A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury/Chapter 7

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Deep Sea Soundings—Maury prophesies the existence of the "Telegraphic Plateau—John Mercer Brooke's invention of a deep sea lead—Extract of a letter from the Secretary of the Navy—Maury's letters to the Secretary, suggesting the place for the cable, and the kind of line to be used—Dinner at New York to celebrate the first arrival of a message across the ocean—Cyrus West Field's speech—The cable ceases to work—Maury explains the cause—Letters on file at the Observatory on this subject.

As early as 1848, Maury, in the course of his investigations of the winds and currents, had been led to the conclusion that there existed between Newfoundland and Ireland a broad and level plateau at the bottom of the ocean. In 1849 Congress directed the Secretary of the Navy "to detail three suitable vessels to be used in testing new routes and perfecting the discoveries made by Lieutenant Maury." Under the authority of this instruction, vessels were dispatched from time to time. From 1849 to 1851, the U. S. schooner 'Janey' was so dispatched, in command of Lieutenant Walsh, under whom were Samuel Marcy, R. J. Farquharson, George H. Hare, A. Allmont, and C. W. Wooley. In 1851-52, the U. S. Brig 'Dolphin' was commanded by Lieutenant S. P. Lee. His officers were E. A. Borbot, J. P. Hall, Edward Renshaw, J. D. Donell, and W. K. Mayo. Lieutenant O. H. Berryman succeeded to the command of the 'Dolphin' in 1852-1853, under whom S. R. Franklin, W. T. Truxton, Beverly Kennon, G. W. Morris, and H. M. Garland were appointed to serve.

In speaking of the sounding operations of these officers Maury says, in his Sailing Directions:—"As yet no specimens of the bottom in deep water had been brought up. The line was too small and the lead too heavy to be hauled in. In this state of the case, passed Midshipman John Mercer Brooke, then stationed at the Observatory, proposed a contrivance by which the plummet or shot on striking the bottom, would detach itself and send up the line with a specimen of the bottom. This beautiful invention is called 'Brooke's deep-sea sounding apparatus.'"

Early in 1854, Maury wrote the following letter to the Secretary of the Navy on the subject of these deep sea soundings, with special reference to the project of laying a submarine telegraphic cable across the Atlantic:—

Sir, National Observatory, Feb. 22nd, 1854.

The U. S. brig 'Dolphin,' lieutenant commanding O. H. Berryman, was employed last summer upon special services connected with this office. . . . He was directed also to carry along a line of deep sea soundings from the shores of Newfoundland to those of Ireland. The result is highly interesting upon the question of a submarine telegraph across the Atlantic, and I therefore beg leave to make it the subject of a special report.

This line of deep sea sounding seems to be decisive of the question as to the practicability of a submarine telegraph between the two continents in so far as the bottom of deep sea is concerned. From Newfoundland to Ireland the distance between the nearest points is about 1,600 miles, and the bottom of the sea between the two places is a plateau which seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of the submarine telegraph, and of keeping them out of harm's way. It is neither too deep nor too shallow; yet, it is so deep that, the wires but once landed will remain forever beyond the reach of the anchors of vessels, icebergs, and drifts of any kind, and so shallow that they may be readily lodged upon the bottom. . . . A wire laid across from either of the above named places on this side to the north of the Grand Banks, will rest on that beautiful plateau to which I have alluded, and where the waters of the sea appear to be as quiet and as completely at rest as it is at the bottom of a mill pond. It is proper that the reasons should be stated for the inference that there are no perceptible currents and no abrading agents at work at the bottom of the sea upon this telegraphic plateau. I derive this inference from the study of a physical fact, which I little deemed, when I sought it, had any such bearings.

Lieutenant Berryman brought up, with "Brooke's" deep-sea sounding apparatus, specimens of the bottom from this plateau. I sent them to Professor Bailey, at West Point, for examination under his microscope. This he kindly undertook, and that eminent microscopist was quite as much surprised to find, as I was to learn, that all these specimens of deep-sea soundings are filled with microscopic shells. To use his own words, "not a particle of sand or gravel exists in them." These little shells therefore suggest the fact that there are no currents at the bottom of the sea whence they come; that Brooke's lead found them where they were deposited in their burial-place. . . .

Had there been currents at the bottom, they would have swept and abraded and mingled up with these microscopic remains the débris of the bottom of the sea, such as ooze, sand, gravel, and other matter; but not a particle of sand or gravel was found among them. Hence the inference that these depths of the sea are not disturbed either by waves or currents. Consequently, a telegraphic wire once laid there would remain as completely beyond the reach of accident as it would be if buried in air-tight cases.

Therefore, so far as the bottom of the deep sea between Newfoundland, or the North Cape at the mouth of the St. Lawrence and Ireland is concerned, the practicability of a submarine telegraph across the Atlantic is proved. In this view of the subject, and for the purpose of hastening the completion of such a line, I take the liberty of suggesting for your consideration the propriety of an offer, from the proper source, of a prize to the company through whose telegraphic wire the first messages shall be sent across the Atlantic.

I have the honour to be, &c.,
M. F. Maury, Lt. U.S.N.

To Hon. J. C. Dobbin,
Secry. of Navy.

Maury's labours are noticed in the annual report of the Secretary of the Navy 1856, who dwells upon questions relating to ocean telegraphy in the following extracts:—

"The indefatigable Superintendent of the Naval Observatory, not content with aiding commerce and the untaught mariner by pointing out the safest and shortest tracks on the ocean where friendly winds and currents may be found, nor yet with the contributions to the intelligence of the country resulting from observing the stars of the heavens, has, for some time past, thought it not visionary to urge upon the public attention a new study, denominated by Baron Humboldt the 'Physical Geography of the Sea. He had also been so bold as to insist that, whenever a survey could be made of the bottom of the ocean between Newfoundland and Ireland, it would be ascertained that such were the moderate depths, such the perfect repose there, and absence of abrading or disturbing currents, that telegraphic wires could be laid as safely and successfully as upon land.

"Lieutenant Brooke, of the Navy, had invented a most ingenious yet simple contrivance, in connection with the shot used, by which the moment it touched the bed of the ocean it became detached, and carefully took up specimens of whatever it came in contact with, and brought them up safely to the operator. Many of our enterprising countrymen, very naturally desirous of seeing accomplished so grand an undertaking, were anxious that all doubts of practicability should, if possible, be removed by actual observation and examination. "An Act was passed in 1849 giving authority to the Secretary of the Navy to use national vessels for testing new routes and perfecting the discoveries made by Lieutenant Maury. I confess I felt some pride in having the science and naval genius of our own country to continue foremost these great ocean surveys, and in illustrating the practicability of so grand a conception as harnessing the lightning and making it obedient beneath the profound depths of the great sea which Providence has placed between the Old and the New World. There was no difficulty in finding a competent officer to make these soundings, directed by Lieutenant Maury. Lieutenant Berryman, of large experience and established reputation in deep sea soundings, full of that enterprising spirit so characteristic of American officers, was not only ready, but earnestly solicitous and eager to be permitted to execute the task. The small steamer 'Arctic' was lying idle at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and was pronounced suitable. The order was issued, and Lieutenant Berryman, accompanied by Lieutenant Strain, passed Midshipmen Mitchell and Thomas, Midshipman Barnes, and a few men, left New York on the 18th of July, crossed the ocean, and returned on the 14th of October, bringing with him abundant supplies of curious and interesting specimens from the bed of the ocean. In order to make his soundings approximate accuracy as nearly as possible, Lieutenant Berryman returned in the same latitude, and re-examined points where he had doubts. The length of the route surveyed is about 1600 miles; the greatest depth found was 2070 fathoms (about 2½ miles), the average, however, being much less. These soundings and specimens have been turned over to the Naval Observatory. The Superintendent has already caused the specimens to be analysed, and in the hands of a learned professor[1] whose report is before me, they are made to tell much of the character and mysteries of that ocean covered region. He thinks the appearance of the minerals indicate that they have been quietly deposited from gentle currents, and not subsequently disturbed.

"Lieutenant Maury affirmed now 'that the development of this survey established the practicability of laying wires successfully on the bed of the sea.'

"I will leave it to others, sir, to lift the veil of the future, and to picture to the mind of the curious and speculative the influence to be exerted by such an event upon commerce and trade, upon peace and war, and the relationship of nations.

"These deep sea soundings, this study of the wind and currents and temperature of the ocean, these gradual approaches to greater familiarity with the wonders of the great deep, are pregnant with incalculable usefulness to those who conduct mighty navies, as well as to all who go down to the sea in ships."


Again, in a letter to Hon. William A. Graham (Secretary of the Navy), as early as November 8th, 1850, Maury said:—

"You may therefore consider it a settled principle in submarine telegraphy, that the true character of a cable for the deep sea is not that of an iron rope as large as a man's arm, but of a single copper wire, or fascicle of wires, coated with gutta-percha, pliant and supple, and not larger than a lady's finger."

To Cyrus W. Field he wrote on the same subject, "that the iron wrappings for deep sea lines of telegraph, instead of being advantageous in any aspect, are not only a hindrance, but an encumbrance also and a waste. The weight of the cord may be adjusted to sinking by the size of the conducting wire within as well as by the character of the non-metallic wrapping without. Whether the insulating material be gutta-percha, india-rubber, or other matter, it requires to be protected from chafes and bruises while on board, and when it is being payed out."

All of his suggestions were finally, after two disastrous failures, carried into effect. He was consulted by Cyrus W. Field and others as to the kind of cable to be used, the manner of laying it, and the best time of the year in which to lay it.[2]

At a dinner given in New York in 1858, to celebrate the arrival of the first message across the Atlantic, when called upon to give an account of the work, Mr. Field rose and said,—"I am a man of few words: Maury furnished the brains, England gave the money, and I did the work."[3] And yet these important services were not only unrequited, but are to this day to a large extent unknown.

As Admiral FitzRoy, an eminent savant of the British Navy, said of Maury, "one of his most distinguished traits was personal disinterestedness." It was frequently remarked of him through life, that he never sought to benefit himself by his arduous labours, or to make pecuniary profit out of his researches. His sole object was to benefit mankind at large.

His nephew (General D. H. Maury), in speaking of this marked trait says:—"I recall an illustration in point. When placed in charge of the Observatory his pay was small, and he had no other means than his salary. He was then fairly launched upon his career as a writer on subjects of national utility. Some papers of his, upon the advantages of a route to the East, by way of the Isthmus, attracted much attention. I was with him one morning when he opened his mail. He handed me to read a letter from a Northern firm, enclosing a cheque for $500, in token of approbation of his views, which were strongly promotive of the interests of their business. He was asked to continue his advocacy of that route, with the assurance that the enclosure was a mere earnest of what they would pay for it. 'Please to look at this,' he said; 'these people seem to think money the chief object of all endeavour.' He returned the cheque at once in a courteous note of thanks because he could not admit personal interest into his discussions of measures for the general good of the people."

In a letter to Jno. Locke, Esq. (read before the Royal Dublin Society, January 28th, 1857), Maury said:—"The real question for future protectors of lines of submarine telegraph is not how deep, or how boisterous, or how wide the sea is, but what are the electrical limits to the length of submarine lines."[4] The following letters will be found interesting in this connection:—


To Professor J. B. Minor, University of Va.

Dear John, Washington, July 26th, 1855.

The mails this morning, notwithstanding my protestations of yesterday, have changed my plans, by tempting me to Newfoundland. The company insists upon my going and bringing the whole family with me. It was a struggle between duty and inclination before; and now I think, considering the part that I have taken in the submarine telegraph, I should not be true to myself if I slighted this opportunity.

Yours truly,
M. F. Maury


To the same.

I have now before me coils upon coils of the Telegraphic Cable, in samples, for the Atlantic. I have been most happy devising a plan for making coilings and laying it down, which appear to me to obviate every difficulty. We shall see.... Johnny, Molly, and I go down to Fredericksburg Friday night; I shall return here Monday, join Dick, and start for the land of the Dakotas. We are going, by invitation, to help lay the cornerstone of the Minnesota Historical Society at Saint Paul's.

Dear Frank, Oct.16th, 1856.

I have been in the depths of the ocean. Brook's lead has finished Hecla or Vesuvius, or some other volcano. The Gulf Stream has its foot on it. . . .

Lat. 50° N. Lon. 35° W.
Lat. 50° N. Lon. 15° W.

The bottom of the sea all along there is two miles deep and strewed with volcanic cinders and Gulf Stream organisms. A letter yesterday from C. W. Field. He was urging telegraphic patrons in London to adopt my plan for laying the cable. We shall see, after a while, what will come of it. If I could only get the right to one wire across the Atlantic! . . . .[5]

I have a piece of the cable they are making for the Atlantic; it's a great improvement over the others; but it costs three or four times as much as it ought to cost. Its breaking strain is four tons, and its weight about a ton to the mile. Its breaking strain need not have been over half of a ton, and its weight 500 or 600 lbs. to the mile. I'll risk anything on that.

Maury said, in a lecture delivered in Cincinnati, in November 1858, that he believed that the present "Atlantic Cable can never be used. The reason why it has lost its power is, of course, mere conjecture; but it is most probable that the copper conducting wires are broken; every experiment made in 1857, and every one in 1858, save the final one, showed that the cable was too heavy, inasmuch as it parted, its own weight being the chief, if not the only cause.

"The copper wires being straight, and the iron outside covering being spiral, they were unequal to the strain and parted, perhaps one, perhaps two, or three, or all. When the fractures were fresh, the electric fluid might leap the chasm; but as they became corroded it would fail to do so.

"He believed 'that an electric cord, not cable, should be laid,' and regarded the 'practicability of a submarine telegraph between Europe and America as a certain thing.' He had foretold the existence of a great Telegraphic Plateau, so named by him; and before the invention of Brooke's deep sea sounding-lead and the soundings made by it, had mapped it out before the world. On this plateau the greatest depth of water does not exceed two miles; it stretches from Newfoundland to Ireland, and across it are no running waters, nor any abrading forces. On it lie the smallest shells; which if dried would float in the air like motes, being scarcely, if at all, visible to the naked eye, and as perfect as if they had been wrapped in down. These were shells of animals living near the surface, which had sunk after death to the quiet depths below.

"If such light substances would sink to the depth of two miles and lie unharmed there, a light wire, protected by any insulating substance, would sink to the same depth, and lie for ages in equal freedom from disturbing forces. Some heavier arrangement (cable possibly) would be required in the shallower waters at each end near shore, where tides affected the bottom.

"Such an achievement places man, as it were, in a higher scale of existence, since he thus becomes mentally ubiquitous,—holding converse of thought with the people of every part of the globe.

"The accomplishment of the enterprise has been brought about by a variety of inventions and discoveries at different times, without regard to each other; and yet all were necessary to the successful laying and working of a submarine telegraphic communication. Without the knowledge of the Atlantic plateau, it would not have been deemed practicable to lay the cable; without the discovery of the uses of gutta-percha about this time, the wire could not have been rendered suitable; and without steamships, it could not have been laid." In this lecture Maury also paid just tributes to Mr. Morse, as the first inventor of the electric magnetic telegraph; and to the Messrs. Field as the projectors of the submarine telegraphic enterprise.

  1. Prof.Bailey of West Point.
  2. See Maury's Sailing Directions.
  3. See New Eclectic Magazine for July, 1870.
  4. In this connection see letter to Professor Morse, Feb. 23, 1854; letter to Hon. C. J. Faulkner, Aug. 30, 1858; to Cyrus W. Field, forty-three letters between June 30, 1855, and March 26, 1860; Peter Cooper, Dec. 27, 1855; Hon. J. H. Dobbin, May 5 and Nov. 8, 1856; Hon. Issac Toncey, Sep. 4, 1858. On the Telegraphic Plateau, see letters to Capt. Washington, London, Nov. 6, 1857; to Capt. de la Marche, Paris, Dec. 22, 1857; to American Journal of Science, Sep. 5, 1858; paper in reply to coast survey claims; letter to Jno. Locke, Dublin, Dec. 29, 1858. All of these and more were on file at the Observatory.
  5. Atlantic Telegraphic Company, by resolution of June 22, 1855, granted to Lt. M. F. Maury, free of charge, priority of use of its cable, when laid, for determination of longitude, &c.