Cover: Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea, from Harvard University PressCover: Fathoming the Ocean in PAPERBACK

Fathoming the Ocean

The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea

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Product Details


$30.50 • £24.95 • €27.50

ISBN 9780674027565

Publication Date: 03/31/2008


304 pages

40 halftones

Belknap Press


An important academic contribution to the history of one of the most romantic branches of nineteenth-century science and a perceptive commentary on the social and cultural background from which modern observational oceanography sprang.—Richard Shelton, The Times Literary Supplement

Rozwadowski’s account of these amateur oceanographers traveling on working vessels is a tremendous piece of historical retrieval, particularly in the way that the endless practical difficulties they faced while dredging for seafloor samples are used to illustrate the social impact a generation of landlubber naturalists had on the professional world of the sea… Oceanography remains a science of measurement and of arguments about measurement, and Rozwadowski is good at reconstructing the technical debates that so occupied its 19th-century founders.—Richard Hamblyn, London Review of Books

Fathoming the Ocean by Helen Rozwadowski chronicles the birth of deep-sea oceanography, from early observations by Benjamin Franklin to the voyage of HMS Challenger in the 1870s. She weaves a rich narrative from the world of renowned as well as lesser-known oceanographers. While unearthing the foundations of the subject, she reveals some striking parallels with modern research careers.—Jon Copley, Nature

This book explores the birth of deep-sea oceanography in the nineteenth century, covering the breakthroughs in gathering data and the social impacts. It explains how the presence of researchers on naval vessels led to cultural shifts for scientists, sailors, and Western society.Nature

Fathoming the Ocean will clearly be welcomed as a serious contribution by historians of science, technology, and maritime culture. And in addition, as the foreword by marine biologist Sylvia Earle underscores, the story is also of immediate relevance to anyone who wonders when and how we came to understand—as we now urgently do—the ocean’s importance to our blue planet.—Alistair Sponsel, Science

Rozwadowski’s wonderfully illustrated volume tackles British and American marine science in the mid-nineteenth century. This is a daunting task given the presence of the Challenger Expedition and the United States Exploring Expedition. Both receive fair and just treatment, but to Rozwadowski’s credit, these grand exploring expeditions happen within the context of developments in industry, recreation,transportation, and science itself… Clearly, Rozwadowski is out to detail an important period in the nascent discipline of oceanography… Fathoming the Ocean…will be of interest to historians of biology for a variety of reasons.—Gary Kroll, Journal of the History of Biology

Rozwadowski creates informative reading in the years before acoustics, electronics, and other sophisticated materials could answer basic questions such as: ‘how deep is the ocean?’ Most scientists refer to the HMS Challenger’s global voyage from 1872–1876 as the beginning of modern oceanography. But Rozwadowski gives credit to the early explorers who dropped open-end metal boxes to discover what lay beyond their sight, or mapped out reefs and currents in small sailing ships. Others attempted to determine safe sailing routes and appropriate places to lay transoceanic cables. The book concentrates on the nineteenth century when only 5% of the ocean below a few hundred feet had been explored… Illustrations include dredges, beach combing, yacht sailing, sea animals, deep sea dredging, and early maps made by soundings. The book will satisfy the curiosity of everyone interested in this vast ocean of the world.—Florence Waszkielewicz-Clowes, Polish American Journal

During the 19th century, the ocean became something more than just a body of water to be sailed over and began to be studied for itself. In this study of America’s and Britain’s growing public and scientific fascination with the ocean depths, Rozwadowski covers the beginnings of bathymetry, dredging, temperature and salinity measurements, current mapping, and the move from yachts to fishing vessels to large ships as scientific platforms. But this is not just an oceanographic history: the author also addresses the social, cultural, and political aspects of this newfound interest—from the development of home aquariums to the laying of the transatlantic cable.—Margaret Rioux, Library Journal

In this amiable, in-depth examination of the most critical era for the development of modern oceanography, Rozwadowski devotes her attention to the mid-19th century, when British scientists joined a series of nationally sponsored, years-long, worldwide research cruises to explore the ocean deep.Publishers Weekly

Most scholars of oceanography begin the story around 1900, but Helen Rozwadowski shows, in this creative and novel interpretation, how marine science arose in the nineteenth century from a new political and cultural fascination with the sea. Yachtsmen, sailors, adventurers, businessmen, fishermen, and whalers all felt the tug of the deep, with its mysteries and myths. By the turn of the century, these diverse interests had come together to form of the basic questions that inspire the ocean science we recognize today. Fathoming the Ocean is a captivating read, brimming with new information and fresh insights into the sea’s deep cultural meanings. I am convinced Rozwadowski’s book will become a must-read for anyone wishing to understand how we have come to view the oceans as we do.—Keith R. Benson, Green College

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

Historians think of oceans as sites for trade, warfare, or scientific exploration. On the other hand, poets, painters, and novelists have long stressed the oceans’ exotic beauty, remoteness, and danger. In Fathoming the Ocean Helen Rozwadowski unites these two views, showing that oceans have a history in the broadest cultural sense, one that involves human hopes and needs as well as scientific aspirations and ambitions, and that scientists’ attempts to fathom the deep originated in wider nineteenth century cultural concerns, what the author calls a ‘cultural redefinition of the sea.’ This book is required reading for anyone wanting to understand how the oceans have come to play the role that they do in Western knowledge.—Eric L. Mills, Dalhousie University, author of Biological Oceanography: An Early History, 1870–1960

As the title Fathoming the Ocean suggests, Rozwadowski conceives of the act of measuring the ocean (taking fathoms) as inseparable from the act of imagining it (fathoming). Working from this perspective, she brilliantly places this history of the measurement and imagination of the sea within the context of changing encounters with the ocean as a space of recreation, resources, connections, and personal challenges during the nineteenth century. In short, Rozwadowski uses her history of ocean exploration to produce a comprehensive history of the sea that adds several new dimensions to the literatures on the history of science, the history of the ocean, and the history of social change during the mid-nineteenth century.—Philip E. Steinberg, Florida State University, author of The Social Construction of the Ocean

Awards & Accolades

  • 2008 Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize, History of Science Society
  • 2005 John Lyman Book Award, Science and Technology Category, North American Society for Oceanic History
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