Matthew Fontaine Maury

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(b. near Fredericksburg, Virginia, 14 January 1806; d. Lexington, Virginia, 1 February 1873)

Physical geography, meteorology, oceanography.

Maury was the seventh child of a small planter, Richard Maury, who was a descendant of a Huguenot family that had come to Virginia from Ireland about 1718, and the former Diana Minor, whose English and Dutch forebears had settled in Virginia by 1650. He grew up in Williamson County, Tennessee, where his family moved in 1810. On graduating from Harpeth Academy in 1825, he followed his deceased eldest brother into the U.S. Navy, where his career flourished until 1839, when a stagecoach accident left him too lame for further duty at sea. Maury nevertheless remained a naval officer, serving in Washington and writing vigorously in the causes of naval reform, Southern expansionism, and those branches of science that could be applied to seafaring. He resigned his commission in 1861 to join the Confederate Navy. In England for the Confederacy from 1862 until May 1865, Maury next served Emperor Maximilian of Mexico until 1866, when he returned to England to write geography textbooks. Not until 1868 did he return to the United States, where he was professor of physics at Virginia Military Institute until his death. In 1834 Maury married Ann Herndon, a distant cousin; they had five daughters and three sons.

Maury’s scientific career began with two articles and a textbook on navigation. These made him an obvious choice for the U.S. Navy exploring expedition, to which he was appointed astronomer in September 1837 by Thomas ap Catesby Jones, the expedition’s first leader. Maury’s role was brief; he joined Jones and the other officers in resigning in November following Jones’s repeated disagreements with Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson. After a number of senior officers declined, command of the expedition went to Charles Wilkes, who as head of the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments had traveled to Europe to obtain the expedition’s apparatus.

The depot, set up in 1830 to issue navigational supplies to the fleet, had become under Wilkes an astronomical observatory as well. His successor, James M. Gilliss, who had studied astronomy in Paris, carried the quest for a national observatory one step further when he convinced Congress in 1842 that the depot needed a new observatory building. Dispatched to Europe for ideas and instruments, Gilliss was succeeded at the depot by Maury, who was thus rewarded with an important shore billet for leading the fight to reorganize the Navy.

When the observatory building was completed in 1844, the Virginians had their revenge for Wilkes’s takeover of the exploring expedition: Secretary of the Navy John Y. Mason chose Maury to head the new “National Observatory.” Maury threw himself and his staff into the strenuous program of observations that his rival, Gilliss, had planned, and he began to publish the results. But Maury’s poor qualifications for astronomy and his proprietary attitude toward the work done at the observatory created hostility toward him in the intense competition for scarce resources within the American scientific community. This hostility seems justified. Considering that Maury was in charge of one of the world’s major observatories for almost seventeen years and that he had substantial funds at his disposal, his contributions to astronomy seem small. Between 1844 and 1861 he published fewer than twenty papers —all observational—and seven catalogs of observations.

Maury failed to accomplish more in astronomy because his main interest lay in improving the technology of navigation, for which the science of the earth was more relevant than the science of the heavens. Upon taking charge of the depot in 1842, he moved it out of Wilkes’s house. The move revealed an accumulation of manuscript ships’ logs. Maury’s insight that the data on winds and currents in these logs could be brought together to chart the general circulation of atmosphere and ocean was the basis for his chief contribution to science.

Maury began to publish his Wind and Current Charts—beginning with the North Atlantic in 1847— and to issue them free to mariners in exchange for abstract logs of the winds and currents of their voyages. The result was a series of charts and (after 1850) accompanying sailing directions that presented a climatic picture of the surface winds and currents for all the oceans.

Maury’s chief aim in issuing these charts was the promotion of maritime commerce. He was thus more a technologist than a scientist, interested in knowledge less for its own sake than as a means to practical achievement. Pressed by the growth of steam propulsion, the sailing fleets of the world were making great progress in improving their technology about 1850, and Maury was the leading developer of the “software” of sail. After 1849, when the rush to California’s gold fields became the main stage for the conflict between sail and steam, he claimed that his charts shortened sailing passages considerably in the competition between the sailing route round Cape Horn and the steamer-railroad route across Panama.

Another commercial stimulation to Maury’s scientific endeavors came from submarine telegraphy. U.S. Navy vessels sounded the North Atlantic under Maury’s direction from 1849 to 1853; and from their results he prepared the first bathymetrical chart, using 1,000-fathom contours. By distributing the bottom samples collected on these cruises to J. W. Bailey at West Point and C. G. Ehrenberg at Berlin, Maury made possible their pioneering studies in marine micropaleontology.

Inspired by the example of Alexander von Humboldt, many men of science in the second quarter of the nineteenth century were devoting their efforts to collecting on a large scale the data of physical phenomena on earth. Maury’s charts were important instances of this kind of empirical science. The need to standardize observations made at widely separated points required international cooperation, which led in turn to international scientific meetings. The spread of the telegraph made possible a synoptic meteorology; and in response to a tentative British proposal for American cooperation in weather observations on land, Maury organized a conference at Brussels in 1853, the first of a series of international meteorological meetings. Maury, the leader in systematizing observations at sea, hoped to extend his own efforts to land. But his plans for the conference to unify weather reporting for both land and ocean ran into opposition at home; at the insistence of the American and British governments, the Brussels conference dealt only with the sea. The final report, written largely by Maury, organized uniform weather reporting at sea. This system was extended to the land after his death.

Maury’s scientific achievements were organizational and empirical; they earned him the praise of European leaders of science, including Humboldt. Maury’s attempts to interpret his data, however, were largely without merit in the eyes of scientific colleagues. He expressed them in the pious language of natural theology at a time when most scientists had succeeded in purging their writings of all religious references. Beginning with an article on the Gulf Stream in 1844, Maury developed theories of the general circulation of atmosphere and ocean, first in articles and in Explanation and Sailing Directions to Accompany the Wind and Current Charts (1850 et seq.) and then in his best-known work, Physical Geography of the Sea (1855), a loosely organized compilation of Maury’s earlier writings on meteorology and oceanography. Reprinted many times in America and England and translated into six European languages, it was received enthusiastically in general and religious journals, critically in scientific ones. Maury’s response to his critics was either to ignore them or to defend vigorously his original ideas. Since he was unwilling to modify his theories in the light of criticism, Maury’s importance to the history of ideas of wind and water motion lies in the stimulus he gave to others, especially William Ferrel, who were forced by the popularity of Maury’s book to improve upon his unphysical interpretations.

Almost no one accepted Maury’s idea—based on Faraday’s demonstration that oxygen is paramagnetic—that fluctuations in the wind are due to the earth’s magnetism. Maury’s scheme of the general circulation of the atmosphere required that vertical air currents move across each other in the calm belts of the tropics and the equator, and that horizontal winds converge to low-pressure areas around the poles. The latter requirement was contrary to the evidence; the former, physically implausible. Maury ignored Ferrel’s alternative scheme, despite its explicit challenge. Maury’s ideas on ocean circulation were not much sounder. He offered a vigorous argument for “thermo-haline” forces; but unable, like most of his contemporaries, to accept multiple causes, he accompanied it with an equally vigorous argument against wind stress, based on his erroneous belief that a Gulf Stream driven by the wind would be flowing uphill. He believed (incorrectly) that variations in salinity were more important than variations in temperature in causing currents, and he was also the principal exponent of the idea that the sea around the North Pole is free of ice.

Maury’s failure to revise his theories in the light of criticism and new evidence, and his aggressive promotion in Congress of his own brand of science, brought him increasingly into conflict with the leaders of the growing American scientific community. At first Maury was given the place that his position in Washington merited. He was one of the founders of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which in 1849 formed one committee to urge more funds for Maury’s charts and appointed. Maury himself to several others. But in 1851, when a cmmittee was formad to organize the land meteorology of North America, Maury was not appointed. His claim that he should organize observations on land as he had on the ocean was a threat to the network established by Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian Institution, and in the presidential address to the A.A.A.S. in that year Alexander Dallas Bache spoke of the dangers to American science “from a modified charlatanism, which makes merit in one subject an excuse for asking authority in others, or in all” (Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science6 [1852], xliv). Their opposition to Maury led to the restriction of the 1853 Brussels conference to marine meteorology. Maury continued to present papers to the annual meetings of the A.A.A.S. until his book appeared in 1855; but he ceased to be a member in 1859, after his continuing effort to take over land meteorology had again been thwarted by Henry and his allies. His hope had been to benefit agriculture as his maritime meteorology had benefited navigation.

Although his cherished theories never received the support that he believed they deserved, Maury was widely honored for his achievements, both in his lifetime and afterward. He was decorated by the sovereigns of Denmark, Portugal, and Russia; received honorary degrees form Columbian College (now George Washington University [1853]) and the universities of Cambridge (1868) and North Carolina (1852); and became a member of a number of scientific academies and societies.


I. Orgininal Works. The Physical Geography of the Sea is available in a modern ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1963). Lists of Maury’s other works are in Ralph M. Brown, “Bibliography of Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury,” which is Bulletin of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 37 , no. 12 (1944); and in F. L. Williams, Matthew Fontaine Maury (see below), 693–710.

II. Secondary Literature. The massive biography by Frances L. Williams, Matthew Fontaine Maury. Scientist of the Sea (New Brunswick, N.J., 1963), contains much more material than earlier ones, together with footnotes and a complete bibliography. Each of its three predecessors, however, is useful: Diana Corbin, Life (London, 1888), contains family reminiscences by Maury’s daughter; Charles L. Lewis, Maury (Annapolis, 1927), an account of the efforts after Maury’s death to keep his name alive; and John W. Wayland, Pathfinder of the Seas (Richmond, Va., 1930), a chronology and a number of photographs not in the other works. All four biographies take Maury’s scientific achievement at his own valuation; only Williams provides the reader with the evidence for an independent judgment.

Maury’s science is carefully evaluated in John Leighly’s brilliant introduction to the 1963 repr. of Physical Geography of the Sea and his equally important “M. F. Maury in His Time,” in Proceedings of the First International Congress of the History of Oceanography, Bulletin de l‘Institute ocèanographique de Monaco, spec. no. 2 (1968), 147–159. Leighly’s incisive treatments supersede all previous writings on Maury’s work in a broader scientific context, see Margaret Deacon, Scientist and the Sea 1650–1900 (London, 1970), ch. 13; in the context of American science, A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government (Cambridge, Mass., 1957).

Harold L. Burstyn

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Matthew Fontaine Maury


American Oceanographer

The first real scientist of the sea and the first oceanographer, Matthew Maury was called "Pathfinder of the Oceans." Scientific navigation did not exist before Maury, and his work improved the safety of every ship at sea. He wrote the first serious text on oceanography, The Physical Geography of the Sea (1855), and inspired many students to study oceanography. He compiled charts of wind and wave patterns, currents, hazards of all oceans and harbors, and was the first to show that meteorology could become a science.

Matthew Maury was born in Virginia. When he was five years old, his father moved the entire family, five boys and four girls, to a cotton farm in Tennessee. The children worked on the farm and were educated in a small country school. Injured when he was 12 years old, Matthew was sent to the Harpeth Academy for further schooling. Though his father wanted him to study medicine, Matthew was especially drawn to science. His oldest brother was a naval midshipman whose adventures in the South Pacific may have enticed Matthew to a military career. It was a fateful day when, without his father's knowledge, Matthew secured appointment as a midshipman in the navy with the help of Sam Houston, then congressman from Tennessee. Matthew was 19 years old when he reported for active duty in August 1825.

The next four years shaped his education and his life's work. Sailing as a midshipman on three ships, he went all the way around the world, learned to sail and navigate, met all kinds of people, studied mathematics, geology, and astronomy and learned many languages. While visiting various countries, he compiled a lunar table to be used by navigators. When he returned home in 1829, the table was published, the first of many publications. He wrote more than 200 articles on navigation, oceanography, meteorology, astronomy, naval reform, and the need for a naval academic institution; the latter article spurred the construction of the U.S. Naval Academy in 1845. Maury also compiled a number of nautical charts. He collected information for his charts by communicating with all naval and merchant ship captains. He asked them to send him any information they had on currents, winds, and weather wherever they were in the world. The resulting charts made navigation less hazardous in all oceans and harbors of the world for anyone involved in merchant shipping or naval operations.

He settled in Virginia, married in 1834, had two daughters, and worked for extra money as superintendent of a gold mine. In the 1850s he charted the floor of the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and the United States, demonstrating that a telegraph cable could be laid to connect the two continents. He was soon promoted to the rank of Commander in the navy. His book The Physical Geography of the Sea was published in 1855.

Maury supported the Confederate States of America during the Civil War and was sent to England on a mission for his government. There he remained, receiving accolades from many nations on his work. He wrote a number of articles on his favorite subjects not only in English but also in French, Spanish, and German.

When the Civil War ended, Maury returned to Virginia and became superintendent of the Department of Charts and Naval Oceanography, which later became the U.S. Naval Observatory. He was a lecturer on meteorology at Virginia Military Institute when he died in Virginia in 1873.


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Matthew Fontaine Maury

The American naval officer and oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873) is remembered chiefly for his The Physical Geography of the Sea of 1855, now recognized as the first textbook of modern oceanography.

On Jan. 14, 1806, Matthew Fontaine Maury was born near Fredericksburg, Va. When he was 5, his family emigrated to a farm near the frontier village of Franklin, Tenn., where he attended country schools and then entered Harpeth Academy. In 1825 he secured a midshipman's warrant and in the following 9 years made three extensive cruises, including one around the world. In 1836 he published A New Theoretical and Practical Treatise on Navigation, which the Navy immediately adopted as a textbook.

Maury first came into wide public notice through a series of articles dealing with naval reform written between 1838 and 1841. During this period he sustained a severe knee injury in a stagecoach accident, which resulted in permanent lameness and made him unfit for sea duty. He was appointed superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments of the Navy Department at Washington, a post which included the superintendency of the new Naval Observatory. Soon afterward he began his researches on winds and currents and, in 1847, issued his Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic, which was followed by supplementary sailing directions in subsequent years. The savings in time that ships were able to make by following his directions attracted so much notice that at an international congress held in Brussels in 1853 the uniform system of recording oceanographic data he advocated was adopted for the naval vessels and merchant marine of most European nations. Within a few years nations owning three-fourths of the world's shipping were sending their oceanographic observations to Maury, who evaluated the information and distributed the results throughout the world.

So extensive was Maury's knowledge of the sea that he was called upon for help in selecting the most advantageous time and place for laying the Atlantic cable. He prepared a chart representing in profile the bottom of the Atlantic between Europe and America, calling attention to the existence of what he termed the telegraphic plateau. He also helped persuade the public that such a cable was practical.

Despite Maury's pioneering efforts in oceanography, his de-emphasis of astronomy and preference for what he conceived as more practical work brought him into continuing conflict with leaders of American science, so much so that they met with genuine relief his defection to the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War. He was commissioned in the Confederate Navy, assigned to harbor defense, and began experimenting with electric mines. In 1862 the Confederate government sent him to England as a special agent.

After the collapse of the Confederacy, Maury went to Mexico to promote a scheme for the colonization of former Confederates, lived in England for a while, and finally returned to Virginia, where he spent the last 4 years of his life as a professor of meteorology in the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington. He died on Feb. 1, 1873.

Further Reading

Frances Leigh Williams, Matthew Fontaine Maury: Scientist of the Sea (1963), has good accounts of Maury's relations with other scientists and supersedes all earlier accounts of his career. For an assessment of his scientific work see John Leighly, ed., The Physical Geography of the Sea and Its Meteorology (1963). Earlier works are Charles Lee Lewis, Matthew Fontaine Maury: The Pathfinder of the Seas (1927), and John W. Wayland, The Pathfinder of the Seas' The Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury (1930). □

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Matthew Fontaine Maury (fŏntān´ môr´ē), 1806–73, American hydrographer and naval officer, b. near Fredericksburg, Va. Appointed a midshipman in 1825, he saw varied sea duty until a stagecoach accident (1839) made him permanently lame. In 1842 he was placed in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments (later the U.S. Naval Observatory and Hydrographical Office). Soon his wind and current charts of the Atlantic began to appear, and they eventually cut sailing time on many routes. He wrote widely on navigation and naval reform, and his Physical Geography of the Sea (1855) was the first classic work of modern oceanography. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he resigned and served the Confederacy, first in harbor defense and then as an agent in England. After the war he served (1865–66) under Maximilian in Mexico, where he attempted to establish colonies of ex-Confederates. He returned to the United States in 1868 and was professor of meteorology at the Virginia Military Institute until his death.

See biographies by F. L. Williams (1966), C. L. Lewis (1927, repr. 1969), and V. P. Parriott (1973).

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Maury, Matthew Fontaine (1806–73) An American oceanographer and naval officer, Maury studied the winds and currents of the N. Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and produced the first bathymetric chart of the N. Atlantic. His Physical Geography of the Sea (1855) is said to be the first oceanographic textbook.