Maury, Matthew Fontaine

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Maury, Matthew Fontaine

(fŏntān` môr`ē), 1806–73, American hydrographer and naval officer, b. near Fredericksburg, Va. Appointed a midshipman in 1825, he saw varied sea duty until a stagecoach accident (1839) made him permanently lame. In 1842 he was placed in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments (later the U.S. Naval Observatory and Hydrographical Office). Soon his wind and current charts of the Atlantic began to appear, and they eventually cut sailing time on many routes. He wrote widely on navigation and naval reform, and his Physical Geography of the Sea (1855) was the first classic work of modern oceanography. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he resigned and served the Confederacy, first in harbor defense and then as an agent in England. After the war he served (1865–66) under Maximilian in Mexico, where he attempted to establish colonies of ex-Confederates. He returned to the United States in 1868 and was professor of meteorology at the Virginia Military Institute until his death.


See biographies by F. L. Williams (1966), C. L. Lewis (1927, repr. 1969), and V. P. Parriott (1973).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Maury, Matthew Fontaine


Born Jan. 14, 1806, in Spotsylvania, Va.; died Feb. 1, 1873, in Lexington, Va. American oceanographer and meteorologist; naval officer.

From 1842 to 1861, Maury headed the Depot of Charts and Instruments, from which the Naval Observatory and Hydrographical Office of the USA was subsequently formed. He organized the processing of log books of vessels of all countries in order to chart maps of winds and currents of the world’s oceans and charted the first map of the North Atlantic Ocean bottom. In 1847 he began publishing Notice to Mariners. Upon his initiative, the first International Conference on the Meteorology and Physical Geography of the Sea was held in Brussels in 1853. In 1855 he wrote a manual on oceanography. Maury was professor of meteorology at the Virginia Military Institute from 1868 to 1873.


The Physical Geography of the Sea and Its Meteorology. Cambridge, 1963.
Physical Geography for Schools and General Readers. London, 1864.
Manual of Geography. New York, 1925.


Lewis, C. L. Matthew Fontaine Maury: The Pathfinder of the Seas. Annapolis, 1927.
Williams, F. L. Matthew Fontaine Maury: Scientist of the Sea. New Brunswick, 1963.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Maury, Matthew Fontaine

(1806–73) oceanographer; born near Fredericksburg, Va. He entered the U.S. Navy (1825) and spent the next nine years on worldwide sea voyages. In 1839 a stagecoach accident left him permanently lamed. Considered unfit for active duty, in 1842 he was appointed superintendent of the Naval Observatory's Depot of Charts and Instruments. There he compiled information from numerous ships' logs, and gained an international reputation for his research in navigation, oceanography, and meteorology. By interpreting the crossing of the trade winds at the equator, he designed shipping routes which shortened an Atlantic-Pacific crossing by 40 days. In his most famous work, The Physical Geography of the Sea (1855), he proposed a transatlantic telegraph cable to be constructed on a level sea-floor plateau he had discovered between Newfoundland and Ireland. In 1861 Maury became a commodore in the Confederate Navy; while working to perfect underwater mines, he went to Europe where he also purchased and outfitted cruisers for the Confederate navy. After a brief self-exile in Mexico and Europe (1865–68), he returned to the U.S.A. to teach at the Virginia Military Institute (1868–73). He is known as the "Pathfinder of the Seas."
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.