Matthew Fontaine Maury

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Matthew Fontaine Maury

Matthew Fontaine Maury (January 14 1806February 1 1873), nicknamed "Pathfinder of the Seas", was an oceanographer who made important contributions to charting wind and ocean currents.

In 1825 at age 19, Maury joined the United States Navy as a midshipman on board the frigate Brandywine. Almost immediately he began to study the seas and record methods of navigation. When a leg injury left him unfit for sea duty, Maury devoted his time to the study of navigation, meteorology, winds, and currents. His hard work on and love of plotting the oceans paid off when he became superintendent of the Department of Charts and Instruments in 1842. Upon the establishment of the United States Naval Observatory in 1844 Maury became its first superintendent, holding that position until his resignation in April 1861. Here Maury studied thousands of ships' logs and charts. He published the Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic, which showed sailors how to use the ocean's currents and winds to their advantage and drastically reduced the length of ocean voyages, and his Sailing Directions and Physical Geography of the Seas and Its Meteorology remain standard. Maury's uniform system of recording oceanographic data was adopted by navies and merchant marines around the world and was used to develop charts for all the major trade routes.

Maury's work on ocean currents led him to advocate the theory of the Open Polar Sea, the hypothesis that the ocean near the North Pole is free of ice. While today this is known to be false, in the 19th century it was a popular idea that inspired many explorers to seek a navigable sea route to the Pole.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Maury, a Virginian, resigned his commission as a U.S. Navy commander and joined the Confederacy. He spent the war in the South, as well as abroad in England, acquiring ships for the Confederacy. He also worked on an electric torpedo design, but did not manage to perfect it into an effective weapon. He later gave talks in Europe about the development of his torpedo.

Following the war, Maury accepted a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, holding the chair of physics. He died in 1873 during a lecture tour.

Three ships named USS Maury have been named for him.

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