The Challenger expedition of 1872–76 was a scientific exercise that made many discoveries to lay the foundation of oceanography. The expedition was named after the mother vessel, HMS Challenger.
Prompted by the Scot, Charles Wyville Thomson—of the University of Edinburgh and Merchiston Castle School—the Royal Society of London obtained the use of Challenger from the Royal Navy and in 1872 modified the ship for scientific work, equipping her with separate laboratories for natural history and chemistry. The ship, commanded by Captain George Nares, sailed from Portsmouth, England, on 21 December 1872. Under the scientific supervision of Thomson himself, she travelled nearly 70,000 nautical miles (130,000 km) surveying and exploring. The result was the Report Of The Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873-76 which, among many other discoveries, catalogued over 4,000 previously unknown species. John Murray, who supervised the publication, described the report as "the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries". Challenger sailed close to Antarctica, but not within sight of it.
As recently as the late 19th century, human knowledge of the oceans was confined to the topmost few fathoms of the water and a small amount of the bottom, mainly in shallow areas. Sailors and scientists knew almost nothing of the ocean depths. The Royal Navy's efforts to chart all of the world's coastlines in the mid-19th century reinforced the vague idea that most of the ocean was very deep, although little more was known. As exploration ignited both popular and scientific interest in the polar regions and Africa, so too did the mysteries of the unexplored oceans.
To enable her to probe the depths, the Challenger's guns were removed and her spars reduced to make more space available. Laboratories, extra cabins and a special dredging platform were installed. She was loaded with specimen jars, filled with alcohol for preservation of samples, microscopes and chemical apparatus, trawls and dredges, thermometers and water sampling bottles, sounding leads and devices to collect sediment from the sea bed and great lengths of rope with which to suspend the equipment into the ocean depths. Because of the novelty of the expedition, some of the equipment was invented or specially modified for the occasion. In all she was supplied with 181 miles (291 km) of Italian hemp for sounding, trawling and dredging.
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