The History of Oceanography

The study of the ocean predates written history.


Scientists at work. - Scientists are a curious lot. They see things in nature and want a theory or law to explain what they see. This leads to the formulation of a hypothesis - a fact, concept, or scientific law they believe to be valid. Experiments are conducted to prove or disprove the hypothesis. When the scientist believes that he or she has proven the hypothesis he or she will state a theory which will be published with their findings in a juried (the findings are reviewed by peers before publishing) journal. Other scientists will conduct experiments to further prove, or disprove or modify, or add to the hypothesis. If proven by many scientists the theory will become a scientific law, i.e., the Law of Gravity.


The Library at Alexandria - 3 B.C. - 415 A.D. - first "university"; records of commerce kept; library researchers invented celestial navigation.

Center at Sargres, Portugal - 1451 - founded by Prince Henry the Navigator to study marine science and navigation, promoted exploration, ships from center used compass for navigation.

Musée Océanographique at Monaco- founded in 1906 by Prince Albert of Monaco, became the International Hydrographic Bureau in 1921 keeping records of ocean bottom contours, Jacques Cousteau, who in 1943 co-invented scuba underwater breathing system, studied here.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute - on Cape Cod, MA, founded in 1930, offers a joint Masters and Doctoral degree program with MIT, and jointly supports the MBL/WHOI Library with its sister institution, the Marine Biological Laboratory (founded 1888).

Scripps Institution of Oceanography - in La Jolle, California, founded in 1912 and affiliated with University of California.

Click here for Scripps Institution of of Oceanography's (SIO) Library. Press the Back key to return here.

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory - founded in 1949 as part of Columbia University.

Click here to see various oceanographic institutes. Press the Back key to return here.

Egyptians: (4000 B.C.), shores of eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Nile

Cretans/Phoenicians - before 1200 B.C. sailed on the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic as far away as the west coast of Africa and Britain.

Greeks - explored the Mediterranean Sea in 900-700 B.C. and discovered an ocean current beyond the Straits of Gibraltar and thought it was a great river which they feared crossing.

Greeks - called this river (the ocean) okeanos. Our word ocean comes from the Latin word oceanus. These early traders were the first cartographers.

Polynesians - colonized the South Pacific 20,000 years ago, built sturdy boats for long voyages, navigated using smell, sight, waves and charts made of shells and bamboo sticks. Hawaiian Islands colonized in 450 - 600 A. D.

Vikings - in the Dark Ages, used large boats with oars to invade Britain, Paris, Ireland. Some believe that the Renaissance was a response to these invasions. The Vikings turned toward the west and colonized Iceland, (700 A.D.) Greenland (995 A.D.) and Newfoundland (1000 A.D.).

Chinese - used "venetian blind" type sails, invented the rudder, invented separate compartments, in 1405 - 1433 sent treasure ships into the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.


Herodotus (450 B.C.) was a Greek explorer who compiled a map of the world showing the Mediterranean Sea as the center surrounded by three land masses (North Africa, Europe, and Asia) Medi = middle, terra = land, hence Center of the Earth.

Pytheas (325 B.C.) also a Greek was the first to circumnavigate England and gauge the length of its shoreline. He discovered that tides in the Atlantic Ocean vary regularly with the phases of the moon

Eratosthenes - (235 - 192 B.C.) calculated the circumference of the earth and showed that it was round; used latitude and longitude lines on a world chart. His calculations were within 5% of the actual circumference of the earth (25,000 miles).

He noted that on the summer solstice in the town of Syene, now Aswan, at 12 noon the sun cast no shadow in a well but in the town of Alexandria, where he was librarian, the sun cast a shadow of about 7º from a pole. This represented 1/50th of a circle (360º). Knowing the distance from the Syene well to the pole to be 5,000 "stadia", then the earth circumference of the earth would be 50 times that or 250,000 stadia. Scholars are not sure of the exact length of a stadium so the precision of his measurement is not exact but he was very close in determining the circumference of the earth. He knew from the shadow that the earth was round, not flat.

In 2002, a Stony Brook professor of philosophy asked physicists to nominate the 10 most beautiful experiments of all time. Eratosthenes' experiment was among them and ranked 7th in the list.

Hipparchus - (165 - 127 B.C.) divided the earth into equal longitudinal lines totaling 360