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the origins and early history of the steamer albatross, 1880 - 1887
by Dean C. Allard

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picture of  ward room
Figure 17. - The ward room


Three general points may be made in taking stock of the early years of the Albatross’s history. First, the story underscores Spencer Baird’s importance as a builder of institutions that promoted the study of science in 19th century America. In forming the U.S. Fish Commission, Baird recognized that research in the earth’s little-explored oceans had great scienti.c value (USFC, 1873). He also knew that this type of activity required more than interested individual researchers; it also demanded the resources that only a relatively large organization could provide.

In modern terms, one could say that a “big science” approach was essential. The Commissioner’s pronounced political skills made it possible for him to obtain the authority and funds, as well as the involvement of the U.S. Navy and other government agencies, that allowed the Fish Commission to become one of the world’s leading research institutions in the ocean sciences. His ability to build the Albatross, widely recognized as the world’s first large purpose- built research vessel, was of particular importance as marine scientists shifted their attention to deep oceanic waters (Allard, 1978:348–350, 353–355).

Secondly, the Albatross’s early history reflects the scientific distinction of the Baird program. There is little doubt that he viewed the Fish Commission’s basic scientific survey of the Northwest Atlantic as having primary importance (U.S. Congress, 1891:66–67; Rathbun, 1892:680). It is equally clear that his simultaneous investigation of the biology, physics, and chemistry of the seas revealed a sophisticated approach to ocean science. In fact, the validity of his agenda continues to be recognized by modern scientists. For example, John Hobbie, the current Co-Director of the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Ecosystems Center in Woods Hole, has stated that Baird was one of the pioneers in ecology who created “new approaches to questions of interactions of organisms and their physical, chemical, and biological environment.” Hobbie concluded that Baird set modern .sheries research “off in an holistic, ecological direction” (Galtsoff, 1962:11; Allard, 1990:269).

picture of  berth deck
Figure 18. - The berth deck, looking from forward aft.

Baird’s pursuit of applied projects in support of American fisheries, such as his search for new fishing grounds, also revealed the Fish Commissioner’s willingness to intermix practical programs with abstract science. This approach reminds one of David Starr Jordan’s observation that Spencer Baird had a “theory of utility in science” in which “knowledge loses nothing through acquiring human values, and research takes on a certain dignity by serving at once intellectual demands and human necessities” (Jordan, 1922:I, p. 287).

Thirdly, the activities of the Albatross are an essential component of the pioneering survey of the northwest Atlantic that was undertaken by the U.S. Fish Commission between 1871 and 1887 (Allard, 1997). The relative intensity and sustained nature of this work are worth particular notice since, as Robert Cowen (1960:46) once observed, most oceanographic work in the 19th Century was based on “scattered soundings, samplings, and dredgings” that revealed only the “gross characteristics” of maritime areas. The validity of Cowen’s observation is revealed in Table 1 which shows the limited number of research stations established by other expeditions of this period, including stations logged by the HMS Challenger during her circumnavigation of the world during 1872–76.




Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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