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?

Studying the world beneath the ocean, the air above it, and the interface of the sea surface with the atmosphere is called the science of oceanography.
Oceanography has been recognized as a formal scientific discipline for one hundred and fifty years, however, finding practical applications (inventions) for commerce and war at sea, goes back much further.

Early History of Oceanography

Oceanography means more than an understanding how ships perform. Oceanography also means understanding the sea and atmospheric conditions. Knowledge, for example, of prevailing winds aided the success of the early Polynesians in spreading themselves over a large portion of the Pacific. Early Arab traders sailed regularly to ports along the Malabar Coast of western India and even further east, because they knew enough to time their voyages to match the alternating monsoon winds. Fifteenth century Portugal became a mighty maritime nation because it lay closest to the strong, steady pressure of northeast winds - called the trade winds - which could carry their caravels along the coast of Africa and on to the riches of India with little effort at the sails.

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

Navy Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury was first Superintendent of the Navy's Depot, and he began the first formal scientific investigations of the deep ocean environment. Maury was convinced that his chief duty should be the preparation of ocean charts. At the time, most charts on naval vessels were found to be over 100 years old and quite useless.


A major goal of Matthew Fontaine Maury was to assert the United States Navy's independence from the British Admiralty and to make their own national contribution to hydrography - the practice of nautical surveying and charting.

Wind and Current Charts

Under Maury's direction, hundreds of ships' logs that were stored in the Navy's warehouses were hauled out and studied. By comparing the logs of ships on a particular route, Maury pinpointed locations where extremes and differences occurred in ocean conditions, and he was able to suggest certain areas of the oceans that should be avoided at different times of the year. The result was Maury's famous Wind and Current Charts, which soon became indispensable to mariners of all nations.

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

With the invention of telegraphy and the resulting desire to connect the continents with deep sea cables, ocean surveys of the North Atlantic soon commenced. During these surveys, the first geological specimens were brought up from the ocean floor. Within a few years, the first depth chart of the Atlantic Ocean was published, and in 1858, the first successful transatlantic cable was laid down.

Celestial Navigation

Another activity of the Depot of Charts and Instruments was the collection and collation of star positions, useful for celestial navigation. After the Civil War, the nautical charting functions of the Observatory separated from the Observatory and became the Naval Hydrographic Office, a precursor of today's Naval Oceanographic Office.

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

After the First World War, the sonic depth finder, which determines water depths by measuring the time it takes for a pulse of sound to reach the bottom and return, was invented, and acoustic measuring techniques soon revolutionized bathymetry, the science of deep ocean depth measurements.

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

In the 1920s and 1930s, the scientific understanding of the behavior of sound in the sea and its application to sonar systems for anti-submarine warfare advanced slowly, and it was only with the emergence of a vastly increased submarine threat at the onset of the Second World War in 1939 that a major national effort was undertaken for the study of underwater acoustics.

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

After World War II, the Office of Naval Research was established. Through them, private and academic oceanographic institutions began receiving funding support to continue their research, and ships and other specialized platforms for conducting ocean science programs were provided.

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

There is an on-going program of collecting and analyzing ocean and atmospheric data and a wide range of research and development activities. Modern oceanographers investigate the nature and behavior of the oceans from every point of view. In addition to customary bathymetric surveys for bottom mapping, they also collect data on the composition and roughness of the ocean floor, as well as seawater temperature, salinity, pressure, and biological characteristics.

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)