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

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sounding equipment
Figure 8. - The Tanner sounding machine
sounding equipment
Figure 9. - Sigbee's machine for sounding with wire, rigged for reeling in.

Commissioned on 11 November 1882, the Albatross had her trial run from 30 December 1882 to 1 January 1883. She was the first large vessel specifically designed as a research vessel to be built anywhere in the world (Coker, 1949:43; Cotter, 1967:301). Writing in 1888, Alexander Agassiz (I, 51) noted another superlative of the ship. Pointing out that the vessel allowed the Fish Commission’s exploration to extend “to the deepest waters along the American coast,” Agassiz concluded that the Albatross was “the best equipped dredger for deep-sea work in existence.”

The Albatross had an overall length of 234 feet, a maximum beam of 27.5 feet, and a displacement of 1,074 tons (Fig. 10). Her crew, minus the ship’s scientific staff, numbered about 60 officers and men provided by the U.S. Navy. Constructed of wrought iron, the Albatross had twin screws and a maximum speed of 10 knots (Fig. 11). At her economical cruising speed of 8 knots, her maximum steaming radius was 3,200 miles. As was typical of oceanic ships in an era when steam plants were still highly inefficient, she carried an auxiliary set of sails. The ship’s deck logs show that sails were used frequently in the 1880’s. In addition to her brigantine rig, a freshwater distilling plant allowed for prolonged maritime operations.

blue prints of albatross
Figure 10. - Plans of the Albatross

The Albatross had two relatively commodious laboratories (Fig. 12a, b, c), one on the main and the other on the berthing deck. She also had a pair of powerful dredging engines carrying 4,500 fathoms of 3/8-inch steel rope. Finally, her sponsors claimed that the ship was the first U.S. government vessel to be fully electrified (Fig. 13). This feature, as Lieutenant Commander Tanner pointed out, was especially important during prolonged deep-water dredging since these operations often could not be completed during daylight hours (Tanner, 1885:31–33; Tanner, 1895:107–124; Hedgpeth, 1945:6–8). Views of the cabin, chart room, pilot house, ward room, and berth deck are shown in Figures 14–18.

The Albatross began her distinguished career as a scientific vessel of the U.S.
government—a history that would extend over the next 38 years—on 22 March 1883 when she established her first dredging station in 519 fathoms of water off the Mid Atlantic coast (Smith, 1889:934). As we know, many of the world’s productive commercial fisheries are typically found in relatively shoal waters, rather than in the open ocean where this station was located. But, as previously noted, Baird made no secret of his desire to undertake a scientific survey of the ocean. He repeatedly argued that this knowledge was needed for its own sake, as well as for the understanding of commercial fishery issues. In addition to biological investigations, Baird recognized the importance of physical oceanography for both his applied and basic research programs. Hence, from the start, the Albatross took frequent soundings, tidal observations, bottom samples, temperature readings, and specific gravity and salinity measurements of the waters in which she operated (Schroeder, 1922: 160–161).

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

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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