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MATTHEW FONTAINE MAURY (1806-1873)

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Originally appearing in Volume V17, Page 917 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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MATTHEW FONTAINE MAURY (1806-1873), American naval officer and hydrographer, was born near Fredericksburg in Spottsylvania county, Virginia, on the 24th of January 18o6. He was educated at Harpeth academy, and in 1825 entered the navy as midshipman, circumnavigating the globe in the " Vincennes," during a cruise of four years (1826–183o). In 1831 he was appointed master of the sloop " Falmouth " on the Pacific station, and subsequently served in other vessels before returning home in 18J4, when he married his cousin, Ann Herndon. In 1835–1836 he was actively engaged in producing for publication a treatise on navigation, a remarkable achievement at so early a stage in his career; he was at this time made lieutenant, and gazetted astronomer to a South Sea exploring expedition, but resigned this position and was appointed to the survey of south-ern harbours. In 1839 he met with an accident which resulted in permanent lameness, and unfitted him for active service. In the same year, however, he began to write a series of articles on naval reform and other subjects, under the title of Scraps from the Lucky-Bag, which attracted much attention; and in 1841 he was placed in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments, out of which grew the United States Naval Observatory and the Hydrographic Office. He laboured assiduously to obtain observations as to the winds and currents by distributing to captains of vessels specially prepared log-books; and in the course of nine years he had collected a sufficient number of logs to make two hundred manuscript volumes, each with about two thousand five hundred days' observations. One result was to show the necessity for combined action on the part of maritime nations in regard to ocean meteorology. This led to an international conference at Brussels in 18J3, which produced the greatest benefit to navigation as well as indirectly to meteorology. Maury attempted to organize co-operative meteorological work on land, but the government did not at this time take any steps in this direction. His oceanographical work, however, received recognition in all parts of the civilized world, and in 1855 it was proposed in the senate to remunerate him, but in the same year the Naval Retiring Board, erected under an act to promote the efficiency of the navy, placed him on the retired list. This action aroused wide opposition, and in 1858 he was reinstated with the rank of commander as from 1855. In 1853 Maury had published his Letters on the Amazon and Atlantic Slopes of South America, and the most widely popular of his works, the Physical Geography of the Sea, was published in London in 1855, and in New York in 1856; it was translated into several European languages. On the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Maury threw in his lot with the South, and became head of coast, harbour and river defences. He invented an electric torpedo for harbour defence, and in 1862 was ordered to England to purchase torpedo material, &c. Here he took active part in organizing a petition for peace to the American people, which was unsuccessful. Afterwards he became imperial commissioner of emigration to the emperor Maximilian of Mexico, and attempted to form a Virginian colony in that country. Incidentally he introduced there the cultivation of cinchona. The scheme of colonization was abandoned by the emperor (1866), and Maury, who had lost nearly his all during the war, settled for a while in England, where he was presented with a testimonial raised by public subscription, and among other honours received the degree of LL.D. of Cambridge University (1868). In the same year, a general amnesty admitting of his return to America, he accepted the professorship of meteorology in the Virginia Military Institute, and settled at Lexington, Virginia, where he died on the 1st of February 1873. Among works published by Maury, in addition to those mentioned, are the papers contributed by him to the Astronomical Observations of the United States Observatory, Letter concerning Lanes for Steamers crossing the Atlantic (1855); Physical Geography (1864) and Manual of Geography (1871). In 1859 he began the publication of a series of Nautical Monographs. See Diana Fontaine Maury Corbin (his daughter), Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury (London, 1888).
End of Article: MATTHEW FONTAINE MAURY (1806-1873)
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