A Forgotten Aspect of the Famous Last Voyage of the Carnegie: It Entangled Harald Sverdrup, Roger Revelle and Herbert Graham in Oceanography

By John R. Dolan

Sorbonne Université, CNRS UMR 7093 Laboratoire d’Océanographie de Villefranche-sur-Mer, 06230 Villefranche-sur-Mer, France


The Carnegie was an unusual ship, a non-magnetic (iron-free) 44 m brigantine yacht designed to conduct surveys of terrestrial magnetism. In 1927 the vessel was overhauled and re-fitted for a 3-year global voyage, Cruise VII, dedicated not only to magnetism but also explicitly to oceanography. Novel oceanographic equipment and approaches were employed such as an echo-sounder for depth determinations supplied by the U.S. Navy (Paul 1932) and a new quantitative plankton sampler designed by a Swedish oceanographer (Pettersson 1928). Cruise VII of the Carnegie famously ended prematurely and abruptly in November 1929 with an explosion during a re-fueling operation in Apia in the South Pacific (Fig. 1). 

FIGURE 1.  The first port of call during the last cruise of the Carnegie was in Plymouth in June of 1928 (a). The last port of call was Apia in November of 1929. On November 29, 1929, an explosion while loading barrels of gasoline killed the James Ault, Captain and Chief Scientist of the Carnegie and a cabin boy. The ship shortly after the explosion (b), after about 1 hour (c) and after 3 hours burned nearly to the water line (d).

While the cruise was cut short, it had already covered over 80,000 km traversing the North Atlantic and had extensively sampled the Pacific. Samples and data had been regularly forwarded back to Washington. Well-known findings from the last cruise included observations of N to P ratios in oceanic basins (e.g. Redfield 1958), and the salinity-temperature data underlying Sverdrup’s models of oceanic circulation (e.g., Sverdrup 1941). Lesser known or appreciated is that key figures in the development of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the Woods Hole Fisheries Laboratory, were closely involved in the last cruise of the Carnegie.

Planning and Equipping of Cruise VII 

At the Carnegie Institution in 1927, exactly what motivated the genesis of Cruise VII, combining studies of magnetism and, for the first time, oceanographic studies, is today not clear. From 1909 to 1922, in 6 cruises, the vessel had already crisscrossed the globe several times, navigating a total of 466,000 km, largely accomplishing the goal of establishing a global map of the geomagnetic field (Brown 2004). The Carnegie had then been mothballed from 1922 until 1927. Regardless of the motivation for Cruise VII, as oceanography was not an expertise of the Institution, Cruise VII planning was an international effort, unlike all the previous Carnegie cruises. The list of the consulted parties represented a “Who’s Who” of oceanography in the 1920’s. Advice and equipment was obtained from a remarkably wide range of institutions and individuals as testified in the text below from the Carnegie Institution Yearbook for 1928 (anon. 1928).

The preparations for Cruise VII of the Carnegie have had generous cooperation and expert advice on all sides from interested governmental and private organizations and individuals both in America and Europe, who have either loaned or presented much of the special oceanographic equipment and many books for the library on board. Among these the Institution is indebted to the following: United States Navy Department, including particularly its Hydrographic Office and Naval Research Laboratory, Signal Corps and Air Corps of the War Department, Coast Guard, National Museum, Bureau of Fisheries, Weather Bureau, and Coast and Geodetic Survey, Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California, Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard University; School of Geography of Clark University; American Radio Relay League; Geofysisk Institut Bergen Norway, Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom Plymouth England, German Atlantic Expedition of the Meteor, Institut fiir Meereskunde Berlin Germany, British Admiralty London, Carlsberg Laboratorium, Bureau International pour l’Exploration de la Mer, and Laboratoire Hydrographique of Copenhagen, Denmark; and many others.

Renovation of the vessel included addition of a laboratory space dedicated to biology and chemistry. The scientific crew was increased to 8 to include a chemist/biologist, Harry Seiwell, with no known oceanographic experience, trained shortly before the cruise at Scripps, courtesy of the director, T. Wayland Vaughn (Anon. 1928). Seiwell, however did not stay on the Carnegie. The third (and last) leg of Cruise VII began with the departure of the Carnegie from San Francisco and involved a change in scientific crew. Herbert Graham replaced Harry Seiwell as chemist/biologist. Graham was a herbarium assistant in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and had worked briefly on the phytoplankton of Lake Erie. New to oceanography, like Seiwell, he was sent to Scripps and trained under Erik Gustav Moberg and Moberg then accompanied Graham on the first part of the leg, between San Francisco and Hawaii. 

Implication of Key Figures of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Woods Hole Fisheries Laboratory

The last cruise of the Carnegie directly involved individuals who were or became key personalities in the development of two major institutions of marine sciences in the United States: the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and the National Marine Fisheries Laboratory at Woods Hole. 

T. Wayland Vaughan

As mentioned above, SIO was involved during the planning phase of Cruise VII, in the person of T. Wayland Vaughan (Anon. 1928). Vaughan (Fig. 2a) had taken over the Scripps Institution for Biological Research in 1923 and transformed it into what is now known as SIO (Raitt & Moulton 1967). At the invitation of Vaughan, the two chemist/biologists of Cruise VII, Harry Seiwell and Herbert Graham, were both trained at SIO. Vaughan had long-term plans for the Carnegie. At that time SIO did not have an ocean-going vessel and Vaughan, with Captain Ault, had made had plans to lease the Carnegie, under the command of Ault, for an SIO expedition in the Pacific after Cruise VII (Raitt & Moulton 1967). 

Figure 2. Major personalities in the development of marine sciences in the United States involved in the last cruise of the Carnegie: (a) T. Wayland Vaughn, (b) Roger Revelle, (c) Harald Sverdrup, and (d) Herbert Graham.  

Roger Revelle

Vaughan was a geologist by training, fond of ‘his muds’ and his first Ph.D. student at the new oceanographic laboratory was to study the sediment samples collected during Cruise VII of the Carnegie. He went to the University of California in Berkeley to recruit a new student. Roger Revelle, a geology student at the University of California in Berkeley, accepted Vaughan’s proposition to study the Carnegie samples at SIO. According to Revelle, this was in large part because he knew and liked La Jolla. His fiancé was from La Jolla and they had spent a good deal of time there in her mother’s beach house. (Revelle 1987). Revelle (Fig. 2b), later described as a giant of the field of oceanography in the 1950′ and 1960’s, would remain at SIO for his most of his scientific career and was the director of SIO from 1951 to 1964, a period of major growth for SIO (Nierenberg 1992). 

Harald Sverdrup

Like Vaughan, Harald Sverdrup was involved early in the planning of Cruise VII . At that time he was at the Geofysisk Institut of Bergen, Norway an institute focused on meteorology and terrestrial magnetism. He actually began his career as a meteorologist and headed the meteorology department at the Geophysical Institute in Bergen (Vollset et al. 2018).  Sverdrup began analysis of the physical data gathered during Cruise VII at the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C. He had long been considered an ideal candidate to succeed Vaughan at SIO and in 1936 agreed to take on the directorship for a period of three years. With the outbreak of World War II, his directorship at SIO was extended and ended only in 1948 when Sverdrup returned to Norway. Sverdrup (Fig. 2c) is generally credited with transforming SIO into a leading institution of both teaching and research in Oceanography (Raitt & Moulton 1967). 

Herbert Graham

Herbert Graham (Fig. 2d), was a young botanist, newly graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, when he was chosen to replace Harry Seiwell as chemist/biologist for the last leg of Cruise VII. He was trained at SIO by Moberg before embarking on the Carnegie. Following Cruise VII, he studied at Stanford and worked at the Hopkins Marine Station, with financial support from the Carnegie Institution. He became an authority on dinoflagellates of the marine plankton. In 1950 he was recruited to head the Red Tide Laboratory of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sarasota, Florida and in 1951 was named head of the Woods Hole Fisheries Laboratory. Graham was director from 1951 to 1970. He is credited with introducing the ecosystem approach to managing fisheries resources during his tenure as laboratory director (Edwards 1988). 

The Lasting Legacy of Cruise VII of the Carnegie

It does appear reasonable to credit the last cruise of the Carnegie with a notable influence on the development of marine sciences in the United States given the direct and indirect links of Cruise VII with major personalities of oceanography and fisheries science. The lasting legacy of an oceanographic expedition, best known for its tragic ending, may then actually be its role in having entangled Harald Sverdrup, Roger Revelle and Herbert Graham in oceanography in the United States.


Anon. 1928. Cooperation with other organizations. Carnegie Year Book No. 27, Washington D.C., p 216.

Brown, L. 2004. Centennnial History of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Vol. II The Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 295 pp.

Edwards, R.L. 1988. Centennial Lecture 1: History and Contributions of the Woods Hole Fisheries Laboratory. Marine Fisheries Review, 50:13-17.

Nierenberg, W.A. 1992. Roger Revelle. Physics Today, 45:119-120. doi:10.1063/1.2809551

Paul, J.H. 1932. The Last Cruise of the Carnegie. The Williams and Wilkins Company, Baltimore, 331 pp.

Pettersson, V. I. 1928. Apparatus for quantitative measurements of plankton in situ. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 3: 351-359.

Raitt, H. and Moulton, B. 1967. Scripps Institution of Oceanography: First Fifty Years. The Ward Ritchie Press, 217 pp.

Redfield, A.C. 1958. The Biological Control of Chemical Factors in the Environment. American Scientist, 46: 205-221. 

Revelle, R. 1987. How I became an oceanographer and other sea stories. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 15:1-23.

Sverdrup, H.U. 1941. The Pacific Ocean. Science, 94:287-293.

Vollset, M., Hornnes, R., Ellingse, G. 2018. Calculating the World: The history of geophysics as seen from Bergen. Fagbokforlaget, Bergen. 415 pp.

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