Matthew Fontaine Maury In Profile Part 1
- Wednesday, August 25, 2004
"Thus saith the Lord, which maketh a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters." (Isaiah 43:16) What are "a way in the sea" and "a path in the mighty waters"? If you were a young Matthew Fontaine Maury, you would interpret this verse as telling man about the currents in the oceans. This is exactly what Matthew thought, and he was right. In fact, using the Bible as his guide he was able to unravel the mysteries of ocean currents and make profound advances in oceanography and Naval science. Because of his work he is often called "The Pathfinder of the Seas."
Maury the Man:
Matthew Fontaine Maury was born on January 14, 1806 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. His grandfather, James Maury, was an Episcopal minister and teacher. Among his grandfather's pupils were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, who would all become presidents of the United States, and 5 signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Matthew's family stayed in Virginia until he was about 5 years old, then moved to Franklin, Tennessee where they farmed. The county, named after his family, is called Maury County. Matthew spent his youth working on the farm, hunting and walking through the forests. When he was 12 years old he fell from a tree, some say 45 feet, injured his back and nearly bit his tongue off. The accident rendered him unable to do the hard labor required on the farm.
Young Matthew attended the elementary schools in his area but was later enrolled in the Harpeth Academy where he excelled in his studies.
Until Maury's time only a little work had been done in oceanography. The subject was new and not much was known. If he wanted to learn more he would not be able to take any courses in school, so he obtained what writings were available and taught himself. Basically he home-educated himself through college!
No Naval Academy existed when Matthew was of college age. Instead he was appointed by Congressman Sam Houston to obtain a midshipman's warrant in 1825. Instead of college, Maury was to obtain his education through active duty aboard a ship. In addition to his studies he was also tasked with the routine duties such as taking watch. He was known to write spherical geometry diagrams in chalk on the cannonballs so he could study them as he performed his watch duties. His method for studying navigation turned out to be unique as well. He found a Spanish book on navigation and, using a Spanish dictionary, learned the information contained within. Throughout his tenure aboard Navy ships he kept meticulous notes on currents, winds, atmospheric pressure and other observations useful to navigation.
When the Civil War broke out Maury was forced to take sides. Although he disagreed with slavery he felt that his duty was to side with his family and the Confederacy. Serving as the Commander of the Confederate Navy he helped secure southern ports through the development of explosive devices. These were the first underwater mines and they succeeded in sinking some 35 Federal ships. Maury's military career was to be short-lived, however.
Matthew had a penchant for upsetting people that did not agree with him, including the head of the Naval Retirement Board. Finally, Confederate President Jefferson Davis grew tired of Maury's attitudes and had him sent to Europe to get him out of the way.
In 1868 the President of the United States pardoned all former Confederates. Maury returned and finished his career as a professor of physics at the Virginia Military Institute. He died in Lexington, Virginia, on February 1, 1873.
Maury the Scientist:
Many of the scientists that have been profiled in this series had extensive academic training and degrees. Maury had no such formal training. The field of oceanography as we know it did not exist in the early 1800's. Matthew Maury was developing the scientific discipline as he went. It was Maury who was setting the stage for future generations to take up the advanced studies.
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