Sailor, scientist, printer, miner: rethinking ocean history

Science is a progression of important discoveries. Or, is there something more? Historians of science like to peek behind the familiar dates and famous people we’re likely told that matter. The history of science can offer a better understanding of the past, and how science operates today. Scientific knowledge and practice are entwined with culture, politics, class, environmental change, and gender. The history of science raises interesting questions: Who has the authority to make decisions on what is ‘knowledge’ and what is known about the natural world? How is knowledge made, and how does new information and ideas pass from one place and person to another?

As a historian of science and maritime history, I am interested in how people experienced and came to know about the world’s oceans. How did ancient people travel across great expanses of the sea? What instruments and knowledge of currents, weather, wind, and other clues from nature helped explorers, traders, and travelers to navigate away from shore? Considering the modern history of oceanography, how and why did navies and scientists in the nineteenth century begin to explore the ocean depths? By examining such questions in the history of science, we can better understand past events, historical change, and how the society we live in came to be.

This blog is a place where I hope to share my research into the Challenger Expedition (1872-1876), a voyage sponsored by the British Admiralty and the Royal Society that circumnavigated the globe to study the nature of the deep sea. Using hemp rope and iron weights, Challenger scientists and crew members discovered and recorded the deepest place in the ocean, the Mariana Trench. After the voyage returned in 1876, scientists worked for another twenty years to study and publish the expedition’s scientific results. The Scientific Results of the Challenger Expedition wasn’t finished until 1895; the data, text and illustrations filled fifty folio volumes.

Behind the headlines, Challenger provides a window into how science operated in the last decades of the nineteenth century. I found a global study of the ocean was made possible through the advantages and global reach of the British Empire and depended on nineteenth-century revolutions in how people, information, and materials moved. These historical circumstances shaped how science operated, and what could be known of the mysterious world below the waves.

I hope to share on this blog the behind-the-scenes moments that made the Challenger Expedition possible. The usual historical tale of Challenger includes famous scientists, captains, and naval officers. But many more people, from many backgrounds and nationalities, contributed to the Challenger project. Beyond the sailors and scientists at sea, I found that the expedition included those less celebrated in the history of oceanography: printmakers, artists, dock workers, coal miners, indigenous islanders, fishermen, engineers, chemists, naturalists, and office clerks. Often absent in brief histories of the famous voyage, many people from all walks of life made it possible for Challenger scientists to study the deep sea and publish their results.

On a final note, this blog attempts to escape beyond the university walls. As a postgraduate student at University College London, I had the opportunity to present my research at several conferences and academic gatherings, from London to Sydney. I am grateful to those who offered constructive feedback and advice on the sometimes rocky path to achieving my doctoral degree in the history of science.

But this blog intends to be a place of fun for readers and for myself, to find out more about nineteenth-century science and to explore the beginnings of oceanography. To enjoy asking questions, looking in some unlikely places, and taking a peek behind the scenes of this famous voyage.

Until next time, voyage well, and thanks for reading.