Maury the Seer and Pathfinder
“Without his father’s knowledge or consent, young Maury talked Congressman Sam Houston of Tennessee into getting him an appointment as midshipman in the United States Navy. Since there was no naval academy then, he was immediately assigned to sea duty [at age nineteen]. His first trip was to Europe on the war vessel that took Lafayette back to France after his memorable visit.
He then went around the world, followed by a voyage to South America [and returning in 1834] he used his leisure in the publication of a work on navigation which he had begun during his sea duty.
In 1842 he was appointed superintendent of the depots of charts and instruments at Washington, afterward the hydrographic office. As naval observatory astronomer he added the task of determining the direction of ocean winds and currents. In 1855 he published “The Physical Geography of the Sea,” the first textbook of modern oceanography, which went through numerous editions and translations.
In the early 1850s the idea of a trans-Atlantic cable was being discussed, and Maury presented a chart representing in profile the bottom of the Atlantic, called the “telegraphic plateau.” The citizens of New York presented him with a silver service and a purse of five thousand dollars in appreciation of his contributions to commerce.
Maury cherished as a favorite project the opening of the Amazon Valley to free trade, hoping that the project would draw slaves from the United States to Brazil. In the growing antagonism between the North and South, his sympathies were naturally with his section, but he favored conciliation. Three days after the secession of Virginia, he tendered his resignation and proceeded to Richmond where he was commissioned a commander of the Confederate States Navy.
He established the naval submarine service at Richmond and experimented with electric mines . . . [and later was] sent to England as a special agent [who was] instrumental in securing needed ships and continued his experiments with electric mines. With the purpose of using these mines, he set out for America, but when he reached the West Indies the Confederacy had collapsed.
Confederates serving abroad were excluded from pardon under the amnesty proclamations; so Maury offered his services to the Emperor of Mexico in a scheme for the colonization of [Southerners]. When the revolution there intervened, he returned to England where he busied himself with perfecting his electric mines and where he wrote a series of geographies for school use. He was presented with a purse of three thousand guineas raised by popular subscription in gratitude for his services to the maritime world, and Cambridge University honored him with the degree of doctor of laws.
While on a lecture tour in the fall of 1872 in promotion of this idea, he was taken ill at St. Louis and died on February 1, 1873.
A self-educated scientist, Maury led his biographer, John W. Wayland, to write in 1930: “The thing than made Maury a great man was his ability to see the invisible . . . He saw the trans-Atlantic cable before it was laid. He saw a railroad across the continent before it was built. He saw a ship canal from the Mississippi to the Great Lakes before it was dug . . . He saw a great training school for our Naval officers . . . and weather reports for our farmers, long before either was a reality. He saw a ship canal across the Isthmus of Panama more than a century before it was constructed.
He was a seer and pathfinder not only on the sea, but under the seas, across the lands, and among the stars.”
(Sons of the South, Clayton Rand, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, pg. 102)