of books) not so much. I typically go on the last day (Sunday) when everything's half-priced, and see what I can find. This year I ended up with just a couple of books (and a few CDs), one of which was Chester G. Hearn's Tracks in the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans, which was not only “like new” (frankly, it looked like it had never been opened), but only setting me back $2.50. I'm somewhat surprised that it managed to get right into my reading rotation, as the subject isn't necessarily one that's in my main thematic groups … but perhaps that's why it appealed – as a change of pace.

I had actually anticipated this being a science book, looking at the technologies enabling the “Mapping of the Oceans” in the middle of the 19th Century. However, while there is a not insignificant amount of material on that, this is much more a biography of Matthew Fontaine Maury, whose vision of amassing, condensing, and processing data about sea conditions enabled a huge leap in the development of reliable nautical charts.

This is also one of those cases where I've not put any little bookmarks in while reading, so I didn't have any particular “ah-hah” moments with key points that I could string together for a review … and the book is so full of details of ships, journeys, captains, countries, companies, and conspiracies (as well as minutia about Maury's life), that it's likewise going to be hard to summarize. So, I'm leaning towards doing some “cherry picking” of bits that (although not marked during the reading) will give you a sense of the book. The following seems a good place to start:
Navigators shared their knowledge of winds and currents with other seafarers, passing down through generations a combination of wisdom and rumor. But it remained for Matthew Fontaine Maury, a self-educated lieutenant of the nineteenth-century U.S. Navy, to apply any sort of scientific discipline to the collection and analysis of meteorologic and oceanographic data. His research led to publication of wind and current tables for the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans and later, in 1855, to the first textbook of oceanography, his Physical Geography of the Sea.
The development of accurate navigation technology was long in coming. East-west traffic was reasonably predictable, with a compass for direction and angles figured to celestial objects providing a rough estimate of north-south position. However:
An accurate timepiece for calculating longitudes took six thousand years to develop; even after John Harrison's chronometer was recognized by an act of the British Parliament in 1773, it took another fifty years for the maritime world to adopt the chronometer for common use.
While, contrary to common myth, navigators in Columbus' era (and long before) were aware that the earth was round, it took a combination of those accurate timepieces and some rather esoteric “spherical trigonometry” to create accurate charts and the ability to plot reasonably precise pathways from point A to point B. While there are historical examples of some fairly sophisticated mapping (such as exhibited in the famed Piri Reis map), it wasn't until the late 18th Century that sea voyages weren't very much a matter of dead reckoning and luck (Hearn illustrates this with the story of the Peggy, whose 1765 “40 day voyage” ended up running over three times as long – with the crew descending into cannibalism – yet, when finally rescued the captain discovered “that he had drifted to within a few hundred miles of the coast of England”). Among the many ships and sailors “name checked” here, there are many familiar ones, from Cook to Bligh (yes, who was a historical figure), and many more.

Matthew Maury was born in 1806, the seventh of nine children of a less-than-prosperous Virginia farmer, whose family re-located to Tennessee when Maury was still a child. Inspired by an older brother who had joined the Navy in his early teens, Maury aspired to the service and by 1825 he was serving on the brand new (he'd watched her being built) Brandywine. Maury had a natural curiosity, and despite the lack-luster training available, manged to wrest as much knowledge of navigation that he could out of the senior staff.

The book goes into a great deal of detail of journeys made by various ships at various times, and elements of the conditions that they encountered … including the round-the-world trip Maury was on (the first for a U.S. Navy ship) aboard the Vincennes. By 1831 he was the “sailing master” for the Falmouth which gave him opportunity to manage the logbook:
When the cruise began, Maury planned to emphatically demonstrate his skill as a navigator. He expected the cruise to be his opportunity to establish a reputation, so he took a keen interest in the winds and currents. Why such information was not available to seafarers baffled him, so began keeping remarkably precise records of his daily observations.
The year 1834 was a big one for Maury, not only did he marry his long-romanced cousin Ann, but the American Journal of Science and Arts published his “On the Navigation of Cape Horn”, as well as an instrument design he'd developed. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1836 (the rank he'd carry for most of his life – there were only a handful of ranks at the time). Publishing was one of the key ways that Maury gained notoriety, and in 1837 the Navy put his 1836 book Navigation “on every ship in the Navy”.

He had been set up to be the “acting astronomer” for a scientific expedition … but this had been delayed numerous times (partially due to other people actively trying to sabotage Maury's efforts for their own purposes), and he had been back in Tennessee in 1839 when he got orders to report for sea duty … on the stagecoach trip to New York, there was an accident, and Maury was seriously injured, and by the time he was able to get to the coast, the ship had sailed without him. During this period of disability, Maury wrote more, notably the pseudonymously-released (as Harry Bluff) “Scraps from the Lucky Bag”, which voiced his criticisms of the Navy (both on issues of training and pointing out how much more expensive ships for the Navy were vs. their commercial counterparts ... padding government invoices appears to be a long tradition) – and offered a plan for correcting the failings. These publications were very popular with the rank-and-file Navy, but understandably less so among the established authorities. This came to be an on-going problem for Maury, as at nearly every point in his subsequent career, he had other factions' candidates trying to take positions for which he was seeking.

In 1842, Maury became head of the Navy's Depot of Charts and Instruments … Hearn notes:
That Maury could jam all the records and instruments into the lower level of his home and still have room for his family on the second floor indicates how modest the Depot of Charts and Instruments was in 1842.
One of the “suggestions” made in the “Lucky Bag” material was for the establishment of a facility which would not only serve as the Depot (for “… a library of charts and nautical books issued to departing vessels and returned at the end of each cruise”), but as an observatory to ensure the accuracy of astronomical info … fortunately, the Secretary of the Navy at that time was one of the fans of “Harry Bluff”, and managed to get an appropriation pushed through Congress, resulting in the construction of the U.S. Naval Observatory. In the meanwhile, Maury was organizing the materials he'd inherited in his new position:
… he found little of value for the navigator, only heaps of disorganized data and a thousand dusty logbooks that had been kept since the birth of the United States Navy. His predecessors referred to the logbooks as depot rubbish, but Maury began to slog through them. The more he read, the more excited he became. Although some logs offered little information of value, other logs contained enormous detail. They might be dead storage to the navy, but to Maury they represented a treasury of priceless information, for they contained records of weather and sea conditions for every month of the year in all parts of the world.

… he laid out a simple program for excising data on the force of winds, rain, for, unusual ocean currents, the distance covered during a daily run, all natural or unusual phenomena observed, and any other detail that might prove significant or insightful …
Amazingly (by today's standards), the mid-19th century Navy had only 37 ships at sea ... so Maury devised a standardized logbook, and got the Navy to approve offering free charts to merchant ships, in exchange for keeping data in the new format. Fortunately, this was approved, and the value of updated charts was enough of a “carrot” that many shipping companies agreed to the deal (more as the ships using the new charts cut time off their voyages). This ended up providing ever-increasing amounts of data for Maury to work with.

As head of the U.S. Naval Observatory Maury was able to amass ever more data (especially as the merchant shipping got on board), and produce more accurate charts for ever expanding parts of the ocean. In 1853 he pioneered the first international marine meteorological conference, in Brussels, which led to his getting a great deal of attention from the participating countries (many offering him gifts that he had to refuse). This eventually created further problems for him at home, as he was accumulating “enemies” elsewhere in the government … many (with academic credentials) resenting that a “self-taught” figure was getting the advancement that Maury was seeing, and others (such as the head of the Smithsonian) seemingly just engaging in a “turf war”.

There's quite a bit on the nature of charts, the issues with various oceans, the voyages of numerous ships whose logs were particularly useful, races between different ships, and how much time, as more captains adopted the charts, was being cut off of long journeys. One of the more fascinating (to me, at least) things here were the reproduced chart figures, such as the grid that represented the ocean, but rather than have coastlines, etc., it has a disk with all the data on winds at different times of the year. The navigator would use these to mark out specific pathways to take advantage of the conditions at the time of their being there.

The issue of his health arose as a part of the political maneuvering against him, and in 1855 he was “plucked” from active duty … a move he fought until getting re-instated in 1858. This episode (with the unpleasantries that preceded it) not doubt influenced his decision in 1861 to join the Confederacy. The people that took over his position did not have the vision that Maury did regarding his nautical charts, and his knowledge of these provided a great advantage to the tiny CSA Navy, whose raiders seemed to be able to strike and disappear at will (and were able to use the very charts that the whaling fleet used to find their prey, to attack those ships). With the defeat of the rebel states, Maury had a difficult decision, and opted to move to Mexico and work for their military, even becoming naturalized. Maury, with many other Confederate officers, was pardoned in 1868, and returned to the U.S. for a position at the Virginia Military Institute, where he worked until his death in 1873.

Needless to say, Maury's life was a remarkable one, that changed the ways that people got around the planet. Unfortunately, he seems to be all but forgotten, as his revolutionary systems of obtaining and processing log book data into accurate maps and reference books began to fade as sail power gave way at first to steam power, and then to diesel (and nuclear). As noted, I was less interested in the parts covering his personal life, and the political in-fighting that he had to put up with, but for many these would be quite interesting.

Tracks in the Sea appears to be out of print in the hardcover edition that I found, but seems to still be available as a later paperback edition. Both are in the new/used channels, if you want to save a few bucks. Again, there's a lot to be said for this book, Hearn was able to put together a very wide look at Maury's life, so it offers angles of approach for people with varying interests, in the science (that was what got me to pick it up), as a Navy book, as a look at a developmental stage in our country's history, as a cautionary tale about professional jealousies, and as a basic biographical sketch.

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Tags: book review
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