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Human Influences:

GEORGE DAVIDSON (1825-1911): PIONEER SCIENTIST AND SURVEYOR


Steve Choy
California Sea Grant Fellow
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

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Credit: NOAA, B.A. Colonna Album, date uknown Credit: NOAA, B.A. Colonna Album, 1883? Credit: NOAA, B.A. Colonna Album, 1907
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The Early Years


George Davidson was born in 1825 in Nottingham, England. At the age of 7, his parents moved the family to the United States. It was at Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where George Davidson would begin his remarkable career, spanning nearly 6 decades, with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (forerunner of today's National Ocean Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The principal of Central High School at the time, Alexander Dallas Bache, also happened to be the president of the Magnetic Observatory at Girard College. Bache put Davidson to work at the observatory, laying the foundation for Davidson's future in geodetic work. When Bache became the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1843, he immediately hired Davidson.

In 1850, Bache sent George Davidson and three other energetic men with "reputation to make" to the west coast (Theberge 2006). On 5 May, the four men set sail from the east coast for Panama aboard the steamer Philadelphia. Upon landing at Chagres, they traveled by canoe and a mule train to the city of Panama. On 30 May, they embarked on the Pacific Mail Steamship Tennessee for San Francisco. (The Tennessee would later wreck in 1853 on a beach north of the Golden Gate, now known as Tennessee Cove; becoming a submerged cultural resource of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.) George Davidson arrived in San Francisco on 20 June 1850, embarking on his life's work of surveying and charting the largely unexplored western coast of the United States (Theberge 2006).

Returning from a mapping expedition on California's north coast in 1853, Davidson's ship became lost in fog while sailing for San Francisco Bay. When he lowered the lead line, a depth-measuring device, Davidson expected a reading of approximately 400 feet (122 m), but was surprised to find it registered only 180 feet (55 m). Sixteen years later, Edward Cordell, a surveyor with the U.S. Coast Survey, conducted additional surveys when he was sent to relocate a "shoal west of Point Reyes." The numerous birds and marine mammals helped Cordell to locate the bank (Schmieder 1991). The “shallow shoal" was later named Cordell Bank after Edward Cordell, the surveyor who mapped it; which is now part of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.


A Life of Achievement


The next decades of George Davidson's career were awash in achievement. Davidson braved rough seas, treacherous boat landings, and even attacks from hostile Native American Tribes to complete his work on the west coast (NOAA 2006a). Along the Pacific Coast, he made the most accurate measurements of the latitudes and longitudes of vital landmarks along the coast using simple geometric hand tools. In the 1850s, he chose the sites for many of today's lighthouses, and created an extensive catalogue of stars for use in celestial navigation. In 1858, he published "Directory for the Pacific Coast of the United States", which evolved into the Coast Pilot series for all of the United States. His 1889 edition of the "Coast Pilot of California, Oregon, and Washington" became the authoritative publication of sailing directions for the west coast mariner, and is considered one of the great historic works detailing the geography and early exploration of the west coast. These directories provided an indispensable guide for mariners trying to safely navigate the many bays and anchorages along the Pacific Coast (Maritime Museum of San Diego 2006).

Perhaps George Davidson's greatest achievement was the measurement of the Yolo Base Line in Sacramento Valley and the Los Angeles Base Line in southern California (NOAA 2006a). The base lines measured nearly 11 miles in length, were the longest base lines for geodetic work at the time, and were to the unprecedented accuracy of better than one part in one million. These lines served as the starting point upon which the primary triangulation of the west coast states was based, known as the Davidson Quadrilaterals.

In addition to his work accurately charting the west coast, Davidson also traveled abroad (often at his own expense) to solve a variety of issues relating to geodetic surveys. He worked in Japan, Italy, Egypt, and France, and even played a role in assessing the resources and landscape of Alaska during its purchase. He is also associated with a variety of academic institutions, including the California Academy of Sciences, University of California, Geographical Society of the Pacific, Academy of Natural Sciences, American Philosophical Society, and American Association for the Advancement of Science in addition to holding multiple honorary degrees (NOAA 2006b).

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George Davidson observation cabin at San Luis Obispo, California. Believed that Davidson is seated on left. Credit: NOAA, B.A. Colonna Album, (1871?)

  Yolo Buggy with George Davidson, Sacramento Valley, California. Base Line party of George Davidson. The last time such buggies were used was in 1962. Credit: NOAA National Geodetic Survey (1881).
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George Davidson camp near the San Lorenzo River (Santa Cruz County, CA). Credit: NOAA, B.A. Colonna Album (1884).    
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Lasting Impacts


George Davidson's impact on science and the Pacific coast was made as a hydrographer, geodesist, geographer, astronomer, seismologist, civil engineer, historian, and teacher. He worked tirelessly to improve our understanding of the natural world until his death in 1911. As a testament to his achievements, the United States government named a variety of geographic landmarks after George Davidson, including mountains, glaciers, inlets, and in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Davidson Seamount.

In 1933, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey conducted the first survey of Davidson Seamount aboard the ship GUIDE (Captain F.L. Peacock commanding). In 1938, the Davidson Seamount was officially named by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, and was the first geographic feature to be characterized by the term "seamount" (Davidson Seamount 1990).

Davidson Seamount stands 7,480 feet above the surrounding seafloor, and its peak is submerged 4,101 feet beneath the ocean's surface. Added to the Sanctuary in 2009, the seamount is a priority area for site characterization and ecological process studies. Scientists will continue to study the Davidson Seamount with the zeal and energy of its namesake.

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Monterey Canyon was first surveyed in 1857 aboard the Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship ACTIVE (Lieutenant James Alden commanding). Alden termed the canyon a "submarine gulch."

  In 1897, George Davidson published the contoured map of Monterey "Submerged Valley" in the Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, entitled, "the Submerged Valleys of the Coast of California, U.S.A., and of Lower California, Mexico." Credit: NOAA Central Library (1897).
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Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship GUIDE, in service 1923-1941. Image credit: NOAA.   Davidson Seamount (latitude should range from 35 to 36). Chart credit: Association of Commissioned Officers (1933).
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Literature Cited


Davidson Seamount. 1990. United States Board on Geographic Names Centennial: 1890-1990 A Century of Service [bathymetric map]. Washington, DC. US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service.

Maritime Museum of San Diego. 2006. George Davidson (1825-1911). In: Mains'l Haul: A Journal of Pacific Maritime History, Maritime Museum of San Diego. 42(2-3):31.

NOAA. 2006a. Coast and Geodetic Survey Profiles in Time: George Davidson [updated 6/8/06], World Wide Web electronic publication. [http://www.history.noaa.gov/cgsbios/biod1.html]. Accessed 09/15/09.

NOAA. 2006b. Giants of Science: Brief Sketch of the Public Services of George Davidson [updated 6/8/06], World Wide Web electronic publication. [http://www.history.noaa.gov/giants/davidson.html]. Accessed 9/15/09. Reprinted from: Yale, C.G. 1885. Professor George Davidson: A Sketch of Our Most Prominent Pacific Coast Scientist, Mining and Scientific Press, August 1885.

Schmieder, R.W. 1991. Ecology of an Underwater Island. Cordell Expeditions, Walnut Creek, CA. 98 pp.

Theberge, Albert E., Jr. 2006. Coast Surveyors of the Pioneer Coast. Mains'l Haul: A Journal of Pacific Maritime History, Maritime Museum of San Diego. 42(2-3):8-17.


Related Links


Visit the following web sites for more information on the George Davidson and Davidson Seamount:

Giants of Science: Brief Sketch of the Public Services of George Davidson
http://www.history.noaa.gov/giants/davidson.html

Coast and Geodetic Survey Profiles in Time: George Davidson
http://www.history.noaa.gov/cgsbios/biod1.html

Davidson Seamount and the MBNMS
http://montereybay.noaa.gov/research/dsmz/welcome.html

NOAA Photo Library (Search: George Davidson)
http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/search.html

URL: http://montereybay.noaa.gov/sitechar/george.html    Reviewed: March 05, 2014
Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service

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