Water And Oceanography

Matthew Fontaine Maurys Contributions to the Field of Oceanography



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The major form of international imports, exports and travel in the 19th century was by sea. A journey from Baltimore in the United States to Brazil was an arduous sea voyage of more than 120 days using the fastest clipper ships of the day. This changed dramatically when a cargo ship "W.H.D.C. Wright" returned to Baltimore from Brazil with a cargo of coffee in 75 days this was over a month ahead of schedule.

This record breaking trip was possible because of scientific findings published by one Mathew Fontaine Maury in which detailed observations and measurements that proposed a new route where favourable currents and offshore winds greatly reduced time at sea. News of this swift passage galvanised the sea trade industry and before long, almost every commercial voyage followed the new sea routes it seemed that Mathew Fontaine Maury had unlocked many mysteries of the seas.

Born in Spottsylvania County on January 24, 1806, Mathew became interested in mathematics early in his life. At the age of twelve, he was sent to famous Harpeth Academy in Tennessee where he was instructed by some of the finest teachers of the day. Attaining a midshipman's warrant in the United States Navy in 1825, Matthew followed the path of his older brother pursuing a career in the Navy. Assigned to sea duty a the age of 19, the first voyage aboard the Brandywine', a new 44-gun frigate, was in the Autumn of 1825.

It was on his second voyage that Mathew transferred to the sloop Vincennes, known at the time as the fastest ship in the navy, and the ship's library stocked with books on navigation, mathematics and trigonometry inspired more study during free time. Before long, Mathew began experimenting and proving concepts of spherical geometry using cannon balls from the ship's guns. Taking careful notes from his observations, Mathew recorded wind and sea currents as the Vincennes sailed through the South China Sea, East Indies, Indian Ocean and past the Cape of Good Hope to the South Atlantic.

On a third sea voyage in 1831, Mathew recorded distance, current and wind observations from the sloop Falmouth' while maintaining a diligent comparison with charts as he sought out noted errors. When the Falmouth' reached Cape Horn in October 1831, Mathew, who was by this time ship's navigator, sailed south toward the Palmer Archipelago of Antarctica in order to avoid westerly gales. It was through this action that more favourable winds provided a final clue that culminated in what became one of the most significant contributions to sea travel and navigation.

The Falmouth rounded the Horn and in 24 days reached 'Valparaiso' ahead of another ship sailing at the same time but had tried to round the Horn farther to the north. This ship was severely battered for 38 days as a result of fierce gale force winds avoided by the 'Valparaiso'. These observations and findings were published in the first of three scientific reports that, in spite of reservations by publishers, were well received. During later voyages, Mathew sought to simplify navigational procedures and in April 1835 he published his second manuscript: A new Theoretical and Practical Treatise on Navigation.

An accident that left him invalid with a severely broken leg provided time for thought and reflection and more study. Mathew decided to write a series of articles that summed up a collection of ideas previously unexplored and these were published in the July 1890 issue of The Popular Science Monthly. A new assignment in 1842 with Navy's Depot of Charts and instruments became one of the focal points where to Mathew's great pleasure he discovered a huge archive of ships' logs dating back to the first days of the United States Navy. Mathew realised the significance of these chronicles describing events at sea with observations recording wind and ocean current patterns.

Using this treasure trove of information, Mathew began to collate and re-order data by area and devised a system of symbols representing winds, radiating lines representing wind velocities where long lines denoted more powerful winds and a shuttlecock head pointing direction. Arrow symbols indicated the direction of ocean currents with numbers alongside to indicate speed, and in each area, Mathew included compass variations and water temperatures. Never before had such a detailed and comprehensive oceanographic map included such details of precise recordings specific to sea-lanes and shipping routes. It was the culmination of a restless mind, years at sea and a desire to seek out a better way that resulted in new and cutting edge mapping that changed an entire system of sea navigation.

The contributions of Mathew Fontaine Maury led to shorter sea passages all over the world, and to merchant houses greater profits where the fastest ships made the greater return. Sea Captains and Navigators universally accepted a system of sharing information that continues to this very day by the world's navies. Mathew became ill in 1872 and died February 1, 1873. The legacy of Mathew Fontaine Maury resides in ships logs in the 21st century of seamanship.

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