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We like to think that air travel today is long or even dangerous, but it’s nothing compared to sea travel a couple of centuries ago. 

Imagine getting on a massive boat with hundreds of passengers, and then waiting for 50 days. Or 100 days. Or even 150 days. Make it a return trip, and that’s most of the year gone.

And that’s just for boats that actually made it. If your unlucky boat was one of the 135 major shipwrecks in the nineteenth century, you wouldn’t even reach your destination.

Suddenly in the mid-1800s, everything changed. One man, Matthew Fontaine Maury, figured out that data could change the way ships sailed the oceans. But this isn’t just his story. This is the story of Maury, the United States Navy, over a dozen other countries’ navies, and thousands of merchant ships working together. Oh yeah, and the Pope.

Their secret weapon? Data. Maury spearheaded a massive data collection project, with data in dozens of languages reported from ships around the world. 

It’s an incredible story of humans of data from the nineteenth century, a time that we think of as pre-data. Find out how Maury and his “corps of observers” transformed sea travel for the entire world.

Maury’s naval beginnings

Matthew Fontaine Maury
Matthew Fontaine Maury as a U.S. Navy Lieutenant, 1853. Photo courtesy: Library of Congress.

Born in Virginia in 1806 and raised in rural Tennessee, Matthew Fontaine Maury joined the United States Navy as a midshipman at age 19. Six years later, after voyages down around South America and across the Pacific, he became a sailing master and was sent on a voyage to Rio de Janeiro. 

As a sailing master, he was responsible for deciding the boat’s route—ideally, the quickest one. Before sailing, he searched high and low for information on winds and currents in the Atlantic Ocean, but he found nothing. So he recorded it himself along the way.

The voyage planted a question in his mind—why is there so little information on the best route to take? His search to solve this would make his name known around the world.

From ship routes to scientific investigations

In 1839, while Maury was traveling back to New York from a visit home to Tennessee, the carriage he was traveling in tipped over. Maury dislocated his knee and fractured his thigh bone. 

His recovery was slow and painful. Though Maury was anxious to return to naval life, doctors decided that he was in no condition for life aboard a ship. Instead, in 1842, the Navy appointed him the Superintendent of the relatively new Naval Observatory.

After a year of studying the stars and seas, Maury published a radical proposal. He argued that, contrary to what everyone thought, short journeys don’t just happen by luck. Instead, ships could stick to specific paths for each season that would help them “blaze a way through the winds of the sea”. With data, he said he could find these ideal routes.

Maury didn’t have much scientific credibility at the time, so he asked the U.S. Navy for help. They sent memos to the captains of all naval ships to ask for their help, but none responded. 

He then turned to the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography. He tried to appeal to their sense of patriotism, saying how shameful the United States’ contribution to nautical science was. Every ship at the time, even American ships traveling up the east coast of the U.S., relied on British charts and almanacs to make their way home. But again, no response. Yet Maury was hardly discouraged. 

Analyzing data from abandoned naval logbooks

Matthew Fontaine Maury
“Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic” (1852) by Maury and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Image courtesy: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.

Unable to get his hands on fresh data, he turned to thousands of logbooks stored in naval warehouses. It was mandatory for naval ships to complete these, but the Navy did nothing with them.

He and his team at the Naval Observatory started going through these books, cleaning the data, and turning it into insights about ocean routes. Five years later, in 1847, he was ready to publish his first results—the “Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic”. Maury’s charts divided the northern Atlantic Ocean into a grid of 5-degree latitude/longitude squares. Each square included data on the directions of currents and the force and direction of winds, and there were separate charts for every month. 

He compared his work in creating the charts (what we would today call data analysis and visualization) to a sculptor and his chisel. On each touch, the chisel seems to do very little, and yet by the end, the completed piece speaks for itself, “eloquent with facts which the [sculptor] had never dreamed…”

Adding one piece of data to another often feels like a meaningless exercise. Yet the result was truly astounding. By comparing data for different areas across different months, Maury found which routes were fastest and which areas of the ocean should be avoided in each season.

Maury’s charts in high demand 

Maury predicted that with his charts, the 55-day journey from New York to Rio de Janeiro could easily be shortened to 40 or 45 days. In early 1848, the W.H.D.C. Wright blew this estimate out of the water, making it to Rio in just 35 days and back in 40 days, all with the help of Maury’s charts. 

Suddenly, Maury’s charts were in high demand, along with his booklet of instructions on how to collect daily data. Any ship that collected data in his booklet and sent it back would receive a free copy of Maury’s future charts. 

Within just a year, Maury had given thousands of copies of his logbook to American navigators. Not all of these ships sent data back, but enough did. Just three years later, Maury was receiving data from over one thousand ships every year—one of the first successful data exchanges in history. 

Matthew Fontaine Maury
“Pilot Chart for Cape Horn” (1852) by Maury and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Image courtesy: Library of Congress.

Diverse types of charts and data

Thanks to Maury’s “corps of observers”, Maury was finally able to put away the old Navy logbooks and work with new data. By 1851, enough data had been collected to fill “two hundred large manuscript volumes, each averaging from two thousand to three thousand days’ observations”.

Maury and his team kept analyzing and publishing this data. From 1849 to 1853, they published 12 new sets of charts covering the entire Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and Cape Horn. 

These new charts went beyond just monthly winds and currents. They also included… 

  • Track Charts: ship traffic, plus general weather and wind readings
  • Trade Wind Charts: trade wind regions and nearby calm zones
  • Pilot Charts: wind direction for 16 points on the compass for every square of ocean
  • Thermal Charts: ocean surface temperature recordings
  • Storm and Rain Charts: rain, fog, lightning, thunder and storm frequencies
  • Whale Charts: where different types of whales were being spotted and/or hunted
Matthew Fontaine Maury
“Whale Chart” (1851) by Maury and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Image courtesy: Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, Boston Public Library.

The Brussels Conference: Maury’s project goes global

Maury had built a massive group of data collectors feeding him nearly real-time data, which he and his team processed, published and sent right back to them. But he still wasn’t satisfied. He was already dreaming bigger. 

With help from the U.S. Navy, Maury organized the Brussels Conference. It started on August 23, 1853, and was attended by representatives from Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. 

Seventeen days later, every country at the conference agreed that all their ships (both military and merchant) would use Maury’s logbooks to collect data. Prussia, Spain, Sardinia, the free city of Hamburg, the republic of Bremen, Chile, Austria, and Brazil later joined this agreement. Even the Pope joined in, creating honorary flags for papal ships that collected data with Maury’s logbooks. 

Rarely before has there been such a sublime spectacle presented to the scientific world : all nations agreeing to unite and co-operate in carrying out one system of philosophical research…

Though they may be enemies in all else, here they are to be friends. Every ship that navigates the high seas, with these charts and blank abstract logs on board, may henceforth be regarded as a floating observatory, a temple of science.

Matthew Fontaine Maury, 1855

This agreement was unprecedented. The world had put aside their conflicts and come together, unified as humans of data, to decipher the oceans and make travel safer, faster, and easier for everyone. 

Matthew Fontaine Maury
Details from “Pilot Chart of the South Pacific” (1851) by Maury and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Legend (left) and detail of four 5-degree squares (right). Image courtesy: Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, Boston Public Library.

High-speed races across the globe

Maury and his team soon found themselves processing heaps of incoming data, sent from around the world and written in different languages. They translated, analyzed, published and distributed the data as quickly as they could, creating new charts for the Indian Ocean and revising the earlier Atlantic and Pacific charts. 

These charts proved incredibly accurate. For example, take the San Francisco’s disaster in 1859, when waves broke the ship’s masts, stopped the engines, and washed 129 people overboard. Two days later, after hearing reports of this disaster, the U.S. sent two rescue ships from New York—but where should they go? The ship had been drifting aimlessly for two days, and no one knew where to find it. With his new winds and currents data, Maury predicted exactly where to find the San Francisco.

The accuracy and power of Maury’s charts galvanized the entire world. Captains were so excited to test them that they turned their planned voyages into global races. 

One of the most famous, new racecourses was the 15,000 (24,000 km) round-trip route from New York to San Francisco. In 1852, four ships set off from New York. Around the world, thousands of people excitedly checked their newspapers for daily updates on which ship had passed the others while they slept. This high-speed race came to a photo finish 92 days and 4 hours later when the Flying Fish edged ahead of the John Gilpin. The Flying Cloud though took the record with a voyage of 89 days and 21 hours. 

Beyond the spectacle, this quicker route had huge implications for Americans. Starting just a few years earlier, hundreds of thousands of people and businesses were migrating to California for the Gold Rush. Cutting the voyage time in half brought East Coast Americans months closer to their distant relatives and merchants closer to their new, booming stores. 

Matthew Fontaine Maury
“Trade Wind Chart of the Atlantic Ocean” (1851) by Maury and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Image courtesy: Library of Congress.

On ocean voyages, time is money

Since the invention of the mariner’s compass, and its great adjunct, the chronometer, no such boon has been given to Commerce, and through it to civilization, as [Maury’s] book confers.

Hunt’s Merchant Magazine, 1854

After Maury’s charts, voyage times were down across the world. The travel time for the route that started everything—from the U.S. to Rio de Janeiro—decreased from 41 days to an average 30 days. The Sea Serpent even completed the trip in a record 18 days.

Before, a round-trip voyage from the U.S. to Australia took around 250 days, using the standard route around the Cape of Good Hope. Maury’s charts showed that ships could make the journey in far less time by taking a different route. Soon, the round-trip passage from the U.S. to Australia was down to under 200 days

This wasn’t unique to routes from the U.S. As the Royal Society of London summed it up, the routes between the world’s biggest ports had been “materially shortened” by one-third or more.

Besides saving passengers time, these shorter, safer routes saved companies heaps of money. Shipping a ton of freight cost between 15 and 20 cents per day, so every day cut off a voyage was money saved.

In 1854, the Earl of Harrowby estimated that Maury’s charts would save $1-2 million ($30-60 million today) per year for British commerce within the Indian Ocean, and tens of millions of dollars (at least $1 billion today) globally. 

Matthew Fontaine Maury
“Monsoon & Trade Wind Chart of the Indian Ocean” (1859) by Maury and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Image courtesy: Library of Congress

Sailing forth into the future

Though he’s hardly a household name today, Matthew Fontaine Maury rocketed to fame for his work. By the beginning of the 1860s, he was known globally as the “Father of Oceanography” and “Pathfinder of the Seas”. 

He was knighted in Denmark and Russia, declared a commander of the Legion of Honor in France, and inducted into the Order of the Tower and Sword in Portugal. He also received gold medals from 8 countries, and a set of 13 silver bejeweled medals from the Pope. 

Today, at least 10 buildings, 8 monuments, 6 ships, 5 roads, and 1 lake, sea channel, glacier, mountain, and even a crater on the moon bear his name. Every chart issued by the U.S. Hydrographic Office includes the text, “Founded upon the researches made and the data collected by Lieutenant M. F. Maury”. Our name, Atlan, is even a tribute to his first groundbreaking chart of the Atlantic. 

And that’s not all. A book by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency spent 27 pages listing just his major awards and tributes. 

These honors went to Maury alone, and he certainly deserved them. But it’s important to remember that he didn’t work alone. He started working on old data with a team of mathematicians and scientists at the Naval Observatory, supported and funded by the U.S. Navy. Within a decade, he was working with crowdsourced data from dozens of countries and thousands of ships. 

In the pre-globalization, pre-data world, Maury’s mission to make sea travel safer and faster united the whole world behind a data project that was big even by today’s standards. 

Matthew Fontaine Maury
Photo of the Maury crater (lower left). It was named after Matthew Fontaine Maury and, added later, his cousin and Harvard astronomer Antonia Maury. Image courtesy: NASA via Wikipedia.

P.S. When we started searching for inspiration for our name, we were looking for something that represented our vision for the world—a world where collaboration around data goes beyond the confines of a team or company and brings together organizations and communities around the world.

The revolution that Maury sparked by dividing the Atlantic into 5-degree lat-long squares unified the world. They put aside their differences, shared data and collaborated to make our oceans safer for humanity, and in the process made the world’s first operational data supply chain.

At Atlan, our vision is to create a world with a global data supply chain—where every data team collaborates to achieve collective goals and further human progress. We’re fortunate to be part of the revolution Maury sparked, and our name “Atlan” inspires us every day to keep moving this vision forward.


Author’s note: This article has been written with great love and care, after extensive research. As with many historical events, there could be many interpretations of a story. If you see anything that appears to be incorrect or have a different perspective to share, please leave a message in the comments below.

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Content at Atlan. Tweets infrequently at @christngrcia.

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