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Ship DAVIDSON is named in honor of George Davidson, a pioneer scientist and surveyor on thegeorge davidson west coast, who spent most of the 61 years from 1850 to 1911, in service to the citizens of California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. He was born in Nottingham, England, May 9, 1825, and emigrated with his parents to the United States in 1832. They settled in Philadelphia, and he became a student at the Central High School in 1843 where he studied under Alexander Dallas Bache prior to Bache's appointment as the second Superintendent of the Coast Survey. In 1845 Bache selected Davidson as his clerk and he came to work at headquarters. Davidson was not entirely happy with such a sedentary existence as he included within his address in many letters the following notation, "Washington, D(reary) C(ity)". Davidson was ready to head for the field.

In 1846 Davidson served on the Gulf Coast as an aid in the company of Assistant Robert Fauntleroy. Fauntleroy befriended Davidson and taught him the techniques of geodesy in the field. During the winter months, he took him to his home in New Harmony, Indiana, a colony of intellectuals and social experimenters seeking a utopian society. Here Davidson met his future wife, Ellinor Fauntleroy, although they did not marry until 1858.

George Davidson's greatest works were on the Pacific Coast where he began work in 1850. His early work was concerned with the establishment of accurate latitude and longitude for the prominent points along the coast. He began with Point Conception, thence Point Pinos near Monterey, down to San Diego, and then up to Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia River. In July 1851, Davidson and his crew proceeded to Neah Bay at the entrance to the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

While at Neah Bay, the survey party encountered hostility from the native populace. Although the local Indians were afraid of possible retaliation from the United States Government if they attacked Davidson's party, Indians from Vancouver Island were not. A fleet of large canoes from Vancouver Island containing at least 150 Indians anchored in the kelp offshore. The Coast Survey party, numbering nine total, built breastworks and loaded all available weapons such that each man could fire 60 shots without reloading. No attack ensued as the reconnaissance parties from the Indian group always found an armed guard. That Davidson and the other members of his party were crack shots and had great physical courage, sometimes exceeding foolhardiness, is illustrated by the following account in the Autobiography of James S. Lawson. Lawson was Davidson's principal assistant on the west coast for many years. A few years after the Neah Bay incident, Davidson's party had occasion to inport at Victoria, British Columbia.

While there they took to bragging about American marksmanship to the British colonial representatives. The following day, while on a hunt with the British, an American shot at and wounded a mountain lion. Davidson, who had been running forward, dropped a rifle cartridge into his shotgun, and, as the lion was dropping from the first shot, he shot it through its heart. In the elation of the moment, Davidson took off his hat (stovepipe variety), placed it on the barrels of his shotgun, and then placed this in front of his face so that the brim of his hat just touched the crown of his head. He shouted to his fellow American to shoot at the hat. The other fellow did, piercing the hat and splitting the barrels of the shotgun about 2 inches above Davidson's head. Lawson, reported that the "astonishment of the English was inexpressible" and upon coming up to Davidson "forgetting he was my superior officer" called him a "d____d fool".

Besides the dangers of hostile natives and one's own foolhardiness, the work in itself was inherently dangerous. Small boat surf landings on an open rockbound coast, sounding the many bays and river entrances up and down the coast in all conditions, and packing into the mountains for the triangulation schemes had the potential for serious accidents. For instance, Assistant Joseph Ruth drowned at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1852, and Assistant Julius Kincheloe and five men died off Port Orford when their boat overturned in 1867. Davidson was many times in boats that were swamped or overturned.

Concurrent with this dangerous work, he chose the sites for many of today's west coasts lighthouses and wrote "Directory for the Pacific Coast of the United States," and published it in 1858. This publication evolved into the Coast Pilot series for all of the United States. His 1889 edition of the "Coast Pilot of California, Oregon, and Washington" became the authoritative list of sailing directions for the west coast mariner, traced the origin of many of the names of features on our west coast, delineated the tracks of early explorers and navigators, and contained over 400 sketches of pristine coastal views prior to the encroachment of civilization. This document is considered one of the great historic works detailing the geography and early exploration of our Pacific margin.

Many consider George Davidson's crowning achievement to have been the measurement of the Yolo Baseline in the Sacramento Valley and the Los Angeles Baseline in southern California to the then unprecedented accuracy of better than one part in one million. The baselines approached 11 miles in length and were the longest baselines for geodetic survey work completed to that time. These lines served as the starting point for the great geometric figures ever after known as the "Davidson Quadrilaterals" upon which the primary triangulation of the Pacific Coast states was based. This work overshadowed Davidson's earlier direction of the observation of the longest geodetic survey lines and largest triangle ever observed by classical methods. In 1878 he directed the observations from Roundtop in the central Sierra Nevada to Mount Shasta at the end of the Sacramento Valley to Mount Helena which is just north of Napa Valley, California. The longest line observed of this great geometric figure was from Mount Shasta to Mount Helena, a distance of 192 miles, eclipsing the European record. Of this record, Assistant B. A. Colonna of the Coast and Geodetic Survey wrote, "And the glory is ours; for America.... can boast of the largest trigonometrical figures that have ever been measured upon the globe."

George Davidson led an extraordinarily active professional life. He was associated with the University of California from 1870, until his death in 1911. He served as Honorary Professor of Astronomy and Geodesy, a Regent of the University from 1877 to 1885, Professor of Geography from 1898 to 1905, Professor Emeritus until his death, and received an honorary degree of LLD from the University in 1910. He was elected President of the California Academy of Sciences in 1871, and served in that capacity for 16 years. In 1867 he headed the party making a geographical reconnaissance of Alaska and his report helped sway the United States Government to purchase "Russian America." In 1872 he was appointed one of three Commissioners of Irrigation of California and became recognized as a world authority on irrigation problems. He was instrumental in helping establish the Lick Observatory. He survived the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and became the first president of the Pacific Seismological Society founded in August 1906. In addition to the above, he was appointed to many national commissions and organizations. He was honored by foreign governments, academic institutions, and numerous national and international professional organizations for his work in the physical sciences.

George Davidson was dismissed from the Survey with no reason given in 1895, by William Ward Duffield, a political appointee during the second term of President Cleveland. The uproar that ensued from the scientific community forced Duffield's resignation in 1897.

Davidson combined the skills of hydrographer, geodesist, geographer, astronomer, seismologist, civil engineer, historian, and teacher for the good of the world scientific and engineering community, the citizens of the United States, and, in particular, the development of the west coast states. In 1900 at the age of 75, he commented "... I continue ceaselessly to work because I love it, because I have the constitution to stand it, and because I believe that I can add something to human knowledge and especially to benefit the young. " His services to the western coast are commemorated by Davidson Seamount; Mount Davidson in San Francisco; Mount Davidson, Nevada; and Mount Davidson, Davidson Mountains, Davidson Inlet, Davidson Bank, and Davidson Glacier, Alaska.

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.
Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:27 AM

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