website creator The various maps and charts of the U.S. Coast Survey were created by geologists, meteorologists, astronomers and topographers, each highly trained in this new scientific discipline and with an unheard-of attention to detail. These men and women (the Coast Survey hired women professionals as early as 1845) helped push back the limits of astronomic measures, designed new and more accurate observational instruments for sea and land surveying, developed new techniques for the mathematical analysis of the mountains of data obtained by the field parties, and further refined techniques of error analysis and mitigation. Storms, mountains, dust, mud, deserts, wild beasts, heat and cold; all were the companions of the Coast Surveyors. They engaged in a great physical adventure which is little known and little understood.
The years between the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War were pivotal ones in the development of American coastal charting. The country was expanding, the population was resettling and the coast lines were lengthening. Industrialization in the northeast encouraged the export of manufactured goods and the import of raw materials and with the discovery of gold in California, the country had grown from one coast to the other and maritime traffic had increased significantly.
With this increased traffic came larger and faster sea vessels and an urgent need for better coastal charts to assist in navigating the coastal areas of the country. Early surveys, both public and private, were considered extremely inaccurate and imperfect with reference to data collection. During the late 1780’s, a Swiss mathematician residing in Philadelphia named Ferdinand Hassler organized a new method of data collection, drawing upon the improving technology in various American scientific fields.
And it was his efforts that became the accepted method for the U.S. Coast Survey. In 1807, a “Survey of the Coast”, which was to include the area from Maine to Georgia, was authorized through an Act of Congress and then President Thomas Jefferson. This became America’s first physical science agency and it has a long history as the oldest scientific organization in the United States.
Hassler was named the first Superintendent of the Coast Survey and held that position from 1816 to 1818 then again from 1832 to 1843. During his time, he imbued the organization with love of “truth” and unswerving compromise with the twin principles of accuracy and precision. His motto was: “It is the duty of every man to be honest and to do good.”
Following Hassler’s death in 1843, Alexander D. Bache, a great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, took over as superintendent of the U. S. Coast Survey and using his profound knowledge of the American political scene, molded it into the ‘first great science organization of the U.S. Federal Government’.
To view The Christina Gallery’s collection of U.S. Coast Survey charts and other antique maps please click here.