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MATTHEW FONTAINE MAURY
FRANCIS H. SMITH
THE names of distinguished persons are often suggestive. They
may be an epitome of history, if such persons possess a memorable line of ancestry. The name which heads this sketch recalls the amazing folly of a great king, who drove from France a noble race to enrich other lands and impoverish his own. The Huguenots carried to England, Ireland, and America beautiful arts and high character. English writers dwell upon the new trades their country owed to the exiles; while in America we love to acknowledge the moral worth they brought to the struggling colonies. The Atlantic Ocean doubtless kept the mere artisan back. Without the Legarés, the Latanés, Maryes, Maurys, Fontaines and their brethren, our history would have been very different.
Matthew Fontaine Maury was the great-grandson of Matthew Maury, "a Huguenot gentleman," and Mary Ann Fontaine, eldest daughter of the Rev. James Fontaine, once pastor at Rochelle in France and afterward a refugee in Ireland, and author of 'The Memoirs of a Huguenot Family.' Her brother, John Fontaine, was one of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, who in 1716 rode with Governor Spottswood over the Appalachians to the Shenandoah. Her great-grandson, Matthew Fontaine Maury, was born in Spottsylvania County, Virginia, January 24, 1806, and died in Lexington, Virginia, February 1, 1873. His early life was spent in Tennessee, to which State his father removed when the boy was five years old. Here on the outskirts of civilization he was fortunate enough to add to the "old-field school" lessons of his companions the advantages of an academy, taught by a faithful man. Even thus his early opportunities were limited. He was to owe his swift success in life chiefly to his unappeasable thirst for knowledge, joined to healthy. ambition and untiring industry. As he said afterward in a letter to his cousin, Frank Minor, "I don't think that so much depends upon intellect as is generally supposed; but industry and steadiness of purpose, they are the things."
It was doubtless the brilliant history, sadly shortened, of his oldest brother, Captain John Minor Maury of the United States Navy, which drew the young boy's attention to the public service. Amid
many discouragements-chiefly the disapproval of his father, who having just lost one son felt that he could not spare another-he persisted, and finally, at the age of nineteen, procured a midshipman's warrant and entered upon active service. It is interesting to note that his first cruise was in the ship which carried the Marquis La Fayette back to France, and that during the voyage he attracted the favorable notice of the distinguished guest.
After fourteen years of service afloat on many seas, marked by incessant observation and study and the preparation at intervals of a book on navigation, used for years as a text-book in the United States Navy, he was crippled for life in 1839 by an accident which to most men would have been the end, but to him was the beginning of his greatest work. While convalescing, he wrote for the Southern Literary Messenger a series of articles on the navy, entitled "Scraps from the Lucky Bag of Harry Bluff." In these he advocated with marked clearness and force, among other things, the adoption of steam as a motive power in ships of war, and the substitution of a few rifled guns of great size for the multitude of smooth-bore smaller pieces then found upon our large battle-ships. This was in 1839. These papers drew favorable attention from the public and from naval authorities. Their authorship could not be long concealed; and when, in 1841, Maury, though lame, applied for active service, the Secretary of the Navy, acting upon his own knowledge and with the private remonstrance of some of Maury's best friends, declined to grant his request. Soon afterward he was placed in charge of the depot of charts and instruments at Washington, on the recommendation of his brother officers.*
Although brought into this work without his own solicitation, he entered upon its development with characteristic energy. The title of the department, its previous history, and its accumulations suggested a line of work on which he had already spent much thought the improvement of the faulty charts then supplied to the navy. On overhauling and comparing the "logs" collected in the depot, he was able to furnish a better chart to certain navigators who were willing to coöperate with him, resulting in a shortening of their voyages, which soon drew wide attention to his valuable labors. With this humble beginning, the enterprise grew, with the coöperation not only of the Government but of a great company of the masters of commercial vessels, who in return for the charts furnished them kept accurate logs, which they on their return passed over to the depot at Washington.
Maury was able to issue from year to year his celebrated "Wind
*Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury, by his daughter, Mrs. Corbin (p. 45).
and Current Charts and Sailing Directions," creating what Alexander von Humboldt called "the physical geography of the sea." It is not too much to say that for sailing vessels he did an incomparable work, in shortening voyages and making them safer, thus adding greatly to the wealth of maritime nations. The subject, which he attacked in a way that was a model of scientific method, was in some respects the most formidable department of physical science. In 1850 all knowledge of physical geography was immature; it had not passed the rhetorical stage common to all infant sciences. The great features of the continents, and the surfacecirculation of the ocean were known well enough to interest the beginner and tempt the lecturer. Especially immature was that branch of it known as meteorology. This, dealing with a fluid so light and mobile as air, enveloping to an unknown depth both land and sea; accessible only at its base; subject to a multitude of interfering forces, only part of which are known, and those imperfectly, could scarcely, when Maury began his work, be called a science. It was hopeless to deal with it mathematically, as in the case of gravitational astronomy. In such a field, years of minute observation, accumulating vast stores of facts, must precede and support any sound generalizations. The atmosphere lying over the sea is in many ways under simpler conditions than that which is over the land, and offers the most promising area in which to begin the work. This truth young Maury had the sagacity to see. By his patient, expanding collection of facts through a series of years, and his masterly discussion of these facts, he not only gave the world a new science, of great, practical value, but he gave to students the best specimen, perhaps, which his century affords of the sound Baconian method in the discovery of natural truth. The beneficial results of his labors were quickly extended to the ships of foreign lands, and created such an interest that he was able to assemble at Brussels, in 1853, the first International Meteorological Congress, participated in by representatives of all the great commercial nations of the world, leading to the recommendation of a world-wide uniform system of observations at sea.
Maury returned from Brussels loaded with honors. No American ever had so prompt and so general a recognition of his merit from foreign governments. The Emperor of Russia made him a Knight of the Order of St. Ann; the King of Denmark made him Knight of the Dannebrog; the King of Portugal, Knight of the Tower and Sword; the King of Belgium, Knight of the Order of St. Leopold; the Emperor of France, Commander of the Legion of Honor, and Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Holland, Sardinia, Bremen, and France struck medals in his honor. The Pope conferred upon him a nota
ble testimonial, and the Emperor of Mexico gave him a decoration. More than sixteen learned societies gave him honorary membership; while later the University of Cambridge, England, made him LL.D., at the same time with Tennyson.
Very early in these maritime researches he became convinced that the same method might with advantage be extended to a more difficult field-the land. By official reports and public lectures, as well as by private correspondence, covering the years between 1850 and 1860, he attempted to enlist the interest of men in authority, and especially of the farmers and lake-shore people, whose coöperation in observations his plans contemplated, in this new weather bureau. The point he insisted on was not the mere gathering of statistics to be used in some distant future, but daily reports to a central office, to be immediately digested and published so that people might be warned of the weather to be expected the next day. Others, like Colonel Meade of the army, and Professor Henry of the Smithsonian Institution, were moving in the same direction; and the magnificent result of it all is seen in our National Weather Bureau and Signal Service, which many believe, with Senator Vest, "originated with Lieutenant Maury."
When Maury took charge of the depot of charts and instruments, there was already a movement to enlarge its scope, and Lieutenant Gillis had just returned from Europe with several important astronomical instruments. These his successor Maury soon had in use. Though fitted by his previous work rather for hydrography than for astronomy, he had an ambition to show scientists that the navy could take care of the latter science as well. He applied himself to its development with such success that with the coöperation of a number of able assistants the annual volumes of astronomical observations took rank side by side with those of Greenwich. The name "depot" was soon changed to Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Bureau. Astronomy then took the superior place in that institution, which it has ever since held.
But winds and currents and stars were not enough to occupy the whole time of this remarkable man. He early drew the attention of the Government to the importance of defences on the coast of Florida and at Memphis. They were afterward built. In 1843 he also pointed out the urgent need of a ship canal from the Illinois River to Lake Michigan, to connect with the Mississippi River and the Memphis Navy Yard. Again, his data gathered from mariners included many deep-sea soundings, with specimens of matter from the sea-bottom. He thus discovered the "telegraphic plateau," when Cyrus W. Field was pushing to completion preparations for the first Atlantic cable. Maury took hold of this enterprise with his usual
zeal and industry, giving Mr. Field the benefit of his best thought. So valuable was this help that at a dinner given in New York in 1858, to celebrate the arrival of the first message across the Atlantic, Mr. Field, in replying to a toast, declared that "Maury furnished the brains, England gave the money, and I did the work."
In 1849 Maury's fertile brain revived the dream of the Spanish adventurers of two centuries before, looking to the piercing of the Isthmus of Panama and the union of two oceans. He urged in print the advantages of the Panama route, while not blind to those of the Nicaragua course. His publications led to the Darien exploring expedition under Lieutenant Strain, and helped to prepare our people to resume as an American enterprise the abandoned essay of De Lesseps. It is amusing now to know that in 1849 the estimated cost of the canal was twenty-five millions of dollars.
One of the most noteworthy events during the nineteen years of Maury's incessant and varied activity at the Washington Observatory was the preparation of a book, which he named, after Humboldt's suggestion, 'The Physical Geography of the Sea.' He embodied in it the results of his researches together with certain striking speculations as to the form and distribution of the great atmospheric currents, and the part played by magnetism in the meteorology of the sea. The book, which was intended rather for the educated many than for the scientific few, was written in a glowing and attractive style and in a reverent spirit. Maury believed with David that "they that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep." He had felt this in his early cruises as a young midshipman, and he delighted to give utterance to such sentiments in his later writings. As to the rhetorical cast of some pages of his book, it is doubtless true that public taste, especially in books of a scientific character, is getting to be much more sober in these latter days, and that to enjoy and appreciate such a book as Maury's we must put ourselves back into the tone and temper of his times. Compared in style with some books of wide circulation, written by scientists of the first rank in those days, 'The Physical Geography of the Sea' appears to be severely pruned. A more serious objection to the work was made by some American physicists, who attacked several of the speculations put forward in it. They were presented as hypotheses, and not as ascertained truths. Their rejection would still leave unaffected the great facts which the author had reached. A fertile mind, like a vigorous tree, produces many germs that never fructify. Yet if one acorn brings an oak, we forget the rest.
The success of Lieutenant Maury's book was immediate and