Maury the Scientist of Safer Seas

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 17, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Maury the Scientist of Safer Seas


This year marks the bicentennial of Matthew Fontaine Maury's birth. Maury, who was born on Jan. 14, 1806, and died on Feb. 1, 1873, was an American original who wore many hats throughout his career as a naval officer, pioneer, superintendent, scientist, author, lecturer and educator and a leader of the Confederate navy.

From its inception, the United States has relied upon brave individuals willing to risk life and fortune to explore uncharted territory. Explorers such as Lewis and Clark led expeditions through the Louisiana Purchase, aiding what became the great western migration across the North American continent.

Their reports, maps and artwork graphically and accurately depicted the little-known territory through which they traveled. Indeed, the Lewis and Clark Expedition is considered by many to be the first nationally sponsored geospatial intelligence mission, chartered to provide information about unknown territory through the use of maps, charts and drawings.

American explorer John Charles Fremont (1813-1890) also played a vital role; he was nicknamed "the Pathfinder" in acknowledgment of his expeditions to map the American West between 1838 and 1854.

However, as the American westward expansion grew, an equally vital exploration was taking place on the world's oceans, led by pathfinder Matthew Maury.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) proudly traces its lineage to these early explorers and is honored to have Maury Hall and the Fremont Building named after "pathfinders."

Maury applied his expertise to charting the maritime territory both along the coastlines and on the open sea. His efforts were directly responsible for the United States' emergence as a powerful seafaring nation unequaled in its knowledge of the Earth's oceans, winds and currents.

Maury is known by several titles, all earned as a result of his work in several fields. To the mariner, he is forever known as "Pathfinder of the Seas," a title he earned for his role in developing Wind and Current Charts in 1847, the predecessors of today's NGA Pilot Chart Atlas.

He was perhaps the quintessential marine analyst, as he "analyzed and evaluated" thousands of ships' logbooks that had been stored, by regulation, in Navy warehouses. By comparing different logs on any given route, he could deduce areas of wide differences and recommend certain areas of the oceans that should be avoided at different times of the year.

Today, NGA marine analysts embody Maury's analytical skills by collecting, analyzing, maintaining and disseminating navigation safety information to the agency's customers the Navy and other NGA mission partners.

Maury also collected astronomical data and began cataloging the stars because of his belief that the United States should not be dependent upon foreign calculations and celestial observations. By 1849, his astronomical observations were sufficiently complete for him to establish the American Nautical Almanac Office.

Maury is considered the founder of naval meteorology because he conceived the idea of a universal system of meteorological observations on both land and sea. In 1853, he organized and represented the United States in the first International Maritime Meteorology Conference in Brussels. This led to uniform weather-reporting systems for 13 nations.

His 1855 publication of "Physical Oceanography of the Sea" is considered the first modern textbook of oceanography and won Maury international fame, along with the title "Father of Oceanography.

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