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A correct map of the coast of New England, 1731

Navigating the Coasts and Seas

by: John Cloud


The very essence of coast-wise and maritime navigation is evoked in the engraved plate of a volcano with an oared boat and sailing ships from the 1820 edition of Abraham Rees’s Cyclopaedia in the holdings of the Newberry Library. It was based on an original sketch from life in 1797, but it possesses an air of timelessness; people in boats and ships, powered by oars and the wind, passing Mount Vesuvius busily going somewhere along a coast of a great sea. Yet, as a modern library, the Newberry collections span only the last 900 to 1,000 years, as they consist of written words and maps and books and sketches on parchment, vellum, paper, or the like. The world they present is not timeless at all.

Before 1,000 years ago, all the oceans and seas of the planet had been explored, except the great Southern Ocean surrounding the continent of Antarctica. The shores and many of the islands of the Arctic Ocean had been explored and inhabited by peoples using magnificently creative technologies to survive in such a challenging environment. People had explored the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean and had populated isolated rocks and whole archipelagoes of islands. Migration and trade routes along continental coasts, and between continents, had transformed cultures and linked peoples across vast distances into networks of trade, and war, and empire. How could people have done this, before “maps” in the forms we currently know them, had existed?

A very long time ago humans everywhere mastered the wandering cosmography of the Sun and Moon and planets against the fixed stars, as they experienced them. They noticed the patterns of seasonal weather; they knew the systems of tides, even if they didn’t necessarily understand them. They saw patterns of migration in the movement of animals, fish, and birds, and derived much from those patterns. They recognized ocean currents and consistent wind patterns, and gave them names. In general they talked about all these matters and remembered the talk, so that generations and millennia of human explorations were condensed into layered narratives and accumulated geographies.

Around 800 CE, Irish monks and Viking warrior-farmers established settlements on Iceland, which until that moment had been the largest uninhabited land mass on the planet, apart from Antarctica. It is unclear exactly how they navigated to and from Iceland, but they recorded the stories of their migration in written chronicles, with words in ink on parchment. From about that moment, the era of modern libraries like the Newberry could begin. Shortly thereafter came the era so often labeled the Age of Exploration, although what that really meant was the Age of Western European Exploration and Empire. We are quite familiar now with the narratives, and their counter-narratives. We are less familiar with the nascent almanacs and ephemerides, the manuals the positions of specific celestial bodies calculated in advance, like the fifteenth century Portuguese Regiment of the Sun, which allowed mariners possessing the manuals and requisite instruments on their ships to calculate their latitudes daily with remarkable precision, for the era.

And an even more interesting set of stories unfolds when we advance to the cusp between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the times of Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton, when the techniques of nascent modern science were applied to the ancient arts and skills of navigation. This essay is an illustrated introduction to these stories, including a small set of the myriad actors and institutions that addressed earthly position and navigation between positions systematically. Along the way they invented whole classes of instruments and associated tables and techniques, and they standardized time, the implications of which have transformed both human society and human perceptions of the cosmos. Hence, we begin this essay on marine navigation not with a nautical chart, but rather a chart which would forever structure all subsequent nautical charts and mappings of every kind.

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A new and correct chart shewing the variations of the compass in the Western & Southern Oceans

The Many Returns of Edmond Halley

Edmond Halley (1656-1742) for whom Halley’s Comet was named, was a giant in the history of scientific observation, and also the visualization of conclusions derived from such observations. Notice, to begin, that what we call the Atlantic Ocean Halley divided into two basins, western and southern. The western basin, also called the North Atlantic, had been traversed for many centuries at that point, and the use of magnetic compasses had become ubiquitous. It had been apparent since their beginnings that compasses did not generally point accurately toward true north, and the patterns of variation also became gradually known. It was Christopher Columbus, in his first voyage, who first observed the change in magnetic variation switch from west to east of true north. The southern ocean, or South Atlantic, was known primarily only along the edge of Africa and along specific cross-ocean trade routes related to the great commerce in human slaves between western Africa and the New World. In 1698, and 1699-1700, Halley commanded the Royal Navy ship Paramour in explorations of the southern ocean, in what was the very first British scientific voyage. The patterning of compass magnetic variations (variations east and west from true north) that Halley discovered, he presented in 1701 in his first, and the very first, use of isogonic lines in Western cartography. “Isogonic” lines link areas in which a certain value is the same. Contours of elevation on a hiking map, or contours of depths of the ocean bottom offshore from a beach are similar to Halley’s isogonic lines of equal degrees of magnetic deviation east and west from true north. This particular chart of magnetic variation is from the revised second edition of Halley’s chart, published in 1732. The earth’s magnetic field changes very slowly and steadily, a process called “secular variation,” and the variation had changed enough by decades later that Halley updated his chart.

Halley’s revised magnetic variation chart was published in the 1732 edition of The English Pilot, which was begun by John Seller, Sr. (1630-1697) in 1675. Seller, as a bookseller and printer, atlas compiler, and Hydrographer to the King, was a giant in the establishment of printed aids to nautical navigation, beginning in 1669 with his treatise Practical Navigation: or, An introduction to that whole art. Containing I. Several definitions in geometry, astronomy, geography, and navigation. 2. A new and exact kalender, etc. The English Pilot in some form has been continuously in print to the present day. The 1732 edition contained, besides the revised magnetic variation chart, Halley’s ”A Correct Map of the Coast of New England.” The continental and island shore lines are shown in an equirectangular projection called the plate carré, which has significant distortions, but for relatively small areas, such as offshore from New England, the distortions are manageable. Some areas of the ocean display soundings, from the old French word “sonder,” meaning to measure. The numbers on the water referring to the water depth at that spot, derived from sounding the bottom with lead weights on ropes marked by increments of length. There is a compass rose in the approximate center of the ocean expanse. The compass rose is closely related to the wind rose; both are devices tracing back centuries, to assist in plotting ships’ courses relative to the 32-point “rose,” or divisions of the 360-degree circle. Shallow shoal areas, such as the Georges Bank east of Cape Cod, are marked and sounded, as these were extremely important fishing grounds, essential to commerce on both sides of the Atlantic. Boston, the most important harbor in eastern North America at the time, is shown in great detail in an inset map in the upper left corner. Notice as well what is not presented: any indication of Native American lands or waters, nor any French land or sea claims.

Much transpired between the last chart and the next one, principally a series of wars between France and Great Britain, with and against Native Americans as well, in complexly changing alliances, and the American Revolution, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Through it all, complex trade across the Atlantic involving raw materials, finished commodities, slaves, immigrants, and currencies, drove societies on all sides of the ocean basin.

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Chart of the Atlantic Ocean

The American Progression

In 1796, Edmund Blunt the Elder (1770-1862), who had been a bookseller in Newburyport, Massachusetts, became a book publisher, printing his first edition of The American Coast Pilot, which was modeled on (and partially stolen from) The English Coast Pilot, a publication related to The English Pilot, and basically addressing the divisions between coast-wise and maritime navigation discussed at the beginning of this essay. Blunt formed an alliance with a Captain Lawrence Furlong, about whom little is known, except for the obvious fact that Furlong was a master mariner, with detailed and accurate knowledge of the North American coast from Labrador to the Caribbean. Blunt’s work was extraordinarily successful, and new improved editions followed quickly. Sometime around 1800, Blunt began a partnership with Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) who was a mathematical prodigy and master of navigational sciences born into an ancient seafaring family in Salem, Massachusetts. They schemed to create a new, improved edition of another British navigational authority, The New Practical Navigator, being an Epitome of Navigation, which had been written by John Hamilton Moore (1738-1807), who was a skilled British mathematician and innovator in navigational techniques. Furlong’s American Coast Pilot was primarily addressed to coast-wise navigation along the American coast, and the intricacies of sailing in and out of complex harbor channels, etc. Moore’s Epitome of Navigation was a general treatise on celestial navigation, determining latitude and longitude at sea by reference to astronomical positioning, and particularly to improved methods to determine a ship’s longitude, by use of tables of the projected positions of the Moon at specific future times and dates as experienced at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. These were presented in The Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris, established in 1767 by the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811). By knowing Greenwich Time at a specific instant, and knowing as well the local time at the same instant, the time difference between Greenwich and the local position could be translated easily into a difference in longitude between Greenwich and the local position. Unfortunately, the calculations involved in creating the tables were difficult, and subject to numerous errors, which then translated into errors in position. Nathaniel Bowditch was a mathematical savant, who could spot errors and do calculations in his head. Bowditch also figured out tables to simplify or eliminate many of the numerous corrections and adjustments which had to be made to the apparent lunar positioning in order to determine longitude accurately.

All this culminated in 1802, with Blunt’s publication of Bowditch’s New American Practical Navigator, which was recognized almost immediately as a major contribution to ocean navigation. Each succeeding edition of “the Bowditch” as it has become known, introduced new materials, especially maps and charts, such as this 1807 Chart of the Atlantic Ocean. Like Halley’s chart from nearly a century earlier, the chart features a compass rose in the approximate center of the Western Ocean, or North Atlantic. The chart also has some arrows showing consistent ocean current direction, and a great arc, named as “The Trade Wind” which is more accurately described as the course of the Gulf Steam flowing from the south and then east towards the coast of northwestern Europe. The chart also shows the track of a ship’s voyage from Boston Harbor into and along the great arc, and then directly east to the Portuguese island of Madeira, southwest of the Iberian Peninsula. That journey was accompanied by a complete journal of the process of navigating from Boston to Madeira, written to illustrate most or all of the navigational techniques presented by Bowditch. In that era, there were copyright laws in force in both Great Britain and the United States, although they varied from our present legal conceptions of copyright a good deal. But in any case, a way of making the case that a new edition of somebody else’s book didn’t violate copyrights to the book was to make additions and improvements to it. The original British editions of Moore’s New Practical Navigator taught his navigational techniques through a journal of a voyage from London to the island of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands off the coast from the western Sahara in Africa. Bowditch’s version voyaged from Boston to Madeira, and hence was “new, and improved!”

The 1807 edition of “the Bowditch” also includes illustrations of the three major instruments of navigation as used in the western tradition in that era: (1) The mariners compass, with its 32-point divisions, known as the compass rose, here mounted on gimbals in a box, to compensate for the rocking movements of the ship; (2) equipment to determine the speed of the ship, consisting of an hourglass for timing, and a spool on which line can be wound, and a “log”, which when thrown overboard off the back end of the ship attached to the line, will tend to stay in the same place in the water, while ship moves forward and the line runs out, until the moment the hourglass empties. The length of the line unrolled during the time of the hourglass can then be converted into an estimate of the speed of the ship; and (3) two versions of the general class of angle-measuring instruments called, generally, quadrants. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) actually devised the concept for a celestial angle measuring device using double-reflecting mirrors, a description of which he gave to Edmond Halley. This was not published until after Halley’s death in 1742, by which time a British mathematician, John Hadley (1682-1744), and an American optician and inventor, Thomas Godfrey (1704-1749) had, about 1730, independently invented their own versions of the instrument. Well into the next century, the instruments were commonly known as Hadley’s quadrants. In the Bowditch image, the instrument on the left is described as a quadrant, although it is more properly an octant, as its curved arc represents an eighth, or forty-five degrees, of a circle. The instrument in the right is a sextant, with an arc of sixty degrees, or a sixth of a circle. With this general class of instrument, it is possible to measure the angle between two celestial objects reasonably accurately, by night, from the deck of a moving ship, which is an extraordinary achievement. This triad of instrument systems for determining the direction, speed, and position of a ship became universal in the western traditions of navigation until the twentieth century and the advent of radio systems and electronic instruments. Even now, in the absence of electronics, the triad still works well.

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Steam engine

The Era of Powered Craft

The next major development in coast-wise and maritime navigation is actually one of the most important developments on this subject in human history: Ship propulsion by non-human power. Until about the 1780s, all coast-wise and maritime navigation involved boats and ships like those in Plate One, propelled by human labor, and/or wind and currents. With the invention of steam engines, originally designed for very terrestrial work in mines and quarries, it soon became clear that propulsion of boats and ships by engines would transform travel over water. After many failed or unsatisfactory attempts, inventors on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean developed successful steam-powered craft in the 1780s. Steamboats began in coast-wise navigation, as the early ones weren’t capable of voyaging on the open ocean. Rapid improvements in all aspects of the ships’ design, as well as improvements in engines, soon changed this. The steamboat presented in Rees’s Cyclopaedia in 1819 was designed for use in relatively shallow and relatively calm water, as in a lake or on canals, or coastal waters, indicated by the flat keel and propulsion by paddle wheel, which limits contact with shallows, rocks and other underwater impediments to navigation. The craft appears to be a passenger-carrying vessel, with cabins with lots of windows and a fenced deck for sightseeing. Notice the hybrid nature of the vessel, combining the latest technology, a steam engine, with square sails for sailing with the wind, the very oldest type of sail. Below the boat are two different steam engine designs, both of which turn the energy released in steam into revolutions of a giant wheel, from which different applications can take off power for different purposes.

Steamships could travel when there was no wind, and could be driven directly into the wind, which had never before been possible. Further, without the need for sails, or at least needing fewer, steamships could travel more upright in the water, not heeling over as sailing ships must. The result of all these changes was that steamships quickly became the most important tool in producing maritime charts and other aids for all types of coast-wise and maritime vessels. The best conditions for hydrography are when the sea and winds are calm. Sailing vessels cannot function then, but steamships can travel and serve as platforms for work efficiently. Their very efficiency created much more detailed charts of coastal features, since steamships could “hug the coast” while traditional sailing ships stayed much further offshore from the coast to have a margin of safety. The American Pacific Coast was the first major section of coast surveyed and mapped expressly to accommodate steamships. At the same time, steamships require fuels and clean fresh water for steam, the search for which constrained ships’ crews and their schedules in ways never imagined before the transition to powered craft. But the change, once it began, became almost total. Today powered craft completely dominate world navigation, with human and wind-powered craft confined to small and especially recreational craft, and to the boats of the poor and marginal.

In essence, the published coast pilots were expert detailed verbal descriptions of specific places along the coast, and how to enter and exit them, and important issues and concerns while doing so. The new practical navigators were sets of tools and techniques, and useful charts and tables, to help navigators establish their positions accurately and precisely. The “modern” system of nautical charts, which actually began along the North Sea coasts in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, was a fusion of the two approaches. The foundation for the charting was a rigorous geodetic network of triangulated stations along the coast, which served as the positional framework for mapping out on the water. Nearshore positions in a boat could be determined geometrically in relation to sets of signal flags and other markers. At the same time the crews of the boats were sighting the angles between themselves and sets of the flags, others could take lead-line soundings to establish the water depth at that spot. All of this data could then be checked and correlated, and charts prepared, with horizontal positioning from the signal flag work, and vertical water depths through the soundings, all controlled by the relative accuracy of the geodetic network “backbone.” The accurate horizontal positioning this made possible then aided the production of accurate visual profiles and coastal views of landforms and harbor entrances to assist and warn mariners.

In 1807, Ferdinand Hassler (1770-1843), a Swiss immigrant scientist, successfully persuaded President Thomas Jefferson to use this technique for the American Survey of the Coast, authorized by Congress. The Survey’s early history was rocky and contentious, but by about 1834 Hassler’s system was deployed in force. Once four years later, in 1838, the Coast Survey commissioned a commercial printer to produce the very first chart of the Survey of the Coast, New Haven Harbor. This harbor chart is very provisional compared to charts of a decade later, but Hassler’s methods are clearly displayed. Hassler pioneered working simultaneously on mapping the topography of the land, and the hydrography of the waters, tying them both together through the same sets of signal flags mounted along the shore. The spider webs of lines of number in the harbor are the lines of travel of the hydrographic boats, with the position of the numbers representing the horizontal positions of the boats, and the numbers themselves represent the depths of the water at precisely those spots. The marshes, woodlands, farmed fields, and houses on the land were positioned by the same triangulation process as used for the hydrography, and topography and hydrography ultimately controlled horizontally by the master geodetic network Hassler established. There were two systems for vertical heights and depths, both based on the tidal systems of the harbor. The legend reports “the greatest tide observed in two Lunations,” or two complete lunar months, which gives some indication of the length of their fieldwork at the harbor. Heights on the land were based on a level of mean high tide, so that everything above that level was “land”, at least most of the time. The hydrographic depths were based on the level of mean low tide, so that depths mapped were at least that deep, most of the time. With a few changes and improvements, Hassler’s methodologies displayed in the New Haven Harbor chart continued for most of the next century, until airplanes and aerial photography, and boats equipped with sonar depth finder changed nautical charting again.

On first glance, the Travelers Pocket Map of Ohio with its canals, roads and distances, by stage & steam boat routes (New York, 1833), may seem anomalous in an essay on coast-wise and maritime navigation, but it is closely related to what came before, and reflects the fresh transformations in travel by boat and ship underway. All steam engines required fuel for their boilers and clean water for steam. The engines were made primarily of iron and steel, and slowly more and more ships were “iron-bottomed” too. Close available stocks of firewood and iron ore and coal were rapidly depleted, leading to a relentless search for these resources ever farther away. The “inland seas” of the Great Lakes, in particular, offered ships access to vast stores of metal ores, coal, chemicals and salts necessary to the Industrial Revolution. But there were choke-points on the waterways, particularly rapids and waterfalls, like Niagara Falls. The solution was to build canals around obstructions, and canals to supply more direct access to sources of bulk commodities, and link them to river transport, and ever larger steam ships on the Great Lakes. All these systems ultimately were connected to the maritime shipping systems previously developed. Hence it made perfect commercial sense for Edmund Blunt the Elder, the publisher of the American Coast Pilot and the New American Practical Navigator, to publish a guide to roads and canals in Ohio, and the shipping routes of bordering Lake Erie, and to do so in the form of a small, convenient pocket-sized volume. Blunt also published The Stranger’s Guide to the City of New-York (London, 1818), a volume which still tantalizes and delights.

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The travellers pocket map of Ohio : with its canals, roads and distances, by stage & steam boat routes

The World Nearing Whole

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Western ships and their crews were sailing and steaming in all oceans and almost all coasts, except for the shores of Antarctica. Popular and scientific interest in these voyages was high, and a number of geographical societies and important geographic journals were established. In 1851, the American Geographical and Statistical Society was founded in New York City (“statistical” was later dropped from its title). In 1854, August Petermann founded Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, a journal of geography and cartography, in Gotha, Thuringia, in what later was to be central Germany. Petermann and his craftsmen were experts in lithography and especially chromo-lithography, the art of lithographing in co-registered color. Their skills quickly made Petermanns the premier geographic journal on the planet. An examination of a single annual volume for the year 1859 yields three maps that convey the frontiers of maritime navigation in that year, in multiple senses. The maps are stratified by the three bands of latitude they present: The tropics, the broad temperate zone, and the Arctic.

The tropical map presents a historic political and legal framework unfamiliar to most Americans: The great archipelago of islands constituting American Polynesia. The context is this: by the 1840s, American supplies of phosphate rock, a relatively scarce yet critical chemical material used in gunpowder and for fertilizer, were running out. Bird guano, deposited over eons on exposed rocks and islands in the oceans, became a substitute for mined deposits of phosphate rock. Many of these rocks and islands were located in extremely remote places, which is in part why they were favorable sites for nesting birds. In 1856, Congress passed the Guano Islands Act, which stated: “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.” Only three years later, many dozens of such rocks and islands and keys in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean had been claimed as territories of the United States, and hence a broad curvy line encircles a portion of the vast archipelago of islands and reefs straddling the Equator. Note that this 1859 conception of American Polynesia did not include American Samoa, which is a portion of the Samoa cluster of islands in the center of the map directly south of the boundary of American Polynesia. American claims to Samoa came later, between 1887-1889, in a great crisis between the United States and the British and German Empires.

In 1859, the United States and Great Britain were involved in contention and disputes over territorial claims in the great band of temperate latitudes, on the Pacific coast at the boundary zone between Washington Territory in the United States, and the Colony of British Columbia in Canada, then still claimed by Great Britain as British territory. The terrestrial portion of the boundary between the nations was mutually agreed to be the 49th Parallel of latitude, but agreements dissolved at the Pacific water’s edge. Great Britain and the United States agreed that all of Vancouver Island was British, although it extended south of the 49th Parallel. But there are a myriad of islands in between Vancouver Island and the mainland of the continent; to whom would they belong? The Haro Archipelago, or San Juan Islands, was at stake. As the map in Petermanns clearly reveals, the rival national boundary claims are actually two major ship routes in between the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the south, and the Georgia Strait on the north. Hence, the national claims to territory on land were based on different pathways of ships in the water around the land. Eventually Great Britain acceded to the American claims, and the San Juan Islands are part of the state of Washington in the United States.

Moving now to the Arctic, we can examine a map and another inset map defining one of the most celebrated tragedies of exploration in the nineteenth century. For centuries, European explorers had searched for a conjectured “Northwest Passage” which would lead from the western Atlantic Ocean further northwest to enter the Pacific Ocean, allowing travel by water at temperate latitudes, with minimal disruptions and hazards from ice. None of their explorations were successful, although in the effort they “discovered” major portions of what is now Canada, almost all of which had already been explored and settled by native Athabascan, Micmac, Algonquin, Iroquois, and Inuit and other peoples. Eventually, Sir John Barrow, who was Second Secretary of the British Admiralty from 1804 until 1845, proposed that Great Britain should search for a much more northerly Northwest Passage, which would link the more northern Atlantic Ocean to the Arctic Ocean, essentially going over the top of most of Canada, and then onto the Pacific Ocean through the Bering Strait. Eventually Barrow settled on Sir John Franklin to command the expedition to find the passage. He commanded the officers and men of two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, which had been built for duty exploring the fringes of Antarctica, and were well equipped for Arctic service. Each had a steam engine designed and built for British railroads, along with steam-heat for the crew, and ships’ libraries with more than a thousand books. They departed England in May, 1845. Apart from Franklin and the captain of the other ship, and an assistant surgeon and two ice-masters, none of the other 129 men had any experience at all in the Arctic. Off they steamed, and then they disappeared. After two years had passed, the British public, and also Mrs. Franklin, urged the Admiralty to send teams to search for the party and learn their fate. The search for the fate of Sir John Franklin became one of the cultural touchstones of the era. Many expeditions were launched, and over time, clues were found. The 1859 Petermanns map indicate the major findings as of that date, although the “search for Sir John Franklin” continued well into the twenty-first century, and is still in progress. The map on the left shows the known route of the expedition until it turned back south. The two dotted paths were the speculative routes necessary so that ships’ survivors could have arrived on the small islands in McClintock Sound where significant remains and clues were found. The map on the right, at a much larger scale, shows the final area and its context. It also demonstrates that waves of searchers managed to ignore native Inuit place names, if they even knew them in the first place, and instead they littered the landscape with their own names.

Less than three decades after Franklin steamed off to his dreadful fate, another Arctic expedition disappeared into the white void for two years, but returned as a triumphant success. The differences between the two expeditions include better luck and better provisions, but also the changes underway in the very purposes and goals of exploration by ship in extreme Arctic and Antarctic environments. In 1872, the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition, which was privately funded by several wealthy noble families in Austria-Hungary, steamed into the Arctic Ocean in summer aboard a small fleet of ships, the main one of which was the Tegetthoff, a three-masted schooner with a powerful steam engine. The two leaders, Captain Karl Weyprecht and Julius von Payer, were skilled scientists, and the small crew included many specialists in meteorology, astronomy, geodesy, and terrestrial magnetism. The Tegetthoff sailed north, discovering the Franz Josef Archipelago of Arctic islands before the ship was caught in pack ice. For almost two years, the ship was stuck in the ice, although the pack ice moved, as they were able to measure by determining their positions astronomically. In May, 1874, the party determined to abandon the ice-locked ship and return south over the ice, with sledges carrying small boats to be used once they reached the margins of the ice pack. They actually accomplished this, and on August 14, 1874, they reached the open ocean. On September 3, they reached the Russian mainland, having sailed and rowed across more than a hundred miles of the open Arctic Ocean. They returned to Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as heroes. Members of the expedition published many reports on various scientific observations from the voyage, and their productivity was a spur towards the creation of a great collaborative scientific project, the International Polar Year, in 1882-83. The voyage of the Tegetthoff was in many ways the beginnings of modern polar science.

A related application of maritime navigation to the earth sciences can be seen in Otto Krümmel’s pioneering map of the Sargasso Sea, at the center of the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, published in Petermanns in 1891. The Sargassum Sea is named for Sargassum, a genus of brown algae, and especially Sargassum bacciferum, which grows in abundance in the lens of warm water pushed in on top of permanently colder water below by the actions of the subtropical gyre which surrounds the Sea. A look back at Bowditch and Blunt’s 1807 chart showing “The Trade Wind,” compared to Krümmel’s map, shows the relationship between an arm of the gyre and the Sargasso Sea. The dense Sargassum drifts in the Sargasso Sea serve as nurseries for the larvae of both American and European eel species, and as protective habitat for young endangered loggerhead sea turtles, as well as many other sea creatures. On the map, the dark cross-hatched strands which are largely vertical or horizontal represent the mappings that the great German scientist Alexander von Humboldt made of what he called “Fucusbänke,” the long windrow-like concentrations of Sargassum as he found them. Krümmel, by contrast, mapped his own perceptions of the distribution of Sargassum in tints of vivid green “by the aid of steam,” as the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society reported on Krümmel’s 1891 publication in Petermanns. By this, they refer to Krümmel’s main data source, which were the logs of many German steam ships that recorded the presence and densities of Sargassum as they steamed across the Atlantic. Krümmel synthesized the mass of data to make the first reasonably accurate map of the Sargasso Sea. His enterprise was published in 1891; in a certain sense it is an early example of maritime crowdsourcing.

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Extract from the U.S. Coast Survey : New Haven Harbour, 1838

Sound in the Water like Light in the Air

Ferdinand Hassler’s Survey of the Coast became the US Coast Survey, and in 1878 was renamed the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, although the Survey was clearly “geodetic” from the beginning. The Survey began working cooperatively with the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1871, long before the “annexation” of the Kingdom into the United States. But the Survey’s mandate included mapping the territorial waters of the nation, so from about 1900 on, first the Survey, and now NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has produced nautical charts of the Hawaiian Island, which is really a great arced archipelago of volcanic islands and fringing coral reefs. The 1934 version of the Survey’s chart of the Hawaiian Islands displays many features of the profound changes in mapping and navigational technologies that were introduced in the early twentieth century.

In 1901, the Submarine Signal Company was formed to produce underwater bells for the US Light Service, to produce horizontally transmitted sound to warn ships of approaching dangers. In 1910, the company hired the brilliant inventor-engineer Reginald Fessenden, who devised oscillators to magnify the sounds and their ranges. Following the disaster of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, Fessenden and other scientists at the company explored using pulses of underwater sound to reflect off icebergs and return to the transmitting ship, thereby providing warnings of an iceberg ahead. They discovered, though, that the sound would also reflect off the ocean bottom and return to the transmitting ship. Given accurate knowledge of the speed of sound transmission through sea water, which is itself a complex subject, they realized it would be possible to estimate the depth of the water to the bottom below. After the First World War, Herbert Dorsey invented the fathometer, the first precise depth finding device. Dorsey joined the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and by the late 1920s, the Survey was using fathometers to measure deep water depths rapidly and accurately, thereby completely eliminating the need for stopping a Survey ship for lead-line soundings of the bottom. The fathometers worked as the ship steamed ahead. The pronounced patterning of lines of numbers on the Hawaiian nautical chart represents the tracks followed by the Survey ships as they steamed in uniform configurations around the main set of islands, or steamed toward and back from isolated islands, such as Palmyra Island, south of the main set of Hawaiian Islands. Note as well the influence of radio on the Hawaiian chart. The chart shows two radio beacon stations, represented by red circles, one on Kauai and one on Oahu. Navy and commercial ships and planes with directional radio equipment could “fly the beam” broadcast by the radio beacon to determine their positions relative to the stations from far out of sight of the islands.

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Karte vom amerikanischen Polynesien &c.


We began this essay on navigating the coasts and oceans of Earth with an engraving of human and wind-powered boats offshore from the volcano Vesuvius, and brought it along to the stage of a now historic marine chart of the Hawaiian Islands, which used sonar signals to determine water depths, the now universal standard for sounding. At this very moment, the premier long-distance deep sea voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a, built by the members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, having left the waters of the Pacific Ocean, crossed the Indian Ocean past the Cape of Good Hope of Africa into the Atlantic Ocean, where it is visiting ports of call in South and later North America, before crossing the Atlantic to Europe, to stop in Portugal and into the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, to the very places where the great sea voyages—in the Western tradition—began. The crew of the Hōkūle‘a navigate entirely by what many Westerners consider non-instrument wayfinding, bereft of all the technologies described and illustrated in this essay. But another way to describe their work is that the dome of the sky and the changing waters around them have become their instrument. Hōkūle‘a, or the Star of Gladness, refers to the star called Arcturus, which is at times a zenith star for the Hawaiian Islands, meaning directly overhead. Hōkūle‘a “works” in navigation in relation to the sidereal Star Compass, which is a mental construct. In the Star Compass, the visual horizon is divided into thirty-two “houses” along the horizon, each of the houses separated from the others by 11.25 degrees of arc, forming the complete circle of 360 degrees. But this 32-part division is exactly the same as the compass rose, previously discussed, without the use of the compass! So now we come, literally, full circle! People can navigate well or badly, and everyone gets lost at times, but even so, there are many ways to navigate.

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Originalkarte der Rückreise der Österr.-Ungar. Expedition, Mai-August, 1874 : nach Weyprecht's Beobachtungen

Further Reading

There are essentially two levels to this discussion of historic and contemporary aids to coast-wise and maritime navigation: (1) books, websites, and other aids designed to assist one directly in learning specific techniques or exercises in navigation; (2) resources that are “about” the history and evolution of navigation and its aids. Members of the second group are actually critical to those of the first group, however, because they help one “make sense” of techniques and their histories, which in turn increases one’s facility with the techniques. One of the few resources that really attempts to function in both groups is physicist John Huth’s The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, which gives broad instruction in many aspects of relatively instrument-less navigation and way-finding in both terrestrial and aquatic environments, with much attention to the underlying dynamics of the earthly systems along with simplified but reasonably accurate histories of evolving marine craft and sail and hull designs, and their attendant systems of navigation. Huth perhaps attempts to cover too much in one volume, but his approach is excellent, and the reader will gain a useful perspective that can be applied to more focused aids to navigation.

As to aids themselves, navigation is increasingly bifurcating between systems based primarily or entirely on electronics, and everything else. That means that one’s vessel, and equipment and objectives, will largely determine what kind of navigational aids and instructions to pursue. But recall that, until the very early twentieth century, all navigation was non-electronic, and many contemporary navigational realms remain so today, most famously the great revival of traditional Polynesian navigation and way-finding systems of recent decades. A good gateway resource is: http:/ and specifically the many other URLs listed under its section on “resources”. Note under that page that one of the recommended books is Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen, revised and still in print, which was written by Mary Blewitt, whose 1957 history of nautical charting Surveys of the Seas is still one of the indispensible group two resources on the history of navigational systems. Hence, Mary Blewitt was spanning both groups well over half a century ago.

For navigation in and around American waters and seas, the NOAA Office of Coast Survey, the direct successor to Ferdinand Hassler’s Survey of the Coast, is the main gateway to nautical aids. Their URL: http:/ A very useful downloadable resource there is Chart No. 1, which describes and depicts the nautical chart symbology sets of all the major systems of nautical navigation charts: http:/ As to coast-wise navigation in American waters, in 1867 the Coast Survey acquired the copyright and properties of Blunt’s American Coast Pilot, which remains in print continuously since 1796. There are now many regional volumes covering the vast American watery worlds: http:/

Finally, with reference to the more non-electronic systems of navigation: generally speaking, the smaller the vessel, the more likely that its pilot will depend more non-electronic aids to way-finding and navigation. Stores and websites that cater to sea kayakers and small sailboats, for example, will yield useful tools, not the least of which will be formal or informal instruction and lessons from local experts, who have often been, since time immemorial, the most important aids to navigation themselves. Good luck, and bon voyage!

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Die nordatlantische Sargasso See : nach der Häufigkeit des Krautvorkommens dargestellt
  • Adams, K.T. 1942. Hydrographic Manual. US Coast and Geodetic Survey. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

  • Bass, G.F., ed. 1972. A History of Seafaring, Based on Underwater Archaeology. New York: Walker.

  • Blewitt, Mary. 1957. Surveys of the Seas; A Brief History of British Hydrography. London: Macgibbon and Kee.

  • Burstyn, Harold L. 1957. At the Sign of the Quadrant; An Account of the Contributions to American Hydrography made by Edmund March Blunt and His Sons. Mystic, CT: The Marine Historical Association, Inc.

  • Demhardt, Imre Josef. 2006. Der Erde ein Gesicht geben: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen und die Entstehung der modernen Geographie in Deutschland. Gotha: Stiftund für Kultur, Wissenschaft und Soziales der Kreissparkasse.

  • Druett, Joan. 2011. Tupaia: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator. Auckland: Random House New Zealand.

  • Hornsby, Stephen. 2011. Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the Making of the Atlantic Neptune. Montreal: McGill-Queens’s University Press.

  • House, Derek and Michael Sanderson. 1973. The Sea Chart: An Historical Survey Based on the Collections of the National Maritime Museum. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

  • Howse, Derek. 1980. Greenwich Time and the Discovery of the Longitude. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Huth, John Edward. 2013. The Lost Art of Finding Our Way. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

  • Krupnik, Igor, Michael A. Lang, and Scott E. Miller, eds. 2009. Smithsonian at the Poles: Contributions to International Polar Year Science. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.

  • Lecky, S.T.S. 1918. Wrinkles in Practical Navigation. London: George Philip & Son.

  • Monmonier, Mark. 2008. Coast Lines: How Mapmakers Frame the World and Chart Environmental Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Smits, Jan. 2004. Petermann’s Maps: Carto-bibliography of the maps in Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen. 1855–1945. Utrecht: Hes & De Graff.

  • Taylor, E.G.R. 1971. The Haven-Finding Art: A History of Navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook. London: The Bodley Head.

  • Theberge, Jr., Albert E. 1992. Charting the Americas: 500 Years of Progress. Proceedings, 5th biennial NOS International hydrographic Conference. Rockville, MD: Hydrographic Society.

  • Turnbull, David. 1996. “Cartography and Science in Early Modern Europe: Mapping the Construction of Knowledge Spaces.” In Imago Mundi, vol. 48, 5-24.

  • Waters, D.W. 1990. “Captain Edmond Halley, F.R.S., Royal Navy, and the Practice of navigation.” In Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: A Longer View of Newton and Halley, edited by Norman J.W. Thrower, 171-202. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

  • Whitfield, Peter. 1996. The Charting of the Oceans: Ten Centuries of Maritime Charts. London: The British Library.