Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/July 1890/Sketch of Matthew Fontaine Maury

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MRS. CORBIN, Lieutenant Maury's daughter and biographer, invokes for her father the reverence of the whole civilized world; for, she says in her Life, "the best part of his life was devoted to the performance of services which conferred benefits on the seafaring class of all countries, while the ideas to which he first gave birth have since borne fruit, and are likely to be useful to the whole human race." She adds that "in Maury we have two characteristics, each valuable in itself, but which almost invariably produce great results when they are combined. He was endowed with extraordinary powers of application and unflagging industry in working out the driest details. But he also possessed a vivid imagination, so that the dry bones of his new science were endowed with life and interest by the magic touch of his descriptive pen. It was Maury who created the science of the physical geography of the sea, and gave that impetus to its study which, in other hands, continues to produce results alike of practical and speculative importance."

Matthew Fontaine Maury was born in Spottsylvania County, Virginia, January 24, 1806, and died in Lexington, Va., February 1, 1873. He was descended on his father's side from two families of Huguenot exiles, already connected by marriage before they left France, who settled in Virginia in 1714. His father was the sixth son of the Rev. James Maury, an Episcopal clergyman and teacher of Albemarle County, Virginia, who numbered among his pupils three boys who afterward became Presidents of the United States, and five signers of the Declaration of Independence. This scholar appears to have been already interested in the great Northwest, and his speculations respecting the Missouri River, the Western mountains, and the rivers beyond them, then hardly known, greatly impressed his pupil Jefferson, who, when he became President, secured the dispatch of the expedition of Lewis and Clark.

When young Matthew was in his fifth year the family removed to Tennessee, near Franklin, where they lived the life of early settlers in a new country. His first ambition to become a mathematician was excited by an old cobbler "who used to send the shoes home to his customers with the soles all scratched over with little x 's and y 's." A fall from a tree in his twelfth year, by which his back was injured, for a time at least seriously, seems to have marked the turning-point of his life. His father, thinking him permanently disabled, yielding to his wish, sent him to Harpeth Academy, of which the Rev. J. H. Otey, afterward Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Tennessee, and William C. Hasbrouck, were the teachers.

In 1825 he obtained, through the Hon. Sam Houston, a midshipman's warrant in the United States Navy. His father, not approving the career to which this pointed, while not forbidding, refused to countenance him in accepting it. Having thirty dollars which he had earned by doing tutor's work in the academy, young Maury went on his own account for the East. There was no naval academy then, and he went on shipboard at once. He soon showed that his mind was set upon mastering the theory and practice of his profession. "It is related by some of his companions of that period" says Mrs. Corbin, "how he would chalk diagrams in spherical trigonometry on the round-shot in the quarter-deck racks, to enable himself to master problems, while pacing to and fro, passing and repassing the shot-racks on his watch." With an old Spanish work on navigation, he pursued the double object of studying the Spanish language and adding to his stock of nautical information. His first voyage was to England, in the Brandywine, which conveyed General Lafayette home to France; his next was in the Vincennes, round the world. On this voyage he constructed a set of lunar tables and prepared himself for examination.

During his next cruise of four years on the Falmouth, Dolphin, and Potomac, beginning in 1831, Maury conceived the idea of his current and wind charts; observed and began to study the curious phenomenon of the low barometer off Cape Horn, concerning which he wrote his first scientific paper—for the American Journal of Science; and began to prepare for the press a work on navigation, for which he had been several years collecting the material. It was published in 1839, was favorably noticed in England, and was used as a text-book in the United States Navy.

Maury next received an appointment as astronomer and hydrographer on the South Sea Exploring Expedition, which was to go out under Commodore Catesby Jones, and, preparatory to it, practiced in the use of the telescope, transit instrument, and theodolite; but, Captain Wilkes succeeding to the command, he resigned, in order to permit the new commander to select his own associates. He was then assigned the duty of making surveys of Southern harbors. While traveling on leave of absence from this work, his leg was broken by the overturning of a stage-coach, whereby he was disabled from active service for several years. The misfortune is regarded by his biographer as having been a "blessing in disguise"; for it caused his mind to turn more intently to the scientific side of his work, and thus contributed indirectly to the fruitfulness of thought by which his after-life was distinguished.

A series of articles on naval reform and kindred subjects, entitled Scraps from the Lucky-Bag, published by Maury under the pen-name of Harry Bluff, attracted attention and approval. Among the points discussed in them—most of which were brought up for the first time—were the adoption of steam as a motive power; great-circle sailing; the establishment of navy-yards and forts at Memphis and Pensacola; the use of blank charts on board public cruisers; the Gulf Stream and its causes; the connection of terrestrial magnetism with the circulation of the atmosphere; and a ship-canal from the Illinois River to Lake Michigan. The papers gave their author fame, and secured respect for his opinions on naval questions. He was placed in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments at Washington, an office which was developed into the Naval Observatory and Hydrographical Department. "No man," said Senator John Bell, "could have been found in the country better fitted than Maury for this difficult duty; and he worked with the zeal and energy that were expected of him."

One of Maury's first enterprises in this office was the compilation of his wind and current charts and sailing directions. He had already, as sailing-master of the Falmouth, in 1831, observed the want of trustworthy information concerning the winds and currents encountered by mariners. He then resolved, if he ever had opportunity, to compile such, information from the store of old log-books in the Hydrographical Bureau of the Naval Department. This he now did, and his charts and sailing directions were furnished to the masters of vessels bound for foreign ports, who in turn supplied the results of their own observations. The most favorable reports came in of the value of the work, and it was illustrated by some then really wonderful incidents.

The fact was demonstrated in American and English journals that, by the mere shortening of voyages they made possible, these charts effected a very great saving in the expense of commerce between distant ports. Testimony was repeatedly borne to their value in the annual reports of the Navy Department and of congressional committees. Secretary Dobbin reported, in 1855, that other maritime nations, appreciating the value of this plan of investigation, had united in a common system of observations for its further prosecution; and that it was suggested by Lieutenant Maury that the same system of meteorological research, "if extended to the land, would afford for the agricultural interests of the country, and for science too, results quite as important as those which commerce and navigation have already received from it." "While analyzing and tabulating these "millions of observations," Maury wrote his Physical Geography of the Sea, which took rank at once as a masterly as well as a charming work. In the preface to it the author attributed such success as he had achieved to the observance of the rule "to keep the mind unbiased by theories and speculations; never to have any wish that an investigation should result in favor of this view in preference to that; and never to attempt by premature speculation to anticipate the results of investigations, but always to trust to the investigations themselves." The book met a large demand at home and abroad, more than twenty twenty editions having been sold in England alone; and it was translated into the French, Dutch, Italian, Swedish, and Spanish languages. Following this came the assembling of the Meteorological Congress at Brussels, in 1853, of the chief nations interested in commerce, at which a uniform system of observations on land and at sea was resolved upon. Among the incidents of the conference was a letter in 1857 from Humboldt, "at the age of ninety years," relating to its results, and offering "to my illustrious friend and associate .... the tribute of my respectful admiration .... It belongs to me, more than to any traveler of the age, to congratulate my illustrious friend upon the course which he has so gloriously opened."

Lieutenant Maury, after returning from the Brussels Conference, pressed the scheme of co-operation in meteorological observations on land. In addresses delivered at agricultural societies in 1855 he urged farmers to make daily observations of weather conditions and the state and yield of the crops, to be sent to him, as sailors were sending their observations at sea; and he advised them to seek from Congress measures for the establishment of a central office where these reports could be digested and the results sent monthly, weekly, or even daily, to all parts of the country, so that farmers could be "warned of the approach of storms, severe frosts, etc., that might prove injurious to the crops". He defined this proposition in an address before the United States Agricultural Society in January, 1856, as a concerted plan, the idea of which was to spread the network of instruments and observers in this country and over other parts of the world also, to which he was assured the co-operation of men of science abroad would be given. About three years afterward, in an address at Decatur, Ala., as if foreseeing that his services might become forgotten, he said: "Take notice, now, that this plan of crop and weather reports is my thunder; and if you see some one in Washington running away with it, then recollect, if you please, where the lightning came from." The whole record of Maury's meteorological work, and his part in advocating this plan, were reviewed by Senator Harlan, in a committee report to the United States Senate, made in 1857. His scheme also embraced a system of meteorological observations on the Great Lakes. Records had already been kept for many years by the army, to which, Maury acknowledged, "alone we are indebted for almost all we know concerning the climatology of the country"; but he explained that their value was retrospective; while the observations he proposed were to As early as 1848 Maury had concluded, from his investigations of the winds and currents, that a broad and level plateau—the "telegraphic plateau"—existed at the bottom of the ocean between Newfoundland and Ireland. His view was confirmed by the deep-sea soundings that were taken at his instance between 1849 and 1853; and early in 1854 he reported to the Secretary of the Navy that, so far as the bottom of the deep sea was concerned, a submarine telegraph between Newfoundland and Ireland was practicable. A plateau seemed to have been placed there especially for holding the wires and keeping them out of harm's way. His views respecting the manner of constructing cables were confirmed, both in the behavior of the first cable, constructed differently from them, which failed, and the others, made more in harmony with them, which were successful. At the dinner given in celebration of the arrival of the first message across the Atlantic, Mr. Cyrus W. Field said, referring to the enterprise, "Maury furnished the brains, England gave the money, and I did the work."

A painful surprise came to Lieutenant Maury when the Naval Retiring Board, under the act of Congress of February 28, 1855, placed him on the retired list on leave-of-absence pay, but without detaching him from the Naval Observatory. He regarded the act as an indignity. He wrote to three of the Secretaries of the Navy under whom he had served for expressions concerning his efficiency, particularly inquiring why he had been kept at the observatory instead of being sent to sea. Ex-Secretary Graham answered: "I considered your services at the National Observatory of far more importance and value to the country and the navy than any that could be rendered by an officer of your grade at sea in the time of peace. Indeed, I doubt whether the triumphs of navigation and of the knowledge of the sea achieved under your superintendence of the observatory will not contribute as much to an effective naval service and to the national fame as the brilliant trophies of our arms." Mr. John P. Kennedy wrote, "From my knowledge of the nature of your scientific pursuits, their usefulness to the country, and your devotion to them, I can say that nothing but such an emergency as left me no alternative, would have induced me to withdraw you from your labors at the observatory by an order to go to sea." Mr. William Ballard Preston wrote to similar effect. In the following winter Maury was, by special act of Congress, reinstated and promoted to the rank of commander, with back pay from the date of his retirement.

Other schemes discussed by Lieutenant Maury in general or special papers, included the location of lighthouses on the Florida and Gulf coasts; systematic observations of the rise and fall of the water in the Mississippi River and its tributaries, with gauges at all the principal towns; the redemption of the "drowned lands" of the Mississippi; navigation by great-circle routes; a ship-canal and railroad across the Isthmus, which he insisted should be by way of Panama or Nicaragua rather than Tehuantepec; the establishment of a great port at Norfolk, Va.; and the colonization of the surplus black and other population of the South in the valley of the Amazon. The Darien expedition of Lieutenant Strain and Lieutenant Herndon's exploration of the Amazon were connected with two of these schemes. The "lane route," followed by some of the transatlantic steamship lines, originated in the publication by Maury, in 1855, of a chart on which two lanes were laid down, each twenty-five miles broad, by following which the danger of collisions might be reduced. In acknowledgment of the value of the service rendered by this plan, and by the wind and current charts and sailing directions, the merchants and underwriters of New York presented him with five thousand dollars in gold and a handsome service of silver.

When the Ordinance of Secession was passed by the Legislature of Virginia, Commander Maury believed that his paramount obligation was to his native State. He accordingly left the service of the United States and identified his fortunes with those of Virginia and the Confederacy. There can be no doubt of his disinterestedness in taking this course. His merits and the value of his services were generally recognized throughout the North, and he had but recently given courses of lectures in the principal towns and cities, which were a series of popular ovations to him. In going into the service of the Confederacy he put himself under the direction, as his immediate superiors, of two men who, as United States Senators, had been prominent in opposition to his reinstatement after he had been put upon the retired list, and who are said to have been hostile to him before the war and through it. Of the manner of his leaving the service of the United States, he said, May 12, 1861, in a letter to a friend in Newburg, N. Y.: "I only saw last night the remarks of the Boston Traveller about Lieutenant Maury's treachery, his desertion, removal of buoys. It's all a lie! I resigned and left the observatory on Saturday the 12th ult. I worked as hard and as faithfully for 'Uncle Sam' up to three o'clock of that day as I ever did, and at three o'clock I turned everything—all the public property and records of the office—regularly over to Lieutenant Whiting, the proper officer in charge. I left in press Nautical Monograph, No. 3, one of the most valuable contributions I ever made to navigation; and, just as I left it, it is now in course of publication there, though I shall probably not have the privilege of reading the proof.... As for the buoys, I touched them not! "The Grand Duke Constantine and Napoleon III offered him positions in Russia and France, respectively, which he declined. He became a member of a Council of Three to assist the Governor of Virginia, and in June, 1861, was appointed Chief of the Sea-coast, Harbor, and River Defenses of the South. He assisted in fitting out the ironclad Merrimack; invented a torpedo to be used for harbor and land defense; and was engaged, in the summer of 1862, in mining the James River below all the defenses, when he was ordered to go to Europe to purchase torpedo material. During the first and second years of the war he published a series of papers urging the building of a navy, and of protecting the bays and rivers with small floating batteries. He stayed in England, on Confederate business, till the surrender of Lee, when he dispatched a letter to the United States officer commanding the squadron of the Gulf, declaring that he regarded himself in the relation to the United States substantially of a prisoner of war. He then offered his services to Maximilian in Mexico, and accepted the position of Director of the Imperial Observatory. A plan he had conceived for the formation of a colony of Virginians in Mexico was accepted by Maximilian, and he was appointed Imperial Commissioner for Colonization. The scheme was, however, abandoned as soon as Maury left Mexico to return to England. His course in this matter was not approved by his friends, either in Europe or in America. It is claimed that he performed one great service for Mexico during his short career there, in introducing the cultivation of the cinchona-tree.

Returning to England in March, 1866, Maury was given a testimonial, by naval and scientific men, in recognition of his scientific worth and service. He was employed in Paris, by Napoleon III, to instruct a board of French officers in his system of defensive sea-mining. Returning to London, he opened a school of instruction in electric torpedoes, which was attended—at the expense of their governments—by officers of the Swedish, Dutch, and other nations. At the instance of Mr. C. B. Richardson, a New York publisher, he undertook a series of geographical text-books, saying as he went to his task, "I could not wind up my career more usefully (and usefulness is both honor and glory) than by helping to shape the character and mold the destinies of the rising generation." He also wrote a popular book on astronomy, which has never been published.

In 1868 Maury received the degree of LL. D. from the University of Cambridge, along with Alfred Tennyson, Max Muller, and Mr. Wright, the Egyptologist, and declined an invitation from Napoleon III to the directorship of the Imperial Observatory of France. Taking advantage of the general amnesty act to return to the United States, he declined the offer of the superintendency of the University of the South at Suwanee, Tenn., to accept the professorship of Meteorology at the Virginia Military Institute. Pending his entrance upon the duties of this position, he considered a scheme for establishing a line of steamers between Norfolk and Flushing in Holland. During the last four years of his life he worked at a meteorological survey of Virginia. He engaged actively again in the advocacy of his old scheme for a Telegraphic Meteorological Bureau, in furtherance of which he repeated an address in Boston and Missouri and several places in the South. A paper on this subject presented to the International Congress, at St. Petersburg, for the Advancement of Geographic Knowledge, etc., was unanimously approved by that body. The exposure incident to travel in fulfilling his lecturing appointments brought on the illness which ended with his death; but he continued, to within a few days of that event, dictating and revising the last edition of his Physical Geography.

Commander Maury is described by his daughter as having been a stout man, about five feet six inches in height, with fresh, ruddy complexion, curling brown hair, and with every feature of his bright countenance bespeaking intellect, kindliness, and force of character. "His fine blue eyes beamed from under his broad forehead with thought and emotion, while his flexible mouth smiled with the pleasure of imparting to others the ideas which were ever welling up in his active brain. . . . His conversation was enjoyed by all who ever met him; he listened and learned while he conversed, and adapted himself to every capacity. He especially delighted in the company of young people, to whom his playful humor and gentle consideration made him very winning." N. P. Willis, speaking of him to a friend, said that he made him subject to his personal magnetism, and during a trip while they were together, "unconsciously furnished an exquisitely interesting study of character." He was a firm believer in the Christian religion, but did not join the church till 1867, when he was confirmed with his children in the Episcopal Church. His published works, books, pamphlets, and official papers were numerous, and bore reference to the researches which have been described in this sketch, concerning which they stand as original authorities. Orders were conferred upon him by the sovereigns of Russia, Denmark, Portugal, Belgium, and France; gold medals by those of Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Holland, Sardinia, France, and the free city of Bremen; and other honors by the Pope and Maximilian. He was a member of ten foreign and four American scientific and historical societies that are named, and of many other learned bodies of which the records were lost during the war.