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History of Oceanography
Early Oceanography
More of This Oceanography Feature
Part I Early Oceanography
Part 2 Oceanography and America
Part 3 Oceanography and the World Wars
Part 4 Modern Oceanography
Oceanography on the Web
Other Nautical Inventions
Oceanography Society
The World-Wide Web Virtual Library: Oceanograph
Tidal Plants

The oceans that make up three-quarters of the Earth's surface are realms of boundless energy, towering grandeur, and fathomless mystery. These watery worlds have been a source of food, the birthplace of weather systems that sweep across the continents, pathways for commerce, and turbulent fields of battle. Understanding the dark, cold world beneath the sea, the air above it, and the interface of the sea surface with the atmosphere is the province of Naval Oceanography. Although oceanography has been recognized as a formal scientific discipline for only 150 years, the quest for this understanding and its practical application to commerce and war - often unwitting - goes back much further.

A LOOK AT THE PAST - Early Oceanography

Man's earliest attempts to master the 'great waters' (oceanography) required him to know something more than just the performance of his ship. History has shown repeatedly that some understanding of the sea and atmospheric conditions was helpful, if not vital. Knowledge, for example, of prevailing winds probably aided the success of the early Polynesians in spreading themselves over a large portion of the Pacific - but then, these same winds also hindered their return. Early Arab traders sailed regularly to ports along the Malabar Coast of western India, to the Moluccas of Indonesia, and even further east, because they knew enough to time their voyages to match the alternating monsoon winds. Fifteenth century Portugal became a mighty maritime nation because it lay closest to the strong, steady pressure of northeast winds - called the trade winds - which could carry their caravels along the coast of Africa and on to the riches of India with little effort at the sails. This made a tiny country great among the world powers. During the 'Age of Fighting Sail,' when the major European nations contested their fortunes at sea with great fleets of sailing warships, understanding and exploiting ever-changing wind conditions were vital to tactical success. 'Seizing the weather gage' - attacking an enemy fleet from windward - provided an immediate advantage, and much of the maneuvering that preceded major sea battles was intended to gain that position. Thus, the history of both exploration and warfare is filled with examples of "environmental intelligence" and its ultimate power over the weapons, sensors, and ships of the time. Edward Gibbon, the great English historian of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said it best when he noted that, "The wind and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators."

Next page >America sets the pace in oceanography

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