Water And Oceanography

The Contributions of Charles Wilkes during his Pacific Ocean Expedition



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In 1838, Lt Charles Wilkes of the US Navy embarked on an historic mission to explore the Pacific Ocean commanding a fleet of six vessels that carryied leading edge scientific instruments, and with experts in the fields of botany, horticulture, conchology (study of shells), mineralogy and specialists in linguistic skills. The results of this audacious expedition yielded valuable scientific data with new discoveries that bear names bestowed upon discovery, and that remain to this very day.

Born April 3 1798, Charles Wilkes was raised by his aunt following the death of his mother when he was aged 3. Educated first in a boarding school, Wilkes later attended the Columbia College (Now Columbia University) after which he enlisted in the navy as a midshipman in 1818. Promoted to Lieutenant in 1826, he lead a largely unremarkable career until 1833 when he was assigned to the US Navy Department of Charts and Instruments in recognition of his outstanding work in a survey of Narragansett Bay to the North of Rhode Island Sound.

The historic 1838 expedition set off with six ships, only two were to eventually return however the voyage yielded an incredible collection of over 4 000 objects of scientific interest together with countless journals, drawings and charts, formed the basis for new lines of research in the sciences. The discoveries included numerous firsts' that include the first sighting of the Antarctic landmass and produced a chart of 1 500 miles of the coastline, mapping off the coastlines off Oregon and Washington and the entrance of the Columbia River.

Controversial behaviour with accusations suggesting Wilkes was vain, impulsive, and often cruel resulted in proceedings bought against him upon return in 1842 that were ultimately dropped yet the impact served to sour an otherwise outstanding contribution to the scientific community in the fields of botany, biology, ethnography, and geography thanks to the discoveries of the Charles Wilkes expedition to explore the Pacific.

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