Archive for the ‘History’ Category
Alaska’s nautical charts need to be updated — we all know that. The diagram below shows the vintage of survey data currently used for today’s charts in Alaska. The graphic includes all surveys done by NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey (and its predecessors), and some limited data acquired by other agencies, i.e., the U.S. Coast Guard. Areas that are not colored in have never been surveyed or have data acquired by another source — from Russia or Japan, for instance — before the U.S. was responsible for charting in that area.
What are the differences between data collected in 1900, 1940, or 1960? Let’s take a look at a…
Brief Historical Sketch of Survey Technologies
Nautical charts have a lot of information, but mariners especially are concerned with two major components: water depths (known as “soundings”) and obstructions (like underwater seamounts or wrecks).
Different eras used different technologies to find, measure, and determine the position of the two components. Note that adoption of new systems does not happen abruptly; rather, new technologies are phased in as techniques and equipment improves.
Measuring Water Depth (Soundings)
3.7 million years ago to present day: sounding pole
It isn’t inconceivable that the earliest humanoid, Australopithecus afarensis, used sticks to gauge water depths before crossing streams and rivers. People still do it today.
Note the ancient Egyptian on the far right, using a sounding pole.
~ 2000 B.C. to 1930s: lead line
As good as they were for their eras, 19th and 20th century surveyors faced technological challenges. The first challenge was accounting for gaps between depth measurements. The second was the inability to be totally accurate in noting the position of the measurement. (In other words, a specific location out in the ocean may be 50 feet deep, but a surveyor must also accurately note the position of that specific location.)
This surveyor is casting a lead line.
Early Coast Survey hydrographers measured depths by lead lines — ropes with lead on one end — that were lowered into the water and read manually. Even though soundings were generally accurate, coverage between single soundings was lacking. And we need to remember that this was before the age of GPS. While sextants gave accurate positions when a hydrographer could fix on a shoreline feature, the further offshore the survey, the less accurate the position.
(Interesting fact: Hydrographers still use lead lines occasionally, in some circumstances — but not for a complete survey.)
There have been variations on lead lines through the centuries. From 1492 to the late 1870s, for instance, mariners used hemp rope for deep-sea soundings.
(Interesting fact: Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan each tried to measure mid-ocean depths with about 1,200 feet of hemp rope. Neither one of them found the sea bottom.)
In 1872, the hemp was replaced by small diameter piano wire (again, primarily for deep-sea work), and the weight of the lead was increased. Later, hydrographers added a motorized drum to wind and unwind the line, with a dial to record the length of the line.
(Interesting fact: In 1950, the British ship Challenger used piano wire in the first sounding that established Mariana Trench as the deepest place on earth.)
20th century to the present: echo sounders
Compare the bottom coverage achieved by the different survey methods.
1918 to 1990s: single beam echo sounder
Sonar came into its own in 1913. The first echo sounders (also known as “fathometers”) had single beams that measured the distance of the sea floor directly below a vessel. The echo sounders were able to take many more depth measurements than was possible with the lead line, but the technique still resulted in gaps between the lines where the beam measured the water depth.
The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (a NOAA predecessor agency) adopted this acoustic sounding technique in 1923, installing it on USCGS Ship Guide. But full-fledged change didn’t happen right away. These early sounding systems were too large to install on survey launches used in harbor and inshore work, so from 1924 until the early 1940s many surveys were still conducted with a lead line, and many were totally acoustic — and some were hybrid, using soundings from both methods, depending on coverage area and seafloor configuration.
→ 1940: U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey fully adopts single beam echo sounding technology
The development of smaller “portable” fathometers for shallow waters, about 1940, was a primary impetus in the obsolescence of lead line as survey technology and the adoption of acoustic systems. The development of World War II electronic navigation systems for bombing purposes led to the development in 1945 of the first survey-quality electronic navigation systems, which allowed for more accuracy in positioning.
1964 to current day: multibeam echo sounder
By mid-century, scientists were increasing the beams projected by the echo sounder, to get a broader swath of measurements. The multibeam echo sounder was developed for the Navy in 1964, but it remained secret until the late 1970s when commercially available systems were developed.
Coast Survey first used a MBES technique, called the “Bathymetric Swath Survey System,” in 1977 on NOAA Ship Davidson, for depths ranging from 160 to 2,000 feet. In 1980, NOAA Ship Surveyor installed a deep-water MBES system called “Sea Beam,” for depths from 1,600 to 33,000 feet.
About 1986, Coast Survey began using GPS to calibrate medium-frequency navigation systems while operating in the far reaches of the United States Exclusive Economic Zone. By the mid-1990s, GPS was the primary control for accurate positioning.
→ 2000: Coast Survey fully adopts multibeam surveying
By 2000, Coast Survey was performing full-coverage multibeam hydrographic surveys for charting purposes. NOAA survey ships now use multibeam echo sounders that measure navigable coastal depths from 45 to 1,000 feet. For shallower and more constricted waters, the ships deploy hydrographic survey launches with multibeam echo sounders that efficiently and safely survey areas from 12 to 200 feet deep. These systems make it possible to acquire 100% sea floor coverage in the survey grounds (excluding ultra-shallow, near-shore, or obstruction areas).
Finding Underwater Obstructions
1880s to early 1990s: wire drag
Surveyors used wire drag, not as a sounding system but as a way to look between the sounding lines to find obstructions to navigation and establish safe navigational channels. The first documented wire drag was conducted in the 1880s, in French Indochina, Gulf of Tonkin area, attaching the wire to buoys at each end and letting it drift with tidal currents.
Around 1900, the U. S. Lake Survey developed the technique of using a ¼-mile wire drag between two boats. In 1903, Coast Survey began using the technique, and within a few years was using it extensively in Alaskan waters as they looked for pinnacle rocks. Coast Survey’s Alaska wire drags were up to 3.5 miles long. (Initially, “least depths” over discovered obstructions were determined by lead line, then acoustic means and, ultimately, by divers with depth/pressure gauges.)
Survey vessels conduct wire drag operations.
1960 to present day: side scan sonar
Side scan sonar is essentially the sonar equivalent of an aerial photograph. It improves the ability to identify submerged wrecks and obstructions. Evolving from submarine detection sonars of World War I and World War II, side scan sonar was fairly well developed by 1960, when the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office started using it regularly with their surveys.
→ 1990: Coast Survey fully adopts side scan sonar for East Coast and Gulf Coast surveys
NOAA Ship Whiting used the technology in 1984-1985 for approaches to New York. U.S. Coast Survey fully adopted side scan sonar (in place of wire drag) in the early 1990s.
Side scan sonar operations use “towfish” like this one, lowered into the water and towed from the back of the vessel.
Side scan sonar captures images of objects, which improves the ability to identify submerged objects.
Today’s Charts Reflect Different Tech Eras
Each of NOAA’s 1000-plus nautical charts, even today, can contain information collected by any or all of these sounding and positioning techniques.
Most nautical charts are an amalgamation of geospatial information collected using different techniques at different times. For example, one area of a specific current-day nautical chart might be based on a lead line and sextant survey conducted in 1910, and another area on the same chart might be based on a multibeam and GPS survey conducted in 2010. If we dig deep enough, we will probably find a sounding or two from the 18th century British explorer, Captain James Cook.
NOAA cartographers mold this disparate information so that it fits together as a coherent representation of the geographic area.
So when was the data acquired for the chart you’re using? NOAA cartographers add a “source diagram” to large-scale charts. (See the diagram on the current chart 16240, pictured below.) Check yours. That will give you the years of the surveys… and now you have a better idea on the technology used by the surveyor.
This is the source diagram on nautical chart 16240.
Sunday, June 21, was World Hydrography Day, a day set aside to recognize the important work of hydrographers. Measuring and describing the physical features of oceans, seas, and coastal areas is essential not only to the safe navigation of the everyday mariner, but to our nation’s economic development, security and defense, scientific research, and environmental protection.
The NOAA flag flies at the Absecon Lighthouse during the memorial dedication. Photo by David Hall
This year’s observation was particularly noteworthy for NOAA, as we honored the lost crew members of the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Robert J. Walker, by dedicating a memorial at the Absecon Lighthouse in New Jersey.
On June 21, 1860, the Robert J. Walker was hit by a commercial schooner while transiting from Norfolk to New York after months of surveying in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship sank 12 miles offshore, as they were heading to the Absecon Lighthouse after they were hit. Coast Survey lost twenty crew members that night, and another man died from his injuries the next day, in the largest single loss of life in Coast Survey and NOAA history.
Dr. James Delgado, director of maritime heritage at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, described the events of that long-ago day, and spoke of the partnership between NOAA and the New Jersey diving community in identifying the previously unidentified wreck.
Steve Nagiewicz, co-director of the Robert J. Walker Mapping Project, recognized a dozen private citizens who assisted with the project, as he talked about the importance of collaborative efforts in conserving the nation’s maritime history.
Steve Nagiewicz (center) and Dr. James Delgado (second from left) recognized the collaboration between NOAA and private citizens in identifying and conserving the Robert J. Walker wreck. Photo by Dawn Forsythe
Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, dedicated the memorial.
“With this memorial duly dedicated, we are assured that future generations will know what happened off these shores,” Glang said. “They will remember the sacrifices made to make our nation’s coasts safe. And they will give these crew members a permanent honor that was so long denied.”
A historic hydrographer’s bell rang for every crew member that lost their life, similar to the memorial service held two years ago.
Rear Admiral Gerd Glang dedicated the Walker memorial, with James Delgado and Cheryl Oliver. Photo by Dawn Forsythe
On the grounds of the Absecon Lighthouse you will now find a memorial consisting of a NOAA commemorative geodetic marker, as well as a plaque honoring the lost crew members, placed in a compass rose on the grounds outside the lighthouse entrance. The plaque is an iconic image that was proposed by NOAA Corps Basic Officer Training Class 102, in a design project headed by Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Shoup.
In expressing NOAA’s appreciation for all involved in the project, Glang thanked two people in particular. First, he noted the persistent efforts of Skip Theberge, our NOAA historian and a retired NOAA commissioned officer.
“I would dare say that very few people in NOAA even knew about the Robert J. Walker until Captain Theberge told us about this tragic event,” Glang said. “It is because of his knowledge — and especially his persistence in telling the story — that NOAA made the effort to find and identify the Walker.”
Glang also offered special appreciation to Cheryl Oliver, exhibit manager for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the senior program advisor for NOAA’s Preserve America Initiative. She is also the president of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Heritage Society. Cheryl was NOAA’s moving force behind the development of this memorial.
NOAA Preserve America Initiative advisor Cheryl Oliver and Maritime Heritage Program Director James Delgado at the Robert J. Walker interpretive sign at Absecon Lighthouse. Photo by David Hall
The Robert J. Walker was positively identified in 2013 after NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson set aside a day to survey the site while it was in the area conducting operations after post tropical storm Sandy. The ship’s physical scientists were guided by historical accounts in the 1860 Coast Survey Annual Report. Then, using the Thomas Jefferson data and armed with additional information from researchers and archaeological advisers, divers pinpointed the exact location and confirmed the ship’s identity.
NOAA would like to express our appreciation to U.S. Coast Guard Station Atlantic City (in particular, Seaman Philip Zinna and Fireman Apprentice Christopher Barreras) for presenting the colors at the event.
A color guard from U.S. Coast Guard Station Atlantic City presents the colors. Photo by David Hall
Absecon Lighthouse Executive Director Jean Muchanic welcomed the crowd of 50 people to the Walker memorial dedication. Photo by David Hall
by Melissa Volkert, Coast Survey communications associate
NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey has added a wide range of publications to our Historical Map and Chart Collection. The collection of publications consists of annual reports, catalogs, United States Coast Pilot, Notes on the Coast, and special reports.
The collection contains over 35,000 documents from the earliest days of the U.S. Coast Survey.
- Annual Reports are yearly publications, from 1837 to 1965, that detail the many scientific and technological activities of Coast Survey.
- Aeronautical charts, U.S. nautical charts, charts of the Philippines, and the old U.S. Lake Survey charts are detailed in Catalogs.
- The Coast Pilot collection carries two centuries of volumes, from a 1796 version of the American Coast Pilot, through the 1800s and 1900s, until the 2012 versions of the U.S. Coast Pilot.
- Written in 1861 by the Coast Survey while Superintendent Alexander Bache served on the Blockade Strategy Board, Notes on the Coast were instrumental in the Union naval strategy during the Civil War.
- When geodetic, hydrographic, geophysical, and oceanographic methods were hard to find in annual reports, over 400 Special Reports, issued between 1898 and 1956, made the information easier to disseminate.
These publications provide context to the tens of thousands of maps and charts in the collection. Use the “Search Images” and “Search Publications” pages to explore the historic documents.
As an example, consider the great naturalist John Muir, whose 179th birthday is this month. He was a guide and artist on the Survey of the 39th Parallel across the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah from 1874 to 1877.
One result emerges: the 1875 Annual Report. This report notes, on page 62, that John Muir recorded the geological and botanical characteristics of Mount Shasta in Northern California. A “related maps” option, showing maps and other images mentioned in the publication, will be to the left of this result. In this case, the related maps include a map titled “Sketch Showing the Progress of the Survey on the Atlantic Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Coast of the United States with Sub Sketch Showing the Progress on the Pacific Coast.” This particular map was continually updated as new areas were surveyed and discovered. 1875 was the first year that Mt. Shasta was recorded on it.
You can also use the information from an image to locate a publication. This month marks the 99th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Using Search Images on the Historical Map and Chart Collection:
Since this map is from 1907 and there are no images from 1906, assume findings after the earthquakes were not published until 1907.
- Search publications for the Annual Report of 1907.
- When the report is opened, use the “Ctrl+F” search function (press Ctrl & F together)
- Type California in the search bar that appears at the top right.
- California will be highlighted every time it is stated in the document.
On page 67, there is a section entitled “Earth Movements in the California Earthquake of 1906.” This section ‒ that highlights new vs. old triangulation, and the permanent displacements of the areas affected ‒ states, “…the effects of the earthquake of April 18, 1906, indicated that there had been relative displacements of the earth’s surface from 2 meters (7 feet) to 6 meters (20 feet) at various points near the great fault accompanying the earthquake.”
The tables indicate the permanent displacements of various points caused by the earthquake of 1906. These permanent displacements were determined by comparing the positions of identical points upon the earth’s surface as determined by triangulation before and after the earthquakes in question. (Discover how the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey aided the recovery of the San Francisco earthquakes of 1906 by reading the 1907 Annual Report.)
The Historical Map and Chart Collection documents Coast Survey’s discoveries throughout history. Make your own discoveries in the collection, and let us know if you have any comments, questions, or concerns.
The “slave density map,” created by the men of U.S. Coast Survey in 1861, is one of Coast Survey’s most treasured historical maps. Artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter included it in his painting, “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln,” because Lincoln consulted it so often in devising his military strategy. According to Carpenter, President Lincoln used the map in his decisions to send his armies to free blacks in some of the highest density areas in order to destabilize Southern order.
Francis Bicknell Carpenter placed the “slave density map” in the lower right corner of his painting of the Emancipation Proclamation.
President Lincoln’s Cottage, now maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is where President Lincoln developed the Emancipation Proclamation. So it was fitting that, on Lincoln’s birthday this year, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey presented a copy of the map to Cottage officials, to assist with their vital educational programs.
In the very library where Lincoln may have studied the map, Coast Survey’s Dawn Forsythe (left) and NOAA’s Ben Sherman (right) presented the map to Erin Carlson Mast, the Cottage’s executive director, and Callie Hawkins, associate director for programs.
Dawn Forsythe (Coast Survey), Erin Carlson Mast and Callie Hawkins (Lincoln’s Cottage), and Ben Sherman (NOAA) with a copy of the slave density map in the Lincoln Cottage library.
The Cottage plans to use the map in their educational programs. To learn more about the map, see Mapping Slavery in the Nineteenth Century.
The men of Coast Survey created the map to help the public understand the secession crisis, by providing a visual link between secession and slavery.
Coast Survey Brig Washington
Lt. Thomas R. Gedney, a U.S. Navy officer commanding the U.S. Coast Survey Brig Washington on August 20, 1839, was surveying the area between New York’s Montauk Point and Gardiner’s Island. He “discovered a strange and suspicious looking vessel off Culloden Point, near said Montauk Point,” according to his statement to Connecticut District Court Judge Andrew T. Judson. Gedney and his officers took possession of the vessel. The ship captured by the Washington proved to be the Spanish schooner called L’Amistad – the ship carrying Africans who revolted against their captors and tried to sail back to Africa… Thus began a little known piece of U.S. Coast Survey history. (It is so little known, in fact, that the 1997 movie Amistad did not mention Coast Survey.)
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is presenting a new exhibit of six murals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College, portrays the heroic resistance to slavery. Three of the six historic murals on exhibition refer to the slave ship Amistad.
Gedney’s capture of the Amistad was very early in Coast Survey’s history, when naval officers were assigned to command Coast Survey vessels. Gedney was one of the two first senior naval officers attached to the Coast Survey. (The other was George S. Blake.) In 1834, Gedney commanded the Coast Survey’s first hydrographic vessel, the Jersey, and in 1835 discovered the Gedney Channel into New York Harbor. Gedney is also known for tackling the would-be assassin of President Andrew Jackson on January 31, 1835, after the gunman’s pistol(s) had misfired ‒ twice. He reportedly protected the gunman, Richard Lawrence, from the wrath of the crowd so Lawrence could be brought to justice. Gedney joined the Navy in 1815, and died in 1857.
There were two trials on the Amistad: one criminal, for the mutiny; the other was a civil trial, where Gedney et.al. libeled (claimed) as “salvage” the cargo, provisions, cash, and “fifty-four slaves, to wit, fifty-one male slaves, and three young female slaves, who were worth twenty-five thousand dollars.” (See the copies of original documents at the National Archives.)
There were several competing claims for the Africans, involving Queen Isabella of Spain and the two men who said they owned the slaves. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that the case pivoted on the status of the men and women captured on the Amistad. The District Court ruled that the Africans were free individuals; kidnapped and transported illegally, they had never been slaves. Therefore, the court allowed salvage to Lieutenant Gedney and others, on the vessel and cargo, of one-third of the value thereof, “but not on the negroes…”
The Amistad Murals consists of three panels: The Revolt, The Court Scene (pictured here), and Back to Africa. They are normally housed in Talladega College’s Savery Library and are some of artist Hale Aspacio Woodruff’s best known works.
The court ordered President Martin Van Buren to have them transported back to Africa. After going through the appeal process, President Van Buren ordered government lawyers to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard the case, with former president John Quincy Adams arguing against the government and on behalf of the Africans. On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Africans. They also provided a note on Gedney:
“As to the claim of Lieutenant Gedney for the salvage service, it is understood that the United States do not now desire to interpose any obstacle to the allowance of it, if it is deemed reasonable by the Court. It was a highly meritorious and useful service to the proprietors of the ship and cargo; and such as, by the general principles of maritime law, is always deemed a just foundation for salvage. The rate allowed by the Court, does not seem to us to have been beyond the exercise of a sound discretion, under the very peculiar and embarrassing circumstances of the case.”
In other words, Gedney got his share of the cargo, but not the “slaves” he had also claimed as prizes.
(Read the full Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Joseph Story.)
The Amistad murals will be on view at the National Museum of Natural History until March 2015.
by Dawn Forsythe, Coast Survey communications
Remember when your mom told you, “The best things come in small packages”? It turns out that is true for more than diamonds, puppies, and kids who think they are too short.
Today it was my privilege to ride with the 57-foot Bay Hydro II, one of NOAA’s smallest research vessels, as she came into Baltimore Harbor for the Star Spangled Spectacular, a festival that celebrates the 200th anniversary of our National Anthem. As we sailed alongside the impressive NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, past historic Fort McHenry, a 19th century cannon boomed ‒ probably sounding much as it did 200 years ago during the War of 1812, when the British attack was turned back at Baltimore. With that historic reminder, I was struck by how the Bay Hydro II represents Coast Survey’s two-century commitment to the Chesapeake Bay, starting with our surveys in 1843.
The view from R/V Bay Hydro II, as the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer passes historic Fort McHenry
(Historical note: Even though President Jefferson ordered the Survey of the Coast in 1807, the U.S. Coast Survey was not able to assist during the War of 1812. We were still organizing and, in fact, the first superintendent of Coast Survey was in England when war broke out. Ferdinand Hassler was trying to recruit surveying and cartographic experts and was searching for the proper equipment. He was not able to return to the U.S. until after the war. Some historians think Hassler may have been detained in England at what could euphemistically be called a “special invitation” of the British government.)
Bay Hydro II, the successor to the original productive Bay Hydrographer, was only commissioned five years ago. She was built for the Bay. As U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski wrote in 2009:
“The Port of Baltimore depends on accurate charts to ensure maritime traffic flows freely, and to help keep the Bay safe from environmental disasters that could result from vessels striking uncharted hazards… Investing in advanced technology, like the Bay Hydrographer II and the sonar equipment it uses, is especially important for keeping America competitive in a global arena. Much of the charting equipment and software currently used within NOAA’s hydrographic fleet was first tested and proven right here in the Bay using this vessel’s predecessor.
“I’m proud to have such an advanced test platform in Maryland’s backyard, keeping America safe, and keeping America innovative.”
The Bay Hydro II is meeting Senator Mikulski’s vision for safety and innovation.
Bay Hydro II surveyed in Hampton Roads following Hurricane Irene, speeding the resumption of port operations
Bay Hydro II has an impressive record. She was the first vessel in Norfolk waters after Hurricane Irene and Sandy, searching for underwater debris to speed resumption of shipping and naval operations in Hampton Roads. In addition to leading Coast Survey evaluations of emerging hydrographic survey technologies, she has assisted U.S. Navy researchers who are testing new technologies. She has rescued stranded boaters and removed debris that posed a danger to navigation in the Bay. And by participating in local community events, the Bay Hydro crews have educated tens of thousands of people about the Bay’s marine characteristics and maritime importance.
Speaking of education… At Baltimore’s 2012 Sailabration, nearly 9,000 people toured this mighty little research vessel for an introduction to NOAA’s hydrographic surveys. With more than a million people expected for this year’s Star Spangled Spectacular, from Sep. 11 to Sep. 15, I’d be surprised if the three-person Bay Hydro crew has any voice left on Tuesday.
This weekend, a lot of people are going to discover how a small research vessel delivers big results.
Lt.j.g. Bart Buesseler is the officer-in-charge of the R/V Bay Hydro II
Rob Mowery, physical scientist technician on the Bay Hydro II, explains survey preparations to a visiting media crew.
By Darcy Herman
Over its 200-year history, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey has employed men who are preeminent in their fields. Most of the time, their career successes follow traditional professional trajectories ‒ but at least one Coast Survey alum’s ultimate renown was born of his failure at Coast Survey.
James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903), the American artist best known for his painting colloquially known as “Whistler’s Mother,” was briefly and unhappily employed in the drawing division of the U.S. Coast Survey in 1854 and 1855.
Whistler came to Coast Survey at the age of 20, after he was asked to leave West Point over an argument with a professor of chemistry there. As Whistler tells it, “The Professor would not agree with me that silicon was a gas, but declared it was a metal; and as we could come to no agreement in the matter, it was suggested — all in the most courteous and correct West Point way ‒ that perhaps I had better leave the Academy.”
Enter Secretary of War and fellow West Point expellee Jefferson Davis, who, after interviewing Whistler and learning of his talent in drawing, recommended him to an open post at Coast Survey. There Whistler met John Ross Key, and the two became good friends as well as office mates. In a memoir, Key recalls that Whistler was a bad fit for the job. “The accuracy required in the making of maps and surveys, where mathematical calculations are the foundation of projections upon which are drawn the topographical or hydrographical conventional signs, was not to Whistler’s liking, and the laborious application involved was beyond his nature, or inconsistent with it,” Key wrote. Apparently, Whistler’s nature was also inconsistent with regular office hours. Making a leisurely arrival to Coast Survey, Whistler once claimed “I was not too late; the office opened too early.”
When he did produce drawings, Whistler was often distracted, making small sketches in the margins of charts or on scraps of paper. One of these idle sketches was of his friend Key seated at his sketch board. Frustrated with the effort, Whistler threw the sketch of Key on the floor, where Key retrieved and saved it.
Whistler’s sketch of John Ross Key
Whistler’s work appears on two Coast Survey sketches. One, described by E.R. and J. Pennell, was found on a copperplate and saved by Whistler’s Coast Survey office mate, John Ross Key. It depicts a rocky shore, with sketches of several people, something Whistler was fond of drawing on many surfaces ‒ including the walls of the stairway leading down to the office of his boss, Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Bache.
Key saved Whistler’s copperplate etching
On the Sketch of Anacapa Island (1854), Whistler etched the view of the eastern extremity of the island and added birds flying overhead. When he was scolded for the addition, Whistler replied, “Surely the birds don’t detract from the sketch. Anacapa Island couldn’t look as blank as that map did before I added the birds.”
Sketch of Anacapa Island
Although he was criticized for including nonessential decoration on official government charts, the results of his doodling and experiments on copper plates showed Whistler’s true mastery of etching technique — a technique he learned while employed at Coast Survey and later used to great success and reasonable profit as an iconic American artist.
(For more information on Whistler, see Stanley Weintraub’s Whistler: A Biography, published in 1974 by Weybright and Talley.)