Today we welcome a guest post from Jason W. Smith, author of To Master the Boundless Sea: The U.S. Navy, the Marine Environment, and the Cartography of Empire, just published by UNC Press in our Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges series.
As the United States grew into an empire in the late nineteenth century, notions like “sea power” derived not only from fleets, bases, and decisive battles but also from a scientific effort to understand and master the ocean environment. Beginning in the early nineteenth century and concluding in the first years of the twentieth, Jason W. Smith tells the story of the rise of the U.S. Navy and the emergence of American ocean empire through its struggle to control nature. In vividly told sketches of exploration, naval officers, war, and, most significantly, the ocean environment, Smith draws together insights from environmental, maritime, military, and naval history, and the history of science and cartography, placing the U.S. Navy’s scientific efforts within a broader cultural context.
To Master the Boundless Sea is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Crowd-Sourcing for the Nineteenth Century: Creating Matthew Fontaine Maury’s Wind and Current Charts
The World Wide Web may now fundraise your chihuahua’s emergency surgery or track the migrations of eastern meadowlarks. The power of the Internet to bring people together in the service of a cause—charitable, intellectual, political, or otherwise—may in many ways be unprecedented, but crowd-sourcing, in fact, long pre-dates the advent of the internet.
During the 1840s and 1850s, Matthew Fontaine Maury, a lieutenant in the US Navy and superintendent of the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office in Washington, D.C., summoned a vast network of mariner-observers to report environmental data of the ocean from which he created his Wind and Current Charts, massive cartographically-organized representations of hydrographic, biological, atmospheric, and meteorological information. The result was an extraordinary leap in knowledge about the oceans and, ultimately, the birth of modern oceanography.
Maury sought primarily to improve navigation at sea, which remained unsystematic, the purview of navigators who drew on experience and shared folklore as much as or more than science. Unsatisfied, Maury used his position at the Observatory to solicit data from mariners all over the world. Using an abstract log designed to organize observations of winds, currents, weather, barometric pressure, whale sightings, among others, Maury and his staff received logs, organized and charted the data, and then distributed those charts free to all who contributed.
Maury’s Wind and Current Charts quantified, historicized, and more generally re-imagined the sea as a place that could be known, ordered, and harnessed by seafarers. By the 1850s, Maury bragged that he had a thousand mariners simultaneously taking measurements. He called them his “corps of observers,” believing “every properly qualified navigator to be a philosopher.” He had thus enrolled many lay observers within a structured system of observation, measure, classification, and representation that extraordinarily expanded the scope of knowledge in the marine sciences at a time when scientists in an emerging and more strictly-defined profession would not or simply could not go to sea.
Maury stands thus as an important figure in the history of marine science, but whose contributions were impugned in his own time and since. Contemporaries such as Alexander Dallas Bache at the US Coast Survey, the precursor to NOAA, and Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry levelled critiques at this largely self-taught naval officer who, to their dismay, nevertheless stood at the head of a huge scientific program with world-class facilities at the Observatory in Washington—even as Henry expanded his own system of more select observers to record and predict meteorology on land. Nevertheless, Maury occupied an exceptional place in American science at a significant moment of professionalization. As superintendent of the observatory, he had one hand in naval matters, one also among the merchant mariners who provided data for and benefited from his charts, and still a third in the Euro-American scientific community. He was in some ways an outsider in all these communities, but was nevertheless able to bridge increasingly widening gaps among different practitioners of marine science.
Ultimately, Maury’s Wind and Current Charts revolutionized oceanic voyaging at the crest of an American maritime world still propelled primarily by natural forces. Based on his findings, Maury advocated sailing routes that cut nearly halved the average voyage between New York City and gold-rush California; born and raised a Southerner, he advocated for the expansion of the Cotton Kingdom into South America based on favorable winds and currents; by 1855, with the publication of his Humboldtian-influenced The Physical Geography of the Sea, Maury jumped from matters of applied science to theorizing, some of which flew in the face of contrary scientific opinions of the day. Yet he remade the oceanic world in the minds of scientists, lay readers, and, most importantly, American shippers who braced the world’s oceans with American hulls bringing commerce, culture, and sometimes violence and exploitation with it. Maury’s system of crowd-sourcing environmental data, in other words, hastened the growth of American commercial and budding military-strategic empire. Indeed, as I argue in my book, American empire and scientific understandings of the ocean were inextricably linked.
Maury died a broken man, an ex-Confederate, his scientific reputation much-maligned. Yet he is enjoying something of a renaissance both in popular and academic scholarship and also in the methods of data gathering that he helped pioneer. In a wonderful irony, scientists with the help of crowd-sourcing, can now once again comb through Maury’s abstract logs and others to get a better sense of what environmental conditions looked like in the mid-nineteenth century with the express purpose of comparison to the present and to a changing natural world in which the ocean has become something of a barometer not only for detecting the effects of human-made climate change, but for a larger reconsideration and rediscovery of the enduring human relationship with the ocean. Armchair meteorologists, historians, activists, and others can now analyze Maury’s own crowd-sourced data to help us understand the past, present, and future.
Jason W. Smith is assistant professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University.