Inventions Related to Oceanography

The History of Oceanography

Oceanography - Spyglass and Compass on a Nautical Chart
Oceanography - Spyglass and Compass on a Nautical Chart. Getty Images/David Chasey

The oceans that make up three-quarters of the Earth's surface are realms of boundless energy. Oceans have been a source of food, the birthplace of weather systems that effect the continents, pathways for commerce, and fields of battle.

Oceanography - What is Oceanography?

Early History of Oceanography

During the age, when the major European nations contested their fortunes at sea with great fleets of sailing warships, they often "seized the weather gauge" a reference to an invention which also meant attacking an enemy fleet from windward for an immediate advantage.

The history of both ocean exploration and ocean warfare is filled with examples of "environmental intelligence" and inventing the new weapons, sensors, and ships of the time.

In 1798, the United States Congress authorized the formation of the first American Navy, to defend the American coastline and ocean commerce. At that time, all ocean bound ships were concerned with navigation, and safe passage in foreign and domestic waters.

In 1807, Congress authorized a survey of the coasts of the United States to designate what places ships could anchor.

In 1842, construction of a permanent building for the Navy's Depot of Charts and Instruments was authorized with the passage of Bill No. 303 of the 27th Congress.

Matthew Fontaine Maury


Wind and Current Charts

Maury also devised an "abstract log" like a template on which to work, which was suppled to all Navy ships. Navy captains were required to complete these logs for each voyage, while merchant and foreign vessels did so on a voluntary basis. In exchange for sending him their completed logs, Maury would send his Wind and Current Charts to participating ships' captains, and they had an immediate effect on ocean commerce. Using Maury's information, for example, clipper ships were able to shave 47 days off the passage from New York to San Francisco, resulting in savings of millions of dollars annually.

The Telegraph

Celestial Navigation

The Observatory’s greatest fame came during these post-Civil War years, and culminated with the discovery there of the moons of Mars in 1877 by astronomer Asaph Hall.

Around 1900, lead line soundings still remained the best method for plumbing the depth of the ocean bottom. With the coming of the First World War, however, and the widespread appearance of submarines in naval warfare for the first time, underwater sound became the technology of choice for detecting submerged targets, and sonar was born.

Sonic Depth Finder & Bathymetry

The bottom of the ocean turned out to be as diversified as the surface of the continents. Huge mountainous areas, volcanic cones, canyons that dwarf the Grand Canyon, and abyssal plains - all were found with the new technology. Now, any ship equipped with a depth finder could crisscross the ocean taking soundings, and contour profiles of the undersea terrain could be produced.

The first bathymetric charts based on sonic soundings appeared in 1923, and they were produced regularly thereafter as new information was collected and processed.

Submarines & Sonar

What emerged was a series of results that showed that the transmission of sound in the sea - and in particular how effectively it could be used to detect submarines - depended crucially on how the temperature and salinity of the seawater varied with depth. It was found that sound rays bend underwater in ways that are intimately linked to the variation of the speed of sound from place to place, and that this could create "shadow zones" in which a target could hide.

These discoveries significantly widened the range of oceanic phenomena of interest to oceanographers. In addition to concerns with water depth, winds, and currents, the need to measure and interpret underwater physical parameters such as water temperature, salinity, and sound speed at increasing depths, assumed major importance. This required the development of new kinds of instruments, new analysis techniques, new ways of looking at data, and in general, a substantial broadening of the scientific disciplines needed in the practice of oceanography for military applications.

Oceanography & The Office of Naval Research

Because the importance of accurate short-term weather forecasts had become apparent during the war, a new emphasis was placed on expanding the meteorological sciences and their applications. Eventually, the Naval Weather Service, established during the First World War to support naval aviation, was consolidated within the Naval Oceanography community.

Today, naval oceanography involves several major areas of science: oceanography, meteorology, mapping, charting, and geodesy, astrometry (the science of accurate astronomical measurements); and precise time-keeping.

The Master Clock of the United States, from which all other national time standards are derived, is maintained at the Naval Observatory in Washington

On a day-to-day basis, ocean and weather observations are collected worldwide from civilian and military oceanography sources, processed ashore, and used to make both oceanographic and meteorological forecasts in near-real-time

The Navy's Optimum Track Ship Routing (OTSR) program uses the most up-to-date weather and ocean data to generate recommendations for the safest, most efficient, and economical passage for ships on the high seas. This service, especially on long ocean crossings, has not only been vital to the safety of ships, but has also saved millions of dollars in fuel costs alone.

Collecting Oceanography Data

Specially configured instruments are used to measure currents, waves, and ocean fronts, local variations in the Earth's magnetic and gravitational fields, and acoustical background noise. While these measurements have traditionally been made from aircraft, buoys, and ships at sea, there is increasing emphasis on the use of space satellites for a wide variety of observations.

Oceanography systems - both civil and military - are used not only for observing large weather features, such as clouds and storms, but also for measuring sea surface temperature and surface winds, wave height and direction, ocean color, ice cover, and variations in sea surface height - a key indicator of both local gravity and the presence of sea floor peaks and valleys.

The collection and analysis of all these data are largely the responsibility of the Naval Oceanographic Office in Mississippi and the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center in California, each of which operates a major supercomputer facility. These computers are used both for the assimilation and analysis of world-wide sensor data for ocean current estimates - and for research and development by the ocean and atmospheric technical communities.

Additionally, both organizations make significant use of data exchanged by foreign nations. The Naval Oceanographic Office, in particular, has entered into a series of Hydrographic Cooperation (HYCOOP) agreements to share the results of coastal hydrographic surveys with international partners.

Both Navy laboratories and civilian technical institutes are major contributors to the environmental sciences, and important efforts are under way to translate their findings into new techniques and equipment for improving the accuracy and timeliness of weather and ocean forecasting.


Aerographers Mate 3rd Class Robert Mason of Chicago, IL, releases a weather balloon from the fantail of the USS Harry S. Truman September 26, 1999. Aerographers Mates utilize the information from the balloon to plot wind patterns and pressure readings. Truman is conducting Carrier Qualifications (CQs) off the Virginia coast. (courtesy of Justin Bane/US Navy)