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report on the history and progress of the american coast survey up to the year 1858


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Should it be determined hereafter, by any of the states of our Union, to frame an accurate map of its territory, the Coast Survey will have furnished many of the indispensable elements. It has determined for us the absolute position on the earth’s surface of at least some of the most noted points of our domain; and of these several are in the interior of the country. Such determinations, far from the ocean, may appear at first sight to have no natural connection with a coast survey. The necessity of longitude determinations on the coast itself, is obvious enough to any one; not only because they are an essential element of the geodesy, but because they afford the mariner convenient opportunities of verifying the sea-rates of his chronometers, by comparing the well-determined longitudes of these points with those which the chronometers give when he visits them. Neither of these objects seems to be subserved by longitude determinations in the heart of the country; but when we recall the extent to which the telegraph has been of late years called into use, in determining differences of longitude between distant points in our country, it will be seen that it is a question of secondary importance precisely where those places are situated whose longitudes from Greenwich are first accurately settled, in order that they may be used as standards of comparison for the points on the coast with which they may be in electric communication: and accordingly the points first and most naturally selected will be those, no matter where, at which facilities already exist for making accurate astronomical observation. Such points, for example, are Hudson and Cincinnati, Ohio, both of which places are provided with permanent observatories. Another relation, also, these interior longitude determinations have to the Coast Survey. With the march of the telegraph they will be pushed forward to the west, and at no distant day they will form a grand chain extending across the continent, serving in a most satisfactory manner to verify the independently determined longitudes of the Pacific coast.
For the present, however, our interest in these determinations is found in the assistance they will render to any triangulation which may be set on foot, for the construction of an accurate state map. The number of them which the Coast Survey has made is considerable, and will be greater as the necessity or convenience of the survey may require; but as every such determination is attended with some expense, they are not of course multiplied, except on such considerations. The existence of the work, however, affords our legislatures a very favorable opportunity, if they will avail themselves of it, by the exercise of a moderate liberality, to secure the exact latitudes and longitudes of all their capitals, and all their principal cities.

Another facility toward the institution of geodetic surveys of the states may be found in the numerous perfectly ascertained base lines which the survey has measured, and which may be used as the foundation of a local triangulation extending into the interior of each state from the ocean; till at length that Atlantic and Pacific surveys may verify each other in the axis of the continent.

But more than this, in the work as prosecuted along the coast, a system has been introduced and perfected; and in any future surveys, which may be undertaken, no part of the processes will be tentative or doubtful. The work of state surveys could therefore be done with the highest expedition and the least expense compatible with the nature of the undertaking.

And finally, under the auspices and the instruction of the present energetic superintendent, there have been training up a body of highly educated, active, efficient, and disciplined men, zealous in their profession, and familiar with every detail of field-work, computation and record, that can enter into the geodesy of a state.

All this the survey has already done in the way of facilitating the execution, by the action of the individual states themselves, of a work so greatly on many accounts to be desired, as a geodetic survey of the whole country. But there is one work more which it seems almost indispensable that it should yet do, by way of securing the highest perfection of accuracy to its own results; and which would greatly increase the facilities we have been considering, while it would at the same time extend them into a number of the interior states beyond the limits of its present operations. The work here intended is a triangulation, in a direct line from Maine to Alabama, striding along the Appalachian chain, the back-bone of the country, executed for the purpose of checking and verifying the seaboard triangulation. The facilities for large triangles afforded by the elevated summits of this mountain system, would make it practicable to span the whole distance by a very few steps, involving a far less liability to accumulated error than the triangulation along our circuitous coast; of which a large portion, low and densely wooded, excludes the possibility of long lines of sight. This air line triangulation, measuring the chord of the great arch formed by our Atlantic and Gulf coast, is, in the opinion of this Committee, so eminently desirable, that they cannot but expression the hope that it may receive the sanction of Congress at a very early day. It would furnish, directly, baselines for the geodetic surveys of a great number of states, some of which do not yet possess anything deserving the name of a map of their territory. This is the case with all of the original states, Massachusetts excepted; these not having been, like the younger members of the confederacy, mapped by the system of public land surveys. The maps constructed upon the data furnished by the latter, are, indeed, in a great degree illusory; and they must eventually be superseded by proper surveys: but the errors and contradictions found in attempting to construct a map of one of the older States from existing local surveys, are enormous, and admit of no accommodation.

It is indeed gravely to be regretted that the surveys of our public lands are not conducted by the methods of geodesy. The system now in use found its apology at first in the want of scientific familiarity with the subject in this country. Its essential errors are only beginning to unfold themselves in the experience of the settlers: but they are errors which, from their very nature, must go on enlarging themselves in accumulating ratio. A system of triangulation would have made the nominal limits and areas correspond with the actual; and would, at the same time, have constructed a series of maps of the new states without cost, and absolutely accurate.

The belief is held by some among us that it is not the office of the Federal Government to institute a survey of the entire domain of the nation. Such convictions the Committee can respect, though they can by no means unanimously partake them. But whatever variety of opinion may be entertained on this point, surely no one will regret that, in the exercise of a power which is unquestioned in any quarter, the government of the Union has stimulated th governments of the several states to undertake such a work in the exercise of their own sovereignty. It is surely well that operations which, like those of the Coast Survey, are made imperative by the exigencies of commerce and of a general system of defence against foreign invasion, should also proffer benefits to those states which do not share directly in the hazards of navigation, nor need fortresses to protect them against the approach of an enemy.

BEARING ON WORKS OF INTERNAL IMPROVEMENT.— In the earlier part of this report a brief description is given of the field operations by which the topographical features of the land bordering the ocean are ascertained and delineated. It was there stated that the lines of equal level are drawn on the map at definite distances from each other, measured not from line to line on the map itself, but vertically from one horizontal plane to another; the lowest of these planes, or the plane of reference, being the level of the sea. To make the principle of this delineation, if necessary, still more clear, the shore-line itself, or the line where the land and the water meet, may be taken to represent, or may be regarded as being, the lowest, or zero contour line. Let then the water be supposed to rise to a level twenty feet higher, as it might actually do in some places, in the daily flow of the tide; and a new shoreline will thus be formed, running into the vallys and jutting out at the points of the hills. This would be the second contour line of hte topographical map. Let another and another rise of equal amount take place successively, and a series of contour lines will be formed, which, when delineated on the map, will be near together where the natural slopes are steep, and far apart where they are gentle. Such are the lines which the survey determines. Drawn on the map, they show to an instructed eye the form of the ground more precisely than the most perfect model could do; and by far more satisfactorily than an inspection of the ground itself, which no eye or mind could grasp in one perfect whole; or, if it could, could estimate in regard to the relative level of points remote from each other horizontally, with any sort of precision. For that the ground itself, if it could possibly be seen all at once by the engineer, might be to him all that the map is, in making up his judgments, it would need to have traced on it those very contour lines which are actually traced on the map.

The great practical use of such maps is, that a line of road can be at once, by their help, planned out in such a manner as to have the easiest grades and the gentlest curves, all obtained at the least cost that the work admits. Often, too, they surprise and delight the engineer, by indicating a line of gentle slopes and easy execution between important points already connected by a road running over high hills and descending into deep valleys. These revelations are made by the survey incidentally no doubt, but necessarily, just as the mapping of its systematic soundings (a process precisely analogous) has already revealed important channels, before unknown, though leading into some of our most frequented harbors.

The advantages of such maps, however, can be but imperfectly realized by the Coast Survey, as its topography is restricted to a narrow belt along the coast; but the advantage which might accrue to the commonwealth, from complete topographical surveys of the interior, on the model of the Coast Survey, cannot be over-estimated. Of similar maps of Great Britain, a distinguished engineer, Mr. Vignoles, recently testified in the following emphatic words: “I can lay out on the map the general line of a railroad to within twenty or thirty yards, and say to my assistants ‘That is the general line: full in the details’; –whereas, if I had not the advantage of that map, I must go to much trouble and expense in doing that which I here find already arranged to my hand.” The same engineer speaks of the value of similar maps in the Grand Duchy of Baden; and adds, “In Switzerland I found some portions of the contours so accurate, that the line actually levelled, after I had sketched it out, differed scarcely at all from the section produced by plotting from the contours.” These maps will even supply an approximate estimate of the cost of a proposed road; and by their portraiture of the country which it is to lay open, will enable us to approach very nearly to its probable revenue and profits.

BEARING ON THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE IN GENERAL.– The influence of the Coast Survey in promoting scientific tastes, and in stimulating scientific activity in our country, has been unquestionably great. This influence has manifested itself not only in the zeal and interest which it has awakened in the study of abstract theory, but in the amount and refinement of skill which it has introduced in the application of theory to practice; not only in the spirit which it has diffused with regard to the observation of nature, but in the happy ingenuity which it has developed and set at work for the perfection of methods of observation. It has been itself, in the first place, a school of scientific practice, in which many of the younger officers of our navy have been thoroughly trained in all the details of hydrographic surveying, and in which officers of the military arm have been familiarized with the delicate operations of geodesy. Many civilians, also, have received similar scientific training in the same school, whose proficiency and enthusiasm in their profession have first directly profited the Government in connection with this great public work, and have afterwards, in their retirement from the service, carried into other spheres of action a species of attainment of the rarest, and in our country at the present day, of the most practically valuable kind.

The investigations undertaken by the Coast Survey, in special branches of physical inquiry, have likewise added greatly to the interest of the meetings of the Association, to which this Committee owes its appointment; having been constantly prolific of communications possessing the combined merits of novelty, variety, and value. They have thus aided materially in keeping alive, and in stimulating to higher efforts, the spirit of scientific research among the members of our own body, and, through them, operating upon the tone of public sentiment in all those widely separated parts of the country from which they annually gather. Moreover, these investigations have not merely thus served as a stimulus to intellectual activity, but they have presented models, worthy of all admiration, for the imitation of investigators; and have thus not only kindled among us the zeal to be serviceable to science, but have done very much to show us how we may be most so.

The scientific journals of our country are furthermore greatly indebted to the contributions not only of the chief of the survey, whose labors in this way have been abundant, but also of those associated with him in his work, and who, in their special departments, have brought to light new facts, or originated new inventions, or developed new theoretic views, which have added to the variety of our periodical scientific literature, and have assisted in advancing our scientific reputation abroad.

If any one particular branch of American science is more indebted to the operations of the Coast Survey for the life which has been instilled into it through their instrumentality than any other, it is probably astronomy. The astronomers of the country have been directly called on by the survey for their active cooperation in settling, in an authoritative manner, questions of latitude and longitude. They have responded to the call not only with cheerfulness, but with zeal; and they have found themselves, in consequence, unconsciously incited or allured into the performance of other labors which had not been demanded, and into the pursuit of new investigations, which had not before suggested themselves. It is certainly true that within the last fifteen or twenty years American astronomy has made great advances; but if this fact is recognized or admitted, it is impossible not to recognize at the same time the important agency of the Coast Survey in promoting its advancement.

It may finally be remarked, that the survey has recently even lent valuable aid to history by causing the preparation of a historical account of the progress of discovery on the western coast, as connected with its hydrography, and by collecting the maps, old and new, which illustrate this history. A work which, in so many ways, and with so abundant success, has contributed to promote intellectual progress at home, and to secure for our country an honorable reputation abroad, cannot certainly fail to command the approving appreciation of every enlightened and patriotic citizen.


When, some years ago, a proposition was introduced into the Senate of the United States to transfer the Coast Survey to the Navy Department, the principal scientific bodies throughout the country presented remonstrances against such a course. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Franklin Institute, of Pennsylvania, made elaborate reports, highly approving of the methods and commending the progress of the Survey. The Faculty of St. John’s College, of Maryland, and the Professors of the University of Virginia, addressed memorials to Congress in favor of the work as organized.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences says:
“In conclusion, it is the deliberate opinion of the Committee that the present Superintendent of the United States Coast Survey has, by his able and judicious, his energetic and economical, administration of this great national work, raised it to the highest order of successful activity and deserved popularity; and that he has thereby fulfilled the high expectations which were raised at his appointment.”

The American Philosophical Society states:

“That the survey of the coast is a work which, from its importance to our citizens, recommends itself in the strongest manner to the protection of the Government. That the benefits of a scientific and practical character which have already been derived and are constantly resulting from it, are such as to repay abundantly the labor and expense which has been and may be hereafter devoted to it. That it has heretofore been conducted accurately, efficiently, and economically, and that there is every reason to believe that it will best thrive by being left with its present organization. And that, as well from the magnitude of the undertaking as from the skill and energy with which it has been conducted, it will prove honorable to those who first conceived it, and to those who have been engaged in its prosecution.”

This Society urges the publication of the observations upon which the maps and charts produced by the Survey have been founded; and extends this recommendation to the methods used for the computation and discussion of the observations:– a subject to which the attention of the Government had been repeatedly drawn by the Superintendent; and which it is, in the interests of science, sincerely to be hoped, will, at no distant day, be favorably acted on.

The Franklin Institute conclude their report with the following:

“First. That the work is national in its character, and ought to be continued by the Federal Government upon a scale commensurate with it spractical importance, and with the extent and variety of the objects which are benefited by its results.

“Second. That the manner in which it is at present organized is economical, efficient, and scientific– giving its results with sufficient rapidity, at moderate cost, and upon scientific and practical principles.

“Third. That its labors ought to be (as they now are) divided among the civil, military, and naval talent of the country, in order to secure to each of these departments that knowledge of its processes and determinations which are equally required by them all.

“Fourth. That the benefits which the nation has already obtained from it have fully justified its cost, and that those benefits ought now to be continued to the whole of the States of the Union, upon as broad and liberal a scale as the Government has hitherto applied.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, at their meeting held in Cambridge in 1849, appointed a committee to consider the subject of the Coast Survey, whose report, entirely favorable to the administration of the work, was unanimously adopted by the scientific men then and there present from the different parts of the United States. Their opinions are expressed in the following resolution:

“Resolved, As a sense of the American Association for the advancement of Science, that the manner in which the Coast Survey of the United States has been conducted by Professor A.D. Bache, and those associated with him, is highly creditable to American science, that it promises great benefit to the commerce and navigation of the country, and it is eminently entitled to the continued favor of Congress.”

This Association have since testified their undiminished confidence in the Superintendent of this work by electing him their President, the highest position which can be occupied by a scientific man in our country.

When the rumor reached Europe that the present organization of the Coast Survey was assailed, the venerable Humboldt, and his compeer of the French Academy of Sciences, Arago, wrote to their friend and correspondent, Professor Schumacher, of Altona, expressing flattering opinions of the manner in which the Survey was conducted, of the attainments of the Superintendent, and of the honor which our country obtained abroad from the successful prosecution of this great work.

No name stands before that of Arago in the science of the world, and he speaks of the probable loss of Professor Bache’s services as a misfortune which he desired to unite with all that Europe has most distinguished in science, to prevent.”

Baron Humboldt, addressing Professor Schumacher, says:

“You know, better than I do, in how high an estimation the director of the work for the survey of the coast stands, not only among us, but among all the most illustrious men who in France and England are interested in the study of geography and nautical astronomy. To the most solid knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, Mr. Bache unites in a very eminent degree that activity of mind and extent of views which render a work of practical utility profitable to the science of the physics of the globe. In a region of the globe where the direction of oceanic currents, the differences of temperature produced by these currents and by the upheaval of the bottom and the direction of the magnetic curves, offer so important phenomena to the navigators, such a great work could not be placed in better hands than those of Dr. Bache. The Government of the United Sataes has acquired a new right to our gratitude by protecting nolby that which has arrested the attention of the hydrographers and astronomers of Europe. I should be glad to think that in a country where I am honored with so much good feeling, my feeble testimony might contribute to enliven the interest which is due to the excellent labors of Mr. Bache.”

Professor Schumacher, the learned astronomer of Altona, transmitting these letters, says:

“You will see, by the enclosed letters of our common friends, M. Arago and the Baron von Humboldt, how anxious they are to know if the great work you have undertaken will remain in the hands to which the whole scientific world would have entrusted it. Let me hope that the gears they entertain are only founded upon vague rumors. Your country must be proud to call you its own, and will repay you in gratitude what you do for her scientific glory.”

The Baron von Humboldt very recently expressed to a member of this Committee, in a personal interview, the highest appreciation of the Coast Survey of our country; and the warmest admiration of the manner in which it had been conducted, and of the peculiar qualifications of its chief.

Capt. (now Admiral) W.H. Smyth, R.N., President of the Geographical Society of London in 1850, in speaking, in his address of that year, of the United States Coast Survey, says:

“The Coast Survey of the United States is a truly national undertaking, and has been most creditably conducted through all its various departments of science. I have studied the question closely, and do not hesitate to pronounce the conviction, that though the Americans were last in the field, they have, per saltum, leaped into the very front of the rank.

“Were I asked to give instances, I would say, look their beautiful maps and charts; see their practise of establishing longitudes by electricity, and the probable extension of its wonderful chronographic applications; mark their novel method of talking and recording transits by a galvanic circuit; and consider the excellence and refinement of their astronomical observations for geodetic purposes, as proved by their being able to detect the alteration of gravity, caused by a difference in the density of the earth’s crust.”

The President of the same Society, n his address in 1852, while noticing with admiration the very efficient manner in which the Survey has been conducted, and the rapidity with which the work has been carried on along the western shores of the continent, classes it as “one of the most perfect exemplifications of applied science, of modern times.”

And, finally, we may call attention to the emphatic tribute of the value of the Coast Survey, from Sir Roderick Murchison, President of the Royal Geographical Society of London, on presenting the Victoria Gold Medal, adjudicated for the year 1858 to Professor Bache, in consideration of “his successful labors in carrying out the great Coast Survey of the United States of America.”

“It would be impossible,” he says, “to do justice to an extensive work of this sort on an occasion like the present; but as the previous reports of this celebrated Coast Survey, from 1844 to 1855 inclusive, are in our library, those of our associates, and of the public generally, who wish to form an estimate of their value, can do so at their leisure, and they will see how vastly our medallist has pushed on this great work. They will assuredly then rise from the examination with the thorough conviction that, whether we regard the science, skill, and zeal of the operators, the perfection of their instruments, the able manner in which the Superintendent has enlisted all modern improvements into his service, the care taken to have the observations accurately registered, his modest and unpretending demeanor, or the noble liberality of the Government, tempered with prudent economy, all unprejudiced persons must agree that the Trigonometrical Survey of the United States of America stands without a superior.”

With these voluntary and emphatic testimonies to the character of a work as magnificent in its scientific aspects as it is valuable in those which are purely utilitarian– testimonies, moreover, emanating from sources which rank, in point of authority, among the highest known to the scientific world– the committee might be justified in closing a report already protracted beyond their expectation. After the extended review, however, which they have taken of the purposes in which this great undertaking originated, of the history of its growth, and expansion of the processes involved in its execution, and of the brilliant results which have already crowned its diversified labors, it will probably be expected of them that they should condense the final expression of their opinions into a form sufficiently concise to be comprehended at a single view. As the succinct recapitulation, therefore, of the conclusions at which they have arrived, the committee, with entire unanimity, concur in stating the following propositions:

1. The American Coast Survey, in its inception, was a work imperatively demanded by a due regard to the industrial interests of the country, dependent, as they are, greatly upon the prosperity of commerce for their free development.

2. The indecision which marked the early policy of the government in regard to this Survey, and the consequent delay of its efficient operations, and postponement of its beneficial results, were of manifest disadvantage to the material welfare of our people, and cannot but be still subjects of serious regret.

3. The economical value of such surveys is attested by the universal voice of all commercial men, and by the concurrent practice of all commercial nations, no less than by the melancholy records of marine disaster annually occurring upon every unexplored coast.

4. Their scientific value is witnessed, in the instance of the American survey, by the spontaneous tributes of approval frequently and freely bestowed upon it– no less in regard to the ability, energy and skill displayed in its management, than to the magnitude, variety, and oftentimes curious interest of the results it has wrought out– by individuals and organized bodies of men, whose high position as scientific authorities renders their opinions upon subjects of this nature entirely conclusive.

5. This work has conferred many valuable benefits upon science, indirectly and incidentally, in the invention or perfection of instruments, in the improvement of methods of observation or of computation, in the development which it has given to special subjects of interesting inquiry, and in the stimulus which it has furnished to the scientific talent of the country, especially in the field of astronomical observation and investigation.

6. A careful study of the progress made from year to year, especially since the enlargement of the scale of operations under the present superintendent, affords ample evidence that the work has been expeditiously prosecuted, and that the amount accomplished up to the present date is materially greater than has ever been accomplished in any other country in the same length of time, and with the same means.
7. Compared with similar surveys executed or in progress of execution by foreign governments, the American survey has been conducted with remarkable economy.

8. Compared with such foreign surveys, the quality of the work done in this will bear the test of any standard that has ever been anywhere set up, and is such as to reflect honor on the scientific character of our country in the eyes of the world.

9. Every consideration of economy, of humanity, and of regard for the reputation of the country, demands that the work should be prosecuted with undiminished activity, until every portion of our coast shall have been as thoroughly explored and mapped as those have been already in which its operations commenced.

10. Conclusive reasons, involving other weighty public interests no less than this, but connected also with the project of verifying in the happiest manner the geodesy of our extended and circuitous coast, conspire to render the triangulation of the great Appalachian chain of mountains a most desirable undertaking, and encourage the hope that our government will very early direct that most important work to be executed.

11. The publication in full of all the observations upon which the published results of the Coast Survey are founded, together with the methods employed in the reduction and discussion of the observations, would be a contribution to science, and especially to the science of geodesy, of inappreciable value, besides being necessary to secure the records against loss; and the committee earnestly hope that the government may not fail to provide the means for the adequate and rapid prosecution of this work.

12. The existing organization of the Survey, judged in the light of the experience acquired by our own and by foreign governments in the management of such works, is, in the deliberate opinion of the committee, preferable to any other that has ever been suggested.

These propositions have not been hastily sketched, and they are not lightly thrown out; but they are announced as the result of mature reflection and careful consideration. With their announcement, the duty of the committee, under the resolution appointing them, is discharged. The committee cannot, however, forget that they have another duty, unprescribed by any resolution, to fulfil; which is, to render to that clear-sighted and comprehensive perspicacity which early perceived and pointed out all the benefits which were to flow from this great national work, the tribute of their admiring appreciation; and to expression, on behalf of the Association which has charged them with their present duty, and of the world of science, which they may claim for the moment to represent, their deep sense of the obligation which they feel to be due to the enlightened statesmen who, whether in the executive branch of the government, or in the legislative halls of Congress, have sustained the work to the present hour by their liberal recommendations or their able advocacy, and have labored to conciliate to it the popular favor by their intelligent and manly expositions of its objects and its value.

That largeness of view which can embrace at once the wide area of the entire country, with a clearness of discernment which neither sectional prejudice can distort, nor local barriers obstruct; that broadness of philanthropy which would not have even governments wholly soulless, but would insist that the reasonable claims of imperilled humanity, no less than the importunate demands of sordid interest, should be listened to and regarded in the halls of legislation; that lofty patriotism, which can exult in its country’s growth, not only in material wealth and power, but in that intellectual greatness and grandeur which constitute, after all, the crowning glory of a nation; and that philosophic view of the principles of national economy, which, distinguishing between the expenditure that gathers and the expenditure that wastes, comprehends without difficulty how both individuals and peoples may save to their loss and bestow to their great gain– these eminent and statesmanlike qualities, so often brilliantly manifested at the seat of our Federal Government, in connection with the question of providing for the survey of the coast, are worthy of the admiration of all enlightened men, and cannot fail to win for their possessors, from the voluntary suffrage of an appreciating world an impartial posterity, a fame by far more enviable than could attend or follow any political honors that could be heaped upon them.

Such high qualities still exist among the distinguished men who hold in their hands the destinies of the country; and though, in the future, as in the past, the prosecution of this great and beneficial public measure may encounter opposition– as nothing entirely good in this world ever met, or is ever likely to meet with unqualified favor or undivided support among men– yet, in the fact of their existence, we may find a guaranty of its continued security; and to their active exercise we may look, without disquietude, for its triumphant defence. In the guardianship of men so enlightened in their views of policy, and so liberal in their tone of sentiment, the future of this great work cannot be doubtful. To them, therefore, in whatever branch of the government they may be found, the committee, in conclusion, most cordially commend it; and as the authorized organs of the body which they represent, and in the name of the associated science of the country, they solicit for it the continuance of the Executive favor and Legislative support which it has hitherto enjoyed.

F.A. P. BARNARD, Chairman.


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