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

Yet, in comparison to the activity of the Challenger, as well as to the cruises made by Louis and Alexander Agassiz in U.S. Coast Survey ships and various contemporary expeditions in European waters, Table 1 demonstrates that the U.S. Fish Commission undertook a sustained program over a period of 17 years featuring more than 2,000 dredging stations concentrated in the northwest Atlantic.

During the 1870’s, those investigations focused on the coastal shelf of New England. When the Fish Hawk became available in 1880, that ship investigated mid-water depth especially along the Gulf Stream Slope. The role of the Albatross after 1883 was to extend the Commission’s survey into Atlantic abyssal waters in depths that approached 3,000 fathoms.

It should not be forgotten that the Albatross’s 748 biological dredging stations were in addition to the 1,088 hydrographic stations established by the ship between 1883 and the fall of 1887. Unlike her biological work, however, the ship’s hydrographic activity was concentrated in waters south of Cape Hatteras (Smith, 1889; Hedgpeth, 1945:16–17).

The U.S. Fish Commission statistics in Table 1 support the validity of an 1891 assertion by the Johns Hopkins University biologist William Keith Brooks(17). That scientist—a former student of Alexander Agassiz, a designated specialist for some of HMS Challenger’s collections, and the mentor of several prominent members of a new generation of American biologists—claimed that the Fish Commission’s survey represented the first governmental effort anywhere in the world “to undertake the exhaustive scientific exploration of the ocean.” Further, Brooks asserted, the Commission’s “lead has been followed by most of the maritime nations of Europe.” He added that “most of the machinery and apparatus which these foreign countries have employed has been modeled after that which has been devised and used by our Fish Commission” (U.S. Congress, 1891:544–545).

drawing of woods hole
Figure 19. - The Woods Hole station of the U.S. Fish Commission, ca. 1886. At left is the Albatross, center is the laboratory building, and the residence is on the right.


In summary, the Albatross’s work was the deep-sea component of the Fish Commission’s historic survey of the northwest Atlantic between 1871 and 1887 that so impressed Professor Brooks. The ship’s early years in the Atlantic demonstrated the major importance of the Albatross and should remind us of the U.S. Fish Commission’s overall contributions to the annals of marine science during the era when it was directed by Spencer Fullerton Baird.




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

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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