The Father of Modern Oceanography

Matthew Maury is the father of modern oceanography, the man who helped turn the United States into a maritime powerhouse in the 19th century.


Matthew Maury is the father of modern oceanography, the man who helped turn the United States into a maritime powerhouse in the 19th century. But what many people don't know is that Maury was a committed believer -- and a staunch defender of the Bible as a source for science. Psalm Eight extols the 'paths of the seas.' It was a favorite verse for Matthew Maury, who became known as 'the pathfinder of the seas.' Dave Dwyer of the Mariners' Museum said, "He was able to codify something everyone thought defied explanation." "Mariners had, for centuries, realized that there were currents in the ocean," said Col. Keith Gibson of Virginia Military Institute. "But no one had, until the time of Maury, systematically analyzed those currents to best take advantage of them." A Virginia farm boy, Maury was never schooled until age 12 when he fell out of a tree -- severely injuring his back. Gibson said, "His farmer father, Richard Maury, feels that his son can't help out in the field. So he would salvage something out of this - he'd send him to school. And it's there that Maury becomes injected with this love of knowledge." In 1825, Maury joined the U.S. Navy and took his first voyage. He was fascinated by the sea and shocked to discover just how little was known about navigation. "It was very common in those days for ships to enter latitudes where they were becalmed," explained Gibson. "They would literally have no wind for weeks on end, and they were powerless to move." Maury began writing about navigation while he pursued his goal of commanding at sea. But in 1839, a stagecoach accident crushed his leg, ending his sea career and landing him in the Navy's depot of charts and records. "For a young officer like Maury, this was a career-ending assignment," said Gibson. But God had other plans. Dwyer said, "When he arrived, he was horrified at the condition of the charts -- some being over 100 years old." And so, Maury's life work began. He determined, as noted in his beloved Psalm Eight, that there truly were paths in the seas. By analyzing the Navy's charts -- and requiring new documentation aboard ship --he charted the ocean's currents and revolutionized travel. Maury's findings affected business immediately: it cut sailing times by weeks, even months on long voyages, and saved millions in the process. "The commercial impact was phenomenal," Gibson said. "It's almost as if jet planes had been introduced to transatlantic travel." Dwyer said, "We began to compete with and outstrip the commercial nations of Old Europe -- the Dutch, British, French -- and American goods and services were everywhere." Maury would go on to publish his findings for all to share, documenting not just the ocean currents, but the movement of the wind and stars as well. "He was the most internationally recognized scientist of his time, rivaling Ben Franklin in his own time," Gibson said. During this time, Maury was not shy about expressing his faith. Although Charles Darwin was drawing attention for his theory on evolution, Maury proclaimed the Bible as scientifically accurate. "The Bible is true and science is true," he said, "and therefore, the truth of the other if truly read, proves the truth of each other." Gibson said, "Maury always felt that his revelation was simply pulling back the curtain of God's design." It's fitting then that monuments to Maury today clearly display his Bible -- and note the inspiration it provided.


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