A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2010 Mar 15, 06:01 -0700
William Chauvenet was born at Milford, Pennsylvania on May 24, 1820. The family moved to Philadelphia a year later, and Chauvenet spent nearly all of his childhood in that city. Just for background on the French name, Chauvenet's father, also William, originally from Narbonne, had served under the Bonaparte regime in Italy and emigrated to the USA following the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire. Sometime in the late 1840s, incidentally, the older Chauvenet was appointed as Professor of French at the Naval Academy at Annapolis where his son was then commandant.
William Chauvenet was a child prodigy and was encouraged to attend Yale University where he excelled in mathematics and classics. He was awarded the First Prize for Latin composition and graduated with high honors in 1840. He was the only student in his class who completed the advanced course in mathematics. For a little over a year after college, Chauvenet worked at the magnetic observatory at Girard College, Pennsylvania.
On December 8, 1841, at the age of 21, William Chauvenet was appointed "professor of mathematics" in the United States Navy. He was assigned to the brand new steam frigate "Mississippi" which had been launched May 5, 1841 at Philadelphia. Mississippi was still fitting out at Philadelphia in December.
Before we go any further, you should know that Chauvenet served aboard Mississippi for only "a few months". I haven't been able to get the exact date when he left the vessel, but "a few" would be no more than four months based on other factors (see below) and possibly as few as two months. Those few months would have him leaving the vessel at the beginning of April or even February. For reference, here's an entry from the "Biographical Memoirs" of the American Academy of Sciences:
"In 1841 he was appointed a professor of mathematics in the navy, and for a few months served on board the U.S. steamer Mississippi. A brief trial so well convinced him of the uselessness, both to himself and to the midshipmen whom he was expected to instruct, of the plan of teaching on shipboard, subject to the many inconveniences and interruptions of alternate life at sea and in port, that he decided to resign his appointment.
Midshipmen were then appointed, many of them as mere boys with but little schooling; sea-life first, intellectual development afterwards, was the naval maxim then, and with some officers is even now. Five or more years at sea, with or without instructors, as the case might be, and eight months' study at a school on shore, afforded all the required preparation for examination for promotion.
The naval schools at the three principal navy yards had in 1839 been concentrated at the Naval Asylum in Philadelphia, under the charge of Professor David McClure. His death occurring in [April] 1842, Prof. Chauvenet was appointed to succeed him, and was thus retained in the navy for the valuable services he subsequently rendered in developing the present Naval Academy from this small beginning."
Chauvenet's position in the Navy, professor of mathematics, was an experiment in US naval education. Previously, chaplains and then poorly-paid "schoolmasters" had been tasked with basic shipboard education. In the 1830s, in an effort to professionalize the process, instructors in mathematics (called "professors" but the term did not have its modern connotation) and also a few instructors in languages were posted aboard active duty ships, and it was expected that they would teach young officer candidates in spare moments aboard ship. This was widely regarded as ineffective for many reasons including the fact that the attendance at the lessons was entirely voluntary (this was also true at the land-based Naval Schools at that time), and the failure of these experiments led directly to the founding of the Naval Academy at Annapolis a few years later, thanks in large measure to Chuavenet's own enthusiasm for a land-based naval school. The sea-based system was also inefficient in labor terms. There were 23 "professors of mathematics" in the US Navy in 1842, including Chauvenet.
Here's one account from "Hazard's", Dec 1841: "Situation of the Professors of Mathematics: In connexion with this subject, I would ask your attention to the situation of the professors of mathematics now employed in the service. This useful class of men have no permanent connexion with the Navy, but are called in only as their services are needed, and are not paid except when on actual duty. The consequence is, that they cannot rely on this employment for support, and are often reluctantly driven to other pursuits. It is to be presumed that men whose talents and attainments qualify them to be teachers in the Navy, ore equally qualified to be teachers on land ; and, as this latter is the less precarious position, the better qualified will be the most apt to seek it. Hence the Department cannot rely with any assurance on being able to command suitable professors at all times when their services may be required. It is, I think, of great importance that some provision should be made upon this subject. I also recommend that a certain rank or position be given to the professors, which will relieve them from the necessity of messing and sleeping with their pupils. This close and constant association is well calculated to weaken the respect and influence which their relation to the young officers ought to inspire, and which is absolutely necessary to give due effect to their instructions [see below]. I doubt whether their services upon the present system are worth the money which they cost, although they would be highly valuable under proper regulations."
Lest you think there was no navigational science involved in this position of "professor of mathematics", I point you to the naval dress code for the officers in 1841: "Black cocked hats are to be worn, in full dress, by all officers excepting clerks, professors of mathematics, boatswains, gunners, carpenters"
See? Cocked hats?? Ashame the "professors of mathematics" were exempted from wearing them. :-)
Back to the steamer Mississippi. This was one of the very first steam vessels in the US Navy. There were only four steamers listed in the US Navy a year after her launch: Mississippi, her sistership Missouri, and two smaller vessels. Mississippi was a paddlewheel steamship over 200 feet long. Mississippi was intended for the newly created "Home Squadron". She was a state of the art vessel, and steam was the "rocket science" of the era. A motivation for assigning professors of mathematics to naval vessels was the belief that officers would have to become scientists in this new era of steam propulsion (reminds me of Rickover's conviction a century later that officers aboard nuclear submarines must necessarily become nuclear scientists). The job of Chauvenet and the other professors of mathematics was to teach mathematics generally. They were not primarily needed for navigational instruction since of course naval officers learned that on-the-job, though naturally they did also teach navigational mathematics as necessary.
Mississippi remained at Philadelphia during most of December, 1841. Mississippi was commissioned on December 22, 1841 under the command of Captain W.D. Salter and made her first brief voyage, travelling 30 miles downriver on Christmas eve to the port at New Castle, Delaware. For the next two months, the steamship was engaged in trials along the Delaware River near New Castle. As marvels of modern technology, these trials were popular public spectacles. Finally ready for sea, Mississippi made her first voyage on Feb 19-20, 1842 from New Castle to Norfolk, Virginia averaging about ten knots in a 25 hour voyage. If he was still aboard Mississippi, this would have been William Chauvenet's first voyage on the Atlantic Ocean spending about twelve hours along the Delaware/Virginia during the night of the 19th. Naturally, he had no role whatsoever in the navigation of the vessel.
One of her officers wrote of this first trial:
"Gentlemen—It affords me no little satisfaction to be enabled to inform you that we left New Castle, Del. at about half past 7 o'clock, on Saturday morning, and arrived here at half past 8 this morning. We were delayed some time off Cape Henlopen to discharge the pilot, and were detained nearly an hour by the Norfolk pilot, e'er we could run up into the roads. I wrote you from the Capes. The ship performed magnificently, running from 10 to 12 miles, and sometimes faster, the whole trip, and never over 9 inches steam, and most of the time five and six inches. Down the Bay and for thirty-eight miles outside the Capes, whilst running to the southward and eastward to clear winter quarter shoal, we had to contend with a heavy south-east swell setting in. The ship rode handsomely and behaved well— what she will do when we receive all our stores on board, remains to be tested."
Mississippi spent several weeks fitting out at Norfolk in March, 1842. At about this time, yet another letter appeared in the press noticing the futility of the position of professor of mathematics:
"That the present mode of instruction, by professors of mathematics, does not serve a very useful purpose, we are assured, not only by those who are to be instructed, but by the officers of every other grade, and by some of the very professors themselves, who have tried the system.
It may be well perhaps to state the reasons which have brought them to this conclusion.
A ship of war has no place to spare for a school room, without encroaching upon the space occupied by her crew and armament. The sea duties proper, the artillery and divisional duty, the police of the ship, the constant interruption by the elements at sea, the refuting, boat and harbor duties in port, leave little leisure to any one in active service. Nor are the fatigues and exposure to the weather, and motion of the ship on the unsteady sea, favorable to literary pursuits. A small portion of time, under the most favorable circumstances, can be devoted to study—and that at intervals, from the above causes, fatal to the acquisition of mathematical learning, which demands a steady application."
Sometime in March, 1842, Mississippi sailed for New York, a short journey lasting about a day and a half. On April 1, 1842, Mississippi left New York with her sistership Missouri bound again for Norfolk and then Washington. Three days later, in the estuary of the Potomac, the Missouri ran aground. With Mississippi observing, 16 men were lost while hauling a heavy anchor chain out to deep water in an effort to pull Missouri off the shoals. Whether Chauvenet witnessed any of this, I don't know. He left Mississippi sometime around this date. It's reported in biographies written later in the century that Chauvenet left the service for all of the reasons cited above. It was no way to teach. Chauvenet did not, however, abandon the idea of teaching naval officers. Instead he became a vocal and ardent advocate of land-bound naval education. When McClure died he took his post at the Naval School in Philadelphia. That was in April, 1842. Some sources report that McClure had fallen ill some months earlier so Chauvenet may already have been assigned to Philadelphia, his hometown, as early as February.
As for Mississippi, the whole idea of a Home Squadron was proving to be expensive and unnecessary. To put the vessels of the Home Squadron to better use, their range was soon extended to the Amazon in the south and Newfoundland in the north. But this was a job still best suited to sailing vessels which could cruise for weeks, so the Secretary of the Navy ordered Mississippi and Missouri decommissioned. In late 1842 due to the expense and the frequent port calls required to fuel them, they were taken out of service. Mississippi was re-commissioned a few years later and saw service bombarding Veracruz during the Mexican War, visited China and Japan in the late 1850s, and was eventually destroyed (scuttled after grounding and being heavily damaged by shore bombardment) during the US Civil War in 1863. Missouri, by the way, was sent on a diplomatic mission to China in the summer of 1843, with the intention of showcasing American steam technology. She became the first US Navy steamship to cross the Atlantic, but she was destroyed by fire at Gibraltar.
Meanwhile, sometime after Chauvenet left Mississippi, one small indignity was removed for those other professors of mathematics still aboard ships at sea. In September of 1842, we find a new law passed: "Be it enacted ... that professors of mathematics in the navy of the United States shall be entitled to live and mess with the lieutenants of seagoing and receiving vessels, and shall receive such rations as lieutenants of this same ship or station shall receive." No more eating with the students... No more of "Hey professor... how many mathematicians does it take to pass the potatoes... har-har".
Chauvenet immediately set about teaching mathematics to his students at the Naval School in Philadelphia. This was not practical mathematics by any means. It was serious, introductory college-level mathematics, and his students could spar with the best math students of Yale, Harvard, Wesleyan, etc. To get a feel for the sort of thing Chauvenet was teaching, look no further than his very first book which was ready for publication in early 1843. It is entitled, "Binomial Theorem and Logarithms: for the Use of the Midshipmen at the Naval School, Philadelphia." It's 92 pages long, mostly devoted to theorems in algebra, exponentiation, and the binomial theorem. It grew out of his manuscript study guide. The section on common logarithms is brief, since, as Chauvenet notes, the use of common logs is explained in the tables. There is even a long section on natural logarithms. Naturally, there is very little of this that has any practical relevance to navigation (you can find the book online).
With boundless enthusiasm, Chauvenet transformed the offerings at the Naval School in Philadelphia into a first-rate college program, albeit at first only an eight-month program. In 1845, the school was moved to Annapolis, and the US Naval Academy was born.
Time to reiterate the significance of this for the issue of Chauvenet's practical knowledge of navigation. Chauvenet was at sea, not counting the estuaries of the Delaware and the Potomac, for about five full days of his life, possibly not even that many, and almost certainly never more than forty miles from shore, probably not more than twenty miles from shore. He was not navigator on the Mississippi. He was not an officer with a rank that would require him to navigate. His job was to to teach mathematics in circumstances that many people including Chauvenet apparently considered completely unsuited to proper education. This "mathematics" would have included the mathematics of navigation but the practice was learned from other sailors. Chauvenet left the sea at the first possible opportunity and never looked back. William Chauvenet was, of course, one of the great mathematicians of the US in the 19th century. He was at home in the world of positional astronomy and spherical trigonometry. His "Manual of Spherical and Practical Astronomy" stands up well even today. Chauvenet was a brilliant child prodigy, a brilliant and meticulous mathematician, and by all accounts a very good teacher. But he had almost no practical experience in marine navigation. Unfortunately, his naval service has been mis-understood by many people and construed to imply that he was a naval navigator, a man with extensive practical experience in navigation. That was never the case.
Ok? Everybody get it now??
PS: If by chance, there is anyone on NavList who made it all the way to the end of this message and who does not know about Chauvenet's famous two volume set "A Manual of Spherical and Practical Astronomy", rest assured, you will want to get a copy at some point. They are available for download from multiple sources. They are also available as reprints at reasonable prices. Try abebooks.com, e.g.
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