[The following narrative is taken from Frederick W. True’s Semi-centennial history of the National Academy of Sciences, A History of the First Half-Century of the National Academy of Sciences 1863-1913, pp. 219-225.]

This committee was the fifth among those appointed in 1863. The explanatory note regarding it contained in the Annual of the Academy for the year is as follows: “Appointed May 25th, 1863, at the request of the Navy Department, conveyed through Rear-Admiral C.H. Davis, May 23d, 1863, asking for an investigation and report on the subject of discontinuing the publication, in the present form, of the Wind and Current Charts and Sailing Directions.”

The history of these publications, the circumstances that brought them to the attention of the Academy, the character of the committee that passed on them, and the verdict of science regarding them are all matters of more than ordinary interest.

They were devised by Matthew Fontaine Maury, whose singular career may be summarized for the benefit of those not already acquainted with it. Maury who was a Virginian by birth, entered the Navy in 1825 and a few years later was detailed to join the United States Exploring Expedition. As an officer of the ship Vincennes, he circumnavigated the globe. In 1836 he reached the grade of lieutenant and became astronomer to the expedition. Three years later he met with an accident which caused him to be permanently lame. He became interested during his cruise with the Vincennes and on subsequent voyages in studying the winds and other phenomena of the ocean. Rendered incapacitated for active service by the accident which he encountered, he was placed in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments, in the Navy Department. Out of this office a little later grew the Hydrographic Office and the United States Naval Observatory. Maury became the head of both these establishments. After it had become impossible for him to make meteorological observations himself he inaugurated a system of distributing specially prepared log-books to captains of vessels in which they might keep a daily record of winds and other phenomena of different parts of the ocean.

The data thus obtained were intended to lighten the labors of navigators, and it was expected that by the study of them sailing captains would be enabled to determine upon the best course in different latitudes and would be informed regarding the character of the storms and winds which they might encounter. The data were published by the Government in a series of charts and books which are described as follows in the report of the committee:

“The publications submitted to the committee consist of seventy-six charts of large dimensions, measuring generally twenty-four inches by thirty-five or six within the borders, and classified into six distinct series, distinguished by the letters A to F. These classes are entitled severally, ‘Track Charts,’ ‘Trade Wind Charts,’ ‘Pilot Charts,’ ‘Thermal Charts,’ ‘Storm and Rain Charts,’ and ‘Whale Charts.’ Besides these there are two thick quarto volumes of letter press, embracing pp. xxxxi, 383, and viii, 874, respectively. The first of these volumes is illustrated by sixty-three engraved plates, some of them colored, and the second by six. Supplementary to these are three thin tracts, also in quarto, entitled, ‘Nautical Monographs,’ and embracing in all pp. 48 and five plates.”

[Rep. Nat. Acad. Sci. for 1863, p. 98]

In addition, Maury, as is well known, published a treatise entitled “The Physical Geography of the Sea,” and several other works. The publication of the meteorological data led to the organization of an international congress in 1853, and later, when the British Meteorological Office was established, Maury’s logbooks were adopted. In recognition of his services to navigation and meteorology, Maury received many medals and decorations from European societies and Governments.

Regarding the value of Maury’s work, Sir John Murray and Dr. Johan Hjort recently remarked as follows:

“Maury’s work had important consequences, for ship-masters following his directions shortened the voyage between North America and England by ten days, that from New York to California by about forty-five days, and that from England to Australia and back by more than sixty days. The profit derived from the use of Maury’s charts by British ship-owners on the East India route alone amounted to 10 million dollars yearly.

“On Maury’s suggestion it was decided, at an international congress at Brussels in 1853, that numbers of log-books should be sent out with captains of ships for the purpose of entering observations of wind and weather, of currents, and of temperatures at the sea-surface. This plan has been followed ever since, the notes being as a rule entered once every watch, so that a formidable pile of material has now been amassed. Up to 1904 the Meteorological Office in London had collected 7 millions of these notes, the Deutsche Seewarte in Hamburg more than 10 ½ millions, the Dutch Meteorological Institute in DeBilt 3 ½ millions, the Hydrographical Bureau at Washington 5 ½ millions, and so on.”

[Depths of the Ocean, by Sir John Murray and Dr. Johan Hjort, London, 1912, pp. 214, 215.]

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Maury resigned his office under the United States Government and threw in his fortunes with his native State. Being unfit for active service, he went to England to reside and later became commissioner of immigration for Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. On returning to England in 1866 he was given a banquet in honor of his services as a hydrographer, which was attended by many eminent naval officers and scientific men of England and other parts of Europe. On this occasion he was presented with a purse of 3000 guineas, as collected by popular subscription. His last years were spent as Professor of Physics at the University of Virginia.

When Maury left the Naval Observatory on April 15, 1861, his meteorological data, records and papers fell into the hands of James Melville Gilliss, who two days later was appointed to succeed him as the head of the Naval Observatory.

In September of the following year the Navy Department was reorganized and the Observatory was included in the new Bureau of Navigation of which Admiral Charles H. Davis became the head. It appears that the publication of the charts and sailing directions was unfinished, and the question arose in the Department whether it should be continued. This question was, on the suggestion of Admiral Davis, referred to the recently-organized Academy of Sciences.

[The correspondence, as given in the Report of the Academy for 1863, pp. 6, 7, is as follows:

“Bureau of Navigation, Navy Department

“Washington, May 2, 1863.

“Sir: I have the honor to inform the department that the charts and sailing directions published by the late superintendent of the Observatory, at the expense of the government, are regarded by hydrographers and scientific men as being prolix and faulty, both in matter and arrangement, to such an extent as to render the limited amount of original information which they actually contain costly and inaccessible.

“I am prepared to recommend the discontinuance of the publication of these charts and sailing directions. But in order that this question of discontinuance may be decided with deliberation, I have to request permission to refer it to the National Academy of Sciences, for investigation, and report to this department.

“I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

“Charles H. Davis,

Chief of the Bureau

“Hon. Gideon Welles,

Secretary of the Navy


“Bureau of Navigation, Navy Department,

Washington, May 23, 1863.

“Sir: I transmit herewith a copy of a letter addressed by me to the Hon. Secretary of the Navy, on the subject of discontinuing the publication, in the present form, of the ‘Wind and Current Charts,’ and ‘Sailing Directions,’ accompanying them; and now, with the approval of the department, I have the honor to refer the same subject to the National Academy of Sciences, for investigation and report, requesting that, on account of the expense and the public interest, it may receive early attention.

“Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

“Charles H. Davis,

Chief of the Bureau

“Professor A.D. Bache,

President National Academy of Sciences”]

The Academy appears to have considered the question one of special difficulty and importance, as is evidenced by the size and character of the committee appointed to report on it. This was a committee of twelve members, ten of whom were appointed on May 25, and the remaining a little later. The personnel was as follows: F.A.P. Barnard (chairman), J.H. Alexander, Wm. Chauvenet, J.F. Frazer, J.E. Hilgard, Joseph Winlock, Alexis Caswell, J.H.C. Coffin, Arnold Guyot, Benjamin Peirce, J.P. Lesley, J.D. Dana.

The report of the committee, which was handed in on January 9, 1864, more than seven months after its appointment, occupies fifteen pages, and treats of the different aspects of the publication of the charts and sailing directions considerably in detail. It begins with a brief account of the size, number and character of the publications which were examined, and then discusses the purposes which they appeared to have been intended to serve. It points out that up to the year 1858 more than 200,000 copies of the “Wind and Current Charts” and 20,000 copies of the “Sailing Directions” had been distributed, from which it resulted that the publications and their compiler, Maury, had become widely known.

After showing that although the publications were primarily intended to serve practical ends they had, nevertheless, been regarded in part as containing the results of scientific investigation, the committee discusses them from both points of view.

Its opinion regarding both the scientific and the practical merits of the publications was unfavorable. On the scientific side, the opinion of the committee, which was fortified by quotations from the French writers Bourgois and Lartigue, was that the generalizations contained in the Sailing Directions did not follow from the data collected, that many of the data were left out of consideration, and that the principles enumerated were not correctly based.

On the practical side, the opinion of the committee was that while the data presented were valuable, the form in which they appeared was such as to confuse rather than aid and inform the navigator.

The committee sums up as follows:

“The original idea of these publications was a good one; it is the manner of its execution that is faulty. It was fitting that the laborious analysis of ships’ records which has been carried on at the Naval Observatory should be made. It is greatly desirable that it should be continued, and extended to every point of interest in meteorological science and research. It is desirable that the collected and classified results should be compared and studied, and that abstracts of them should be exchanged with institutions and individuals engaged in similar investigations elsewhere, in our own or in other lands. But it is by no means desirable that the immense mass of facts thus collected should be embodied in an indigested or half digested state, into publications designed to be scattered broadcast over land and sea. Out of their careful study may be deducted principles which may form the basis of instructions to navigators worthy to be called ‘Sailing Directions,’ and such instructions in any suitable form may very fitly be published by the government and circulated among seamen.

“The committee, therefore, with entire unanimity, recommend the adoption of the following resolutions:

“‘Resolved by the National Academy of Sciences, That, in the opinion of this academy, the volumes entitled, ‘Sailing Directions,’ heretofore issued to navigators from the Naval Observatory, and the ‘Wind and Current Charts,’ which they are designed to illustrate and explain, embrace much which is unsound in philosophy, and little that is practically useful; and that therefore these publications ought no longer to be issued in their present form.

“‘Resolved, That the records of meteorological phenomena and of other important facts connected with terrestrial physics, which, under the direction of the Navy Department, have been accumulated at the Observatory, are capable of being turned to valuable account, and that it is eminently desirable that such information should continue to be collected and subjected to careful discussion.

“‘Resolved, That the president of the academy be authorized and requested to communicate to the Secretary of the Navy a copy of the foregoing resolutions, and of this report, as a response to the inquiry addressed to the academy upon this subject by that officer.’”

[Rep. Nat. Acad. Sci. for 1863, p. 112.]

Considering the circumstances under which this report was drawn up, it must be conceded that it is moderate in tone and not unappreciative of the labors of Maury. The criticisms of the committee were directed against the form in which the data were published and the deductions drawn from them, rather than against the data themselves. As a result of the committee’s report, the publication was suspended. After the Hydrographic Office was regularly organized in 1866, however, the plates from which the charts were made were turned over to it, and in 1873 efforts were renewed to obtain additional meteorological data from merchant vessels for a new edition. In 1884 the hydrographer reported that sufficient data from this source and from the naval vessels had been collected to form the basis of a new set of charts for the North Pacific.

[Rep. Nat. Acad. Sci. for 1884, p. 59.]

Commander J.R. Bartlett, the head of the Hydrographic Office remarked:

“The province of the meteorological division is to furnish blank meteorological journals to the masters of merchant vessels who are willing to post them, the masters receiving in return a set of charts covering the route to be traversed. The data obtained from these journals and from the log-books of ships of war are condensed for use in the construction of new editions of Maury’s Wind and Current Charts.”

[Loc. cit., p. 61.]

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