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 on Matthew Fontaine Maury

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).