Happy birthday to the man whose scientific integrity laid NOAA’s cornerstone

Hassler
Ferdinand R. Hassler

Today, October 7, Coast Survey celebrates the 245th anniversary of the birth of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, the Swiss immigrant whose plan to survey the U.S. coast was selected as the basis for the federal government’s first scientific foray, and who was to become the first superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey. Hassler’s determination and uncompromising adherence to accuracy, precision, and scientific integrity during the decades-long struggle to establish the nation’s charting agency is a cornerstone of the NOAA of today.

Retired NOAA Captain Albert “Skip” Theberge, the noted NOAA historian, has written THE definitive paper on “The Hassler Legacy,” available online at the NOAA Library website. Theberge notes the formal biographical details, but then he goes beyond that, explaining how Hassler’s training and temperament contrasted with – and perhaps played into – the political machinations that resulted in a decades-long delay in the effort to create the young nation’s nautical charts.

On March 25, 1807 (after Congress passed “an act to provide for surveying the coasts of the United States”), Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin issued a notice to all interested scientific men in the United States, asking for plans to conduct the coastal survey. Hassler responded to Gallatin’s letter less than a week later, and his proposal for a trigonometrically-based survey was accepted in July. And then it gets really interesting. From Theberge’s article:

“However, no action was taken to begin the survey until 1811 because of the unsettled international political climate. Although Jefferson was among the most scientific of United States presidents, it was odd that he was instrumental in passing a law for the Survey of the Coast in early 1807; just three months before he had instituted an economic embargo against both England and France because of their depredations against American ships and seamen. This embargo resulted in the recall of over 20,000 American seamen on the high seas and effectively terminated the American merchant marine and international trade. The embargo continued until the end of his administration.”

“Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, reinstituted the Survey and sent Hassler to Great Britain in late 1811 to procure survey instruments. Because of continuing difficulties between the two nations, Madison declared war on Great Britain eight months after Hassler’s arrival in London.”

The inconvenience of being in England (and later, France) during the War of 1812 doesn’t come close to the inconvenience caused by “those penurious keepers of the public monies,” according to Theberge. Hassler went for long periods of not being paid, his purchase of survey instruments cost more than he was authorized (so he paid the difference out of his own pocket), and then the government refused to provide for his transportation home.

Florian Cajori, Hassler’s biographer, wrote:

“… A country of almost unlimited resources permitted this able scientist, who was giving his thoughts day after day to the advancement of science and to the glory of his adopted country, to return to America at his own expense and under financial embarrassment. The Government… permitted Hassler to be personally considerably poorer than he was before he undertook his mission to Europe.”

Despite the bad treatment, Hassler accepted the appointment as Superintendent of the Survey of the Coast on August 3, 1816, and he was soon on survey reconnaissance in New Jersey, accompanied by his son. In January 1817, after just a few months of work, the Treasury Secretary asked him to “state the probable time which will be required for the execution of this Survey.”

Theberge expounds nicely on the situation:

“Consider for a moment the utter lack of understanding by the national leaders of the nature of the task of charting the coast of the United States. There was a naivete, indicative of the state of scientific and engineering knowledge in the United States during the early nineteenth century, when Secretary Crawford asked a man, who had to construct his own measuring instruments, had no vessels, and had only his son for help, how long it would take to complete the Survey of the Coast.”

The next spring, the Survey of the Coast – and Hassler – took a major hit. Congress decided that only “persons belonging to the army or navy” should be employed for the survey. Hassler was out, and 15 years of scientific debate and survey ineptitude followed. It was during this time, cast off from the government, when Hassler laid out his vision. The task, he explained, was to construct a great triangulation network that would serve as the control for all nautical surveys as well as all national land surveys. In addition to the geodetic foundation for mapping the land and charting the coasts, Hassler envisioned the establishment of a national mapping organization.

Hassler, at age 62, was reappointed as superintendent on August 9, 1832, when the Survey was transferred back into civilian control within the Treasury Department. In 1834, the Survey of the Coast finally took its first ocean soundings. In 1836, the Survey of the Coast was renamed U.S. Coast Survey. Hassler served as superintendent until his death on November 20, 1843.

Ferdinand R. Hassler’s scientific achievements had laid the foundation for much of today’s NOAA.

Hassler's first triangulation diagram
Diagram of Hassler’s original triangulation from 1817 and 1833-1834. Library of Congress, “A collection of maps, charts, drawings, surveys, etc, published from time to time, by order of the two houses of Congress.”

NOAA library blows the dust off a photo of dust clouds

By Linda Joy, NOAA Communications and External Affairs

In April 1935, George Marsh, an unassuming engineer employed by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, took a photo in the course of his work during a Texas surveying mission. Not having Facebook or other social media tools at hand, he put the photo in an album and stored it away. He could not have known that many decades later, thanks to the NOAA Library and the Internet, his photo would eventually reach millions of people around the globe.

The now famous photo captured boiling dust clouds about to swallow a homestead during the Dust Bowl’s infamous Black Sunday storm.

USC&GS engineer George Marsh took this photo of a Texas dust storm in 1935.
USC&GS engineer George Marsh took this photo of a Texas dust storm in 1935.

Upon Marsh’s death in 1955, relatives gave his album to the Coast and Geodetic Survey, which in 1970 became part of NOAA. There it remained in a file cabinet until 1994 when slides of the original photo were created. Three years later, the slides were digitized. Then the inevitable happened. The NOAA Library made the image freely available over the Internet through its online NOAA Photo Library where publishers, news outlets, historians, educators, students and many others discovered it.

A recent NOAA Library analysis shows that the photo has been published in works in 25 languages, 39 countries, and on more than 1,000 websites. It also blasted into space on a communications satellite on Nov. 12, 2012, along with 99 other photos selected by artist Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures project. Paglen intends the images, etched on a disc, to serve as a cultural archive and to last well longer than human civilization.

Marsh’s photo was one of three that Paglen selected from the NOAA Photo Library. The space project prompted NOAA librarian Albert “Skip” Theberge to do an analysis of the Photo Library’s reach.

“I selected Marsh’s photograph for tracking as its use emanated from only one possible root – that being its digitization and posting to the Internet in the very first version of the NOAA Photo Library in late 1997,” Theberge explains. It had never been published in either a scientific journal or any book, popular magazine, or other media prior to its posting on the Internet via the NOAA Photo Library.

“Fortunately, Marsh was a keen observer of the world about him and on Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, he took a photo of a dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas. A white house is seen on the right of the image and two people stand in the middle distance, seemingly mesmerized by the boiling mass of dust and sand approaching their little town. I felt that the photo had historical significance and merited further preservation.” Theberge says. The image is actually labeled April 18, but Theberge believes Marsh erred in labeling the date.

Theberge devoted about 80 hours of detective work last November to finding how many times and where the image has been used. Among his findings:

  • USA Today has used the image four times.
  • It has been published in 24 books.
  • Among the more than 1,000 websites that have posted the image are 214 blogs, 134 news sites, 129 photo sites, 91 educational sites, 67 political sites, 41 government sites, 20 sites on religion, philosophy and self-help, and 17 music sites.
  • The photo has been shared on social media, including 51 posts on Pinterest.

“Although you would predict that the photo would be used primarily for either climate discussions or Dust Bowl history sites, what I discovered was an astounding variety of uses of the image,” Theberge says. Since he concluded his analysis last year, he has found the Marsh image posted on even more sites. “It will never be possible to state definitively how many times it has been used or how many people have seen it.”

Besides the Marsh dust bowl photo, the NOAA Photo Library  and its sister site on the social media photo sharing website Flickr today have nearly 60,000 images online.  These resources and the power of imagery have helped spread NOAA’s work, discoveries and heritage worldwide.

NOAA Coast Survey director to escort caissons for USS Monitor sailors’ interment at Arlington

On Friday, March 8, a NOAA Corps admiral will have the honor of doing something extraordinary. Coast Survey’s director, Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, will be the NOAA Escort Flag Officer for the full honors funeral of two unknown sailors who went down with the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor in 1862. Rear Adm. Glang will join Rear Adm. Anthony Kurta, U.S. Navy, as the two officers escort the caissons during the somber event at Arlington National Cemetery.

The interment will be open to the public.

facial reconstruction of lost sailors
Facial reconstruction of the two sailors found in the Monitor’s turret (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gina K. Morrissette)

The Monitor sank southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, during a New Year’s Eve storm, carrying 16 crew members to their deaths.

The wreck was discovered in 1973, and confirmed in 1974 by John Newton and a team from Duke University. The ironclad was lying upside down with the turret separated from the hull, resting in 230 feet of water approximately 16 miles off Cape Hatteras. In the late 1990s through 2002, experts recovered iconic Monitor artifacts, which are now conserved at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Two skeletons were discovered in 2002 when the turret was raised from the seafloor, and efforts to identify the remains have been unsuccessful so far.

To protect this national treasure, Congress created the nation’s first national marine sanctuary. The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1975.

The U.S. Coast Survey was intricately involved in the Civil War, creating the Slave Density Map, making thousands of copies of maps and charts for the war effort, embedding with the Armies and supporting naval operations, writing and distributing Notes on the Coast (which were essential for the blockades), and documenting the war’s successes and failures. Coast Survey had no involvement with the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack (or Virginia), but NOAA historian Albert Theberge tells us that the unpublished autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris, a Coast Surveyor and future railroad magnate of the late 19th century, has an interesting story…

Harris was assigned as the officer-in-charge of the Coast Survey steamer Uncas, which was supposed to be Admiral Farragut’s primary Coast Survey vessel during the bombardment of Fort Jackson and subsequent attack on New Orleans. The Uncas left New York in late February 1862 but had to put into Hampton Roads because of storms and low coal. It was determined at that time that the Uncas was not seaworthy, so Coast Survey secured a second vessel. That vessel, the Sachem, left New York, apparently in company with the Monitor, on March 4, 1862, for Hampton Roads.

The trip was exceedingly stormy. Harris writes:

“Her [Sachem’s] captain, a former merchantman, told me of their voyage down… On their way down, probably on the night of March 4th, the Monitor telegraphed to the Sachem to come and take off the crew as the vessel was sinking. Just then the band which encircled the head of the Sachem’s rudder slipped, and the vessel became unmanageable. It took perhaps an hour to secure it, and when the Sachem was laid along side the Monitor, it appeared that the panic was past. A heavy sea had gone down the smokestack, the gas forced out from the furnace had overpowered the engineer and the assistant engineer, and left the engine in the hands of a young man just making his first voyage who became badly scared. By the time an hour had passed the fear had passed too, and they were willing to try their fate further, but the Captain told me that if the rudder band had held the Monitor probably would have been abandoned that night. On how small occurrences great events turn! In that case the Merrimack would have had no competent antagonist, and the Government might have lost control of Hampton Roads. The Captain, whose name I immediately forgot, seemed like a reliable person and I have no doubt he told me the truth.”

Theberge explains that “Harris was not one to embellish his stories, as is shown by his description of what he saw in Hampton Roads” during the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. “Although Harris reported that he entered Roads on the night of March 9, he apparently erred in his date” as he reports:

“We headed about for Hampton Roads which we reached early on the evening of March 9th. [Theberge points out that this had to have been March 8.] We noticed during the latter part of the night a bright light evidently from a fire ahead and supposed a barn was burning, but it turned out to be the U.S. frigate Congress, set on fire by the C.S. steamer Merrimack, and in the morning about 8:00 A.M. we saw firing from vessels a few miles to the S.E., which I thought was artillery practice of our own vessels, but which was the battle between the Monitor and Merrimack…”

Tomorrow’s interment of the two unknown sailors from the Monitor represents the nation’s enduring commitment to our men and women who serve in uniform. We are proud that Rear Adm. Glang will represent NOAA, the NOAA Corps, the National Ocean Service and Coast Survey in honoring the memory of fallen comrades at sea.

More resources:

Coast Survey Civil War Collection

War Record of J.W. Donn

Coast Survey and Army Operations during the Civil War