A Brief History of Oceanography (Chap 1 & boxes throughout text)


Don't panic! You don't need to learn all the dates listed below. Just become familiar with what happened during the five major time periods [i.e., The Early Time, The Middle Ages, The Age of Discovery, The Beginning of Voyaging forScience, and The Age of Modern Oceanographic Exploration]. Also know the years covered by these periods.



A. Through the centuries a series of inventions and discoveries have made travel on the ocean faster and safer. Others have permitted more efficient and detailed scientific studies.

B. A number of maps go far back into antiquity so that their existence is often difficult to explain in terms of what historians have assumed about the state of development of some ancient cultures. The information plotted on sea charts was gained at great cost in time, money and lives, so these charts were jealously guarded by each nation and not shared with foreign or untrustworthy captains.

C. The earliest "oceanographers" were not scientists but were merely trying to improve their daily lives through fishing, trading, migrating to more promising lands or just gaining a better understanding of the oceanic processes that dominated their lives. Later conquest of other cultures, enrichment of government treasuries, and enhancement of political power became reasons to undertake sea-faring ventures.


A. The Early Time- until about 150 A.D.

1. 7250 BC - Earliest recorded sea voyage took place in the Aegean, but early human migrations argue for extensive seafaring as early as 10,000 years ago.

2. 4500 BC - Oldest known map = Babylonian clay tablet although historians suspect maps were being drawn as long as 10,000 years before that.

3. 4000-2000 BC - Polynesians traveled extensively in the Western Pacific settling many islands in that region (Figure 1.5 and Box 1.2)

4. 2500 BC - First known charts made by Babylonians

5. 1500-500 BC - Premier shipbuilders, sailors, and traders of the ancient world were the PHOENICIANS. Conquered the world with commerce rather than warfare. Made sea charts starting in about 1200 BC, were masters of celestial navigation, traveled to Africa and England. Left us an undeniable legacy because with their naval genius Greeks, not Persians, came to power in the ancient world.

6. 450 BC-Greek map with Mediterranean Sea at center (Fig. 1.1). Most maps surviving from 4th century BC show spherical Earth

7. 240 BC - Eratosthenes determines Earth's circumference

8. Romans didn't advance oceanography much because they were concerned with their land conquests.

9. 200 BC - Astrolabe (navigational aid) invented by Greek

10. 150 A.D. - Ptolemy of Egypt made a map of the world that endured and served mankind for over 1200 years.


B. The Middle Ages (150 A.D. to late 1400's)-few advances in oceanography in Europe, although ships improved a lot.

1. English historian (Bede-673-735 A.D.) understood tides.

2. 700-1000 A.D. - Vikings discover Greenland and America (Fig. 1.6)

3. 9th century A.D. - Arabs invent compass

4. 12th century A.D. - Normans invent ship's rudder

5. By the 1300's Europeans had established successful trade routes, including some partial ocean crossings.

6.1405-1433 A.D. - Chinese Ming dynasty conducted 7 peace-time voyages and then abandoned sea travel.

7. 1400's - Three-masted, ship-rigged vessels developed.


C. The Age of Discovery (Latest 1400's - early 1700's)

1. The great age of ocean exploration began in the late 15th century encouraged by a number of factors:

a. Prince Henry the Navigator, fascinated by the sea, leads Portugal's pioneering efforts in the Atlantic

b. 3-masted ships recently developed and improved

c. the need to replace the ancient overland trade routes to the Orient which were severed by hostile Islamic cultures at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

d. the rediscovery of Ptolemy's map

2. 1492 - First globe showing Asia facing Europe across an Atlantic ocean only 126o of longitude in width.

a. The actual distance from western Europe to eastern Asia is more than 200o of longitude, and obviously this globemaker didn't know about the Americas.

3. 1492 - Columbus sails to the Bahamas (Fig. 1.7 & Box 6.1)

4. 1498-1520 other famous explorers travel to the Pacific Ocean and the Americas (Vasco Da Gama, Vespucci, Balboa, Ponce de Leon)

5. Maps began to improve after 1500 when compasses and better ships encouraged exploration and in 1529 a Portuguese cartographer made the first world map to show the vastness of the Pacific with India, China and the poles properly located.

6. 1519-1522-Magellan's ships circumnavigate globe (Fig 1.7)

7. 1578-1580 - Drake circumnavigates globe enhancing devel-opment of British maritime traditions

8. 1576-1610 - Forbisher & Hudson search for the northwest passage to the Orient

9. 1608 - Telescope invented

10. 1620 - Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock

11. 1643 - Barometer invented (improved weather forecasts)

12. 1731 - Sextant invented (determines latitude, Box 1.2)

13. 1735 - Chronometer permits determination of longitude (Box 1.2, Fig.1E)


D.Beginning of Voyaging for Science (Late 1700's-20th cent)

1. 1768-1780 - Cook's voyages (Figure 1.8)

2. 1769-Benjamin Franklin's map of the Gulf Stream (Box 7.3)

3. 1775 - Steamship invented

4. 1831-1836-Voyage of HMS Beagle with Darwin aboard (Box1.4)

5. Mid'1800's - Forbes Azoic theory (Box 15.2)

6. 1842-1855 - Activities & information gathering of Matthew Maury (USA) revolutionizes navigation & cuts weeks off transoceanic runs by US clipperships. His book The Physical Geography of the Sea was the first major oceanographic work in English and he's called the Father of Oceanography.

7.1872-1876-HMS Challenger expedition traveled the world's oceans to investigate everything about the sea. (Box 5.2) Represents major turning point for ocean science.

8. 1893-1896 - Norwegian Nansen's Arctic voyages (Box 7.2)

9. 1895 - Diesel engine and wireless telegraph invented


E. The Age of Modern Oceanographic Exploration (1900's and beyond)

1. 1917 - Echo-sounder (submarine detector, Figure 3.1) invented

2. Virtually all civilian ocean research was suspended during WWII, but significant war-related discoveries contributed greatly to later oceanographic exploration.

3. 1950's - Nuclear-powered submarine & surface ships developed

4.1960's-First drillships (Box 4.4) & echo sounder permit rapid, accurate mapping of seafloor topography & materials leading to Theory of Plate Tectonics = major revolution in Earth Science

5. 1970's and 1980's - Loran & satellite (Box 1.2) technologies develop

6. Research Submersibles (Box 1.1 and Figure 1.4)