In the quarter-century preceding the Civil War, the Navy organized 11 important scientific expeditions that took its men and ships all over the world. The best known of these scientific forays was the U.S. Exploring Expedition, which was dispatched in 1838 to chart the Antarctic, the Pacific, and the coast of Oregon, under the command Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. But there were others, including one that took American Sailors into the Middle East to explore the depths of the Dead Sea in search of the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But not all the great maritime discoveries were made at sea. One naval officer, who ultimately became known as the "Pathfinder of the Seas," earned that sobriquet from his desk in a Washington office.
Ever since his days as a midshipman, Matthew Fontaine Maury had been interested in the subject of navigation. In 1836, at the age of 30, he produced a popular textbook on the subject, A New Theoretical and Practical Treatise on Navigation. After a stagecoach accident left him lame and no longer fit for duty at sea, the Navy Department appointed him to be the first superintendent of the newly established Naval Observatory.