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Matthew Fontaine Maury In Profile Part 1

  • Ray & Gale Lawson
  • Published Jul 29, 2004
Matthew Fontaine Maury In Profile Part 1

"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.

So, if Matthew Maury was not able to attend school to study oceanography where did he start? He started with what little research had been done, which was mainly the observations of others documented in ships' log books as well as existing maps and charts He knew that this was not enough so he started making his own observations. These observations included reading a barometer (to record atmospheric pressures) and noting wind conditions on his various voyages and by taking geologic samples from the ocean bottom. He was pioneering the field through his own work!

In 1842 he was appointed Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments for the U.S. Navy. It was then that he started creating his own wind and current maps of the major oceans. In 1855 he wrote and had published, "The Physical Geography of the Sea." This book may well be considered the first oceanography textbook.

One of the more interesting things that Maury did occurred in 1853. Using a deep sounding device (depth finder) designed at the Naval Observatory and collecting geological samples of the seafloor, he discovered an underwater plateau that extended from Newfoundland, Canada, to Ireland. In 1858 the Atlantic Telegraph Company consulted with Maury and laid the first trans-Atlantic cable along this plateau. This would open the doors of communication between North America and Europe.

Learn more next week in Part 2 of this article...

About the Authors
Ray & Gale Lawson have been homeschooling their 3 children since 1995. Ray holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the Virginia Military Institute and works for Washington Group International in Aiken, SC. Gale holds a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of South Carolina and has been "full time mom and teacher" since the birth of their first child. Questions, comments and suggestions can be mailed to Ray at or Gale at

This article was originally published in the Jul/Aug '04 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine, and is part of an ongoing series of Profiles in Christianity & Science. For more information, please visit