Timeline: 1800 A.D.

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1-1000 AD
from Maury's "explanations and Sailing Directions," a chart of winds based on information derived form pilot charts. Additional text follows. enlargement of Matthew Fontaine Maury's winds map

Matthew Fontaine Maury

Seafaring, in the 1800’s, was a risky proposition, because
Chronometers were available to few ships, and sailors
lacked maps of ocean surface currents and winds. Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873) made sailing safer and far more efficient. Before he become known as the “Pathfinder of the Seas,” he joined the Navy as a young man in 1825.

By 1842, he was appointed superintendent of the Depot of Charts & Instruments of the Navy Department in Washington. In this position, he made his greatest contributions to the Navy and the world, by studying navigational and meteorological charts. Maury conducted the first systematic study of the ocean's surface currents and winds. He compiled information on currents and winds from the thousands of logbooks of sailors' observations stored at the U.S. Navy's Depot of Charts & Instruments and published the first charts of the North Atlantic in 1847. He produced the first reliable wind and current charts of the ocean.

He estimated current directions and speeds by analyzing deflections in ships' courses caused by surface ocean currents. Failure to correct a ship's course for current-induced deflections means that the ship's final position at the end of a run differs from its intended destination. Combining thousands of such observations, Maury constructed a map of average surface currents over much of the ocean.

Concerned that Sailors lacked standardized ocean wind and current charts and methods for taking meteorological readings at sea, Maury called an international conference that met in Brussels, Belgium, August 1853. This conference established international cooperation as key to maintaining accurate navigational charts for all mariners. He published “The Physical Geography of the Sea," in 1855, which is credited as one of the first books on oceanography.


Plate XV, shown above, from Maury’s “Explanations and Sailing Directions” is a chart of the winds based on information derived from the Pilot Charts. The object of this chart is to make the young seamen acquainted only with the prevailing direction of the wind in every part of the ocean. The arrows of the plate are supposed to fly with the wind; the half-bearded and half-feathered arrows denoting monsoons or periodic winds; the dotted belts, the regions of calm and baffling winds. Click on the map to enlarge it.

Matthew Maury

Excerpts from the Navy News Stand