History of Oceanography
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Painting of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese navigator. Magellan
was the first European explorer to cross the Pacific Ocean and the first to
sail around the world.
The painting is in the Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola, Italy.
(Giraudon/Art Resource, NY)
Drawing of HMS Endeavour at anchor in Kealakekua Bay off the west coast of the Island of Hawaii (taken from the book which describes the ships voyage).
of Exploration and Science
Age of Discovery
About 650 years ago, European explorers turned to the sea to find faster trade
routes to cities in Asia and Europe. Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal recognized
the oceans importance to trade and commerce and he established a center
of learning for the marine sciences. You could think of it as the first oceanographic
institution. Mariners came to the center in Sagres, Portugal, to learn about
the oceans and currents and how to make maps. These early maps provided the basis
for important expeditions. In the late 1400s, Cristopher Columbus became the
first European to sail westward across the Atlantic Ocean and return home. In
the early 1500s Ferdinand Magellan sailed all the way around, or circumnavigated,
In the early 1700s, several European countries (mainly
Spain, France and Britain) sought to expand their empires and discover new lands
for raw materials, colonies or trade, and for spices from the East Indies, which
they believed would help cure the Plague. They launched expeditions to survey
faraway lands across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and in doing so
also explored the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans.
One of the most famous voyages of discovery of this time began in
1768 when the HMS Endeavour left Portsmouth, England, under the command
of Captain James Cook. Over 10 years Cook led three world-encircling
expeditions and mapped many countries, including Australia, New Zealand
and the Hawaiian Islands. He was an expert seaman, navigator and
scientist who made keen observations wherever he went. He was also
one of the first ship captains to recognize that a lack of Vitamin
C in sailors diets
(due mostly to a lack of fresh fruit) caused scurvy, a serious disease
that killed many sailors in those times. Cook always sailed with
lots of pickled cabbage, which he insisted that the sailors eat.
Scurvy was never a problem on his ships because the cabbage contained
lots of Vitamin C.
In 1728, John Harrison, a British cabinetmaker and inventor, started
working on an important instrument to aid seafarers navigating across
large areas of ocean, far away from land or coastlines. At the time,
pendulum clocks kept time. Obviously, these clocks did not work well
on a ship on the rolling ocean! In 1736, after years of work, Harrison
invented a clock that used a spring instead of a pendulum. It was
the first marine chronometer, an instrument that could give accurate
time on a rolling ship. With it, sailors could figure out how far
east or west they had gone from 0° Longitude, or the prime meridian,
and what longitude they were sailing past. By 1761, Harrison had
built four clocks, each better than the one before. The last clock
was tested on a voyage between England and Jamaica, and it kept excellent
time. It ran only about 5 seconds slow per day, and the ship steered
a clear course to Jamaica, a true feat in those days.
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