Burstyn on Rozwadowski, 'Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea'

Helen M. Rozwadowski
Harold Burstyn

Helen M. Rozwadowski. Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea. Earle. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2005. xiv + 276 pp. $25.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-01691-0.

Reviewed by Harold Burstyn (L. C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, Syracuse University)
Published on H-Maritime (February, 2007)

Scientists Go To Sea

Helen Rozwadowski focuses a sophisticated historian's eye on how the modern science of oceanography began, in Britain and the United States, in the nineteenth century. Drawing on prodigious research in British and American archives and on recent dissertations, many still unpublished, she has fashioned the best introduction to date to the history of modern marine science.

Captain James Cook's voyages in the eighteenth century joined what we now call science to seafaring. "[E]xploration transformed the globe into an arena for international competition over lands, resources, and markets" (pp. 46-47). As naturalists ran out of new terrestrial environments to study, they turned to the sea. Society vacationed at the beach by 1800, leading to beachcombing: the search by naturalists and lay people alike for unique specimens such as seashells. Yet, until steam replaced sail in the mid-nineteeth century, the naturalists were limited to the shallowest waters.

"Between 1840 and 1880, the ocean ... was transformed into a destination, a frontier, an uncivilized place ripe for conquest and exploitation" (p. 62). Whalers, mostly American, left the sea lanes to hunt for their prey. Unlike the reticent sealers, the whalers shared their knowledge with the larger community. Drawing in part on their findings, the officer Matthew F. Maury employed the resources of the U. S. Navy to publish charts of winds and currents and of the ocean bottom, and "the prospect of trans-Atlantic submarine telegraphy immediately accelerated efforts to study the ocean floor" (p. 82). Lieutenant John Brooke's sounder (1850s), which released its weight once it hit bottom, brought both more accurate measurements of depth and better samples from the bottom.

With steam at their service, the naturalists began to go to sea in yachts, dredging the ocean bottom for specimens of creatures previously unknown. By the 1860s, they "reached the limits of depths they could dredge from their yachts" (p. 135). To reach the deeper ocean required larger ships. Only the navies had such ships to devote to the naturalists' dredging. The British and American navies obliged.

Both navies had a tradition of exploration. In Britain, it went back to Cook. In the United States, the Wilkes Expedition (1830s) explored the South Pacific. The North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856), led by the naval officers Cadwalader Ringgold and John Rodgers, carried a civilian scientist, William Stimpson, who dredged for specimens.

So in the late 1860s the naturalists abandoned yachts for naval vessels, especially in Britain, whose vessels commanded the worldwide oceans. (The move from yachts to naval ships abolished the role of women scientists, who did not return to sea until late in the twentieth century [pp. 128-131].) And the amateur naturalists in Britain, such as the lawyer John Gwyn Jeffreys, eventually gave way to the academics, such as Edward Forbes, T. H. Huxley, and C. Wyville Thomson. George Wallich, a would-be academic, sailed in 1860 aboard HMS Bulldog as she searched the North Atlantic ocean bottom for a new cable route. Beginning in 1868, a series of Royal Navy vessels began dredging off Ireland and Scotland and in the Mediterranean purely for scientific results.

The success of these cruises of HMSS Lightning, Porcupine, and Shearwater led to the voyage round the world of HMS Challenger (1873-1876), sponsored by the Royal Society. Wyville Thomson headed a scientific party of half a dozen aboard a naval vessel modified to make scientific results the principal goal. Fifty royal quarto volumes, financed by the British Treasury and published from 1880 to 1895, displayed to the world all the expedition's results. "[A] new culture of scientific work at sea was forged from scientists' entry into the established and functional order of working vessels, from the exploring expeditions of the early nineteenth centuries through Challenger's voyage" (p. 177). The era of scientific exploration of the ocean had begun.

This review offers only the barest outline of Rozwadowski's readable account, ignoring her perceptive observations about the social setting of seagoing science. She pays close attention to the landlubber scientists' responses to the restrictions on space and food forced by the size of ships, the hierarchy of relationships, and the distance from sources of edibles. So readers will learn, not just the history of modern marine science, but its social contexts as well.

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Citation: Harold Burstyn. Review of Rozwadowski, Helen M., Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea. H-Maritime, H-Net Reviews. February, 2007.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=12842

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