February 11, 2022

February birthdays – the discipline of oceanography and early NOAA organizations

Posted by Laura Guertin

I recently finished reading the book Endless Novelties of Extraordinary Interest – The Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger and the Birth of Modern Oceanography by Doug Macdougall. As this year marks 150 years since the departure of Challenger on the first dedicated ocean research expedition (December 7, 1872 – May 26, 1876), I’ve been curious to learn more about some ocean-related historic events and dates. It turns out that the month of February is a month with some significant beginnings in ocean science. For this blog post, I’m focusing on one event during the Challenger mission and the founding of three NOAA organizations.



Welcome to the dictionary, oceanography

The discipline of oceanography has a birth date – and that date is February 15, 1873.

Sketch of HMS Challenger, H.M.S. 'Challenger' Preparing to Sound, 1872

H.M.S. ‘Challenger’ Preparing to Sound, 1872
From Reports of the ‘Challenger’ Expedition. Image in public domain from Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.

H.M.S. Challenger was certainly not the first ship to record scientific measurements on the ocean. However, Challenger is credited as the first ship that sailed on an expedition focused solely on science. When the ship left Portsmouth, England, the term “oceanography” did not exist in any dictionary!

John Buchanan, one of the six scientists aboard Challenger and the only physical scientist (a chemist), claimed that oceanography was born “the day the first official observing station of the expedition was occupied, in the Atlantic Ocean west of the island of Tenerife” (Macdougall, 2019, p. xiii). John Murray, another scientist (naturalist) on board, is credited with coining the actual term oceanography (p. 29).

There is a wealth of information available online about H.M.S. Challenger and its scientific expedition – some highlighted websites include WHOI, BBC, Natural History Museum, and The Challenger Society for Marine Science.



Before there was NOAA

In doing some recent research about the history of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), I learned that units of NOAA were established before the discipline of “oceanography” was named.

Sounding party off USCS Brig FAUNTLEROY.1857-Earliest picture of Coast Survey sounding operations

Sounding party off USCS Brig FAUNTLEROY (1857). Earliest picture of Coast Survey sounding operations. Image in public domain, from NOAA Image Library.

If you are not familiar with the history of NOAA, it is a fascinating narrative! Starting on NOAA’s About page, you will see that what started as three different organizations came together to form one agency.

  • On February 10, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signs an Act to provide for surveying the coasts of the United States. Survey of the Coast was the first scientific agency of the United States.
  • On February 9, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a U.S. Congressional resolution to establish the Weather Bureau for taking meteorological observations.
  • On February 9, 1871, President Grant created the Office of Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries as the first federal agency focused on natural resource conservation.

Fast-forward to July 9, 1970, when President Richard Nixon relayed reorganization plans to Congress to establish the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. You can review online his proposed components of NOAA. President Nixon signed NOAA into existence on October 3, 1970 (the EPA was created December 2, 1970).



Additional dates in the history of oceanography

There are so many more dates and events in the history of oceanography – this is a very brief listing of sites that may be of interest for further exploration: