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Fathoming the Ocean

Fathoming the Ocean

The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea

Helen M. Rozwadowski

ISBN 9780674027565

Publication date: 03/31/2008

By the middle of the nineteenth century, as scientists explored the frontiers of polar regions and the atmosphere, the ocean remained silent and inaccessible. The history of how this changed—of how the depths became a scientific passion and a cultural obsession, an engineering challenge and a political attraction—is the story that unfolds in Fathoming the Ocean.

In a history at once scientific and cultural, Helen Rozwadowski shows us how the Western imagination awoke to the ocean's possibilities—in maritime novels, in the popular hobby of marine biology, in the youthful sport of yachting, and in the laying of a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. The ocean emerged as important new territory, and scientific interests intersected with those of merchant-industrialists and politicians. Rozwadowski documents the popular crazes that coincided with these interests—from children's sailor suits to the home aquarium and the surge in ocean travel. She describes how, beginning in the 1860s, oceanography moved from yachts onto the decks of oceangoing vessels, and landlubber naturalists found themselves navigating the routines of a working ship's physical and social structures.

Fathoming the Ocean offers a rare and engaging look into our fascination with the deep sea and into the origins of oceanography—origins still visible in a science that focuses the efforts of physicists, chemists, geologists, biologists, and engineers on the common enterprise of understanding a vast, three-dimensional, alien space.


  • Helen Rozwadowski is one of the rising generation of American historians of science. Her speciality is the development of marine science on both sides of the Atlantic during the 19th and 20th centuries. In Fathoming the Ocean she goes back to the mid-19th century to tell the fascinating story of how sailors and scientists combined to carry out the first explorations of the ocean depths, showing how these actors and events revolutionized understanding of a hirtherto unknown region. In the process, Rozwadowski greatly expands our own understanding, all while telling a story that is original, wide-ranging, and illuminating. I have greatly enjoyed reading this book.

    —Margaret Deacon, Southampton Oceanography Centre, author of Science and the Sea: The Origins of Oceanography


  • 2008, Winner of the Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize


  • Helen M. Rozwadowski is Assistant Professor of History and Coordinator of Maritime Studies, University of Connecticut at Avery Point.

Book Details

  • 304 pages
  • 5-3/4 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press
  • Foreword by Sylvia Earle