Office of Coast Survey
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce

History of Coast Survey

The Nation's First Scientific Agency

U.S. Coast Survey Office Logo

On February 10, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed "An Act to provide for surveying the coasts of the United States."

The effort experienced some growing pains in the early years. Ferdinand Hassler, who was eventually to become the agency’s first superintendent, went to England to collect scientific instruments and was unable to return through the duration of the War of 1812. After Hassler returned, he started work on a survey of New York Harbor in 1817, but Congress stepped in to suspend the work because of tensions between civilian and military control of the agency. After several years under the control of the Department of the Navy, the civilian U.S. Coast Survey was established in 1832, with Hassler as superintendent. Coast Survey has been the nation's chartmaker ever since.

In the ensuing years, the young agency tackled additional responsibilities. In addition to conducting hydrographic surveys and producing nautical charts, U.S. Coast Survey conducted the first systematic study of the Gulf Stream, designed tidal predication machines, and established the geodetic connection between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

U.S. Coast Survey (known as Coast and Geodetic Survey beginning in 1878) attracted the best and brightest scientists and naturalists. Coast Survey commissioned famed naturalist Louis Agassiz to conduct the first scientific study of the Florida reef system. James McNeill Whistler, who went on to paint the iconic “Whistler’s Mother,” was a Coast Survey engraver. The great naturalist John Muir was a guide and artist on “Survey of the 39th Parallel” across the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah. Alexander Dallas Bache, great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was the second Coast Survey Superintendent. Bache was a physicist, scientist, and surveyor who established the first magnetic observatory and served as the first president of the National Academy of Sciences.

The agency’s men and women (Coast Survey hired women professionals as early as 1845) led scientific and engineering activities through the decades. In 1926, they started production of aeronautical charts to meet the requirements of the new air transportation age. During height of the Great Depression, Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) organized surveying parties and field offices that employed over 10,000 people, including many out-of-work engineers.

In World War II, C&GS sent over 1000 civilian members and more than half of its commissioned officers to the military services. They served as hydrographers, artillery surveyors, cartographers, army engineers, intelligence officers, and geophysicists in all theaters of the war. Civilians on the home front produced over 100 million maps and charts for the Allied Forces. Eleven members of the C&GS gave their lives during the war.

President Richard Nixon formed NOAA in 1970, bringing C&GS into the new scientific agency. Today, the Office of Coast Survey continues its traditional commitment to employing the highest levels of science and technology to improve marine safety and to tackle the new challenges of the 21st century.

According to the Dictionary of American History, “the Survey is considered to have been one of the major birthplaces of modern American science, including many disciplines not generally associated with geodesy and hydrology. Its creation is a cornerstone of the rapid growth of science and technology and of the development of natural resources for commercial use in the United States.”

1807: President Thomas Jefferson establishes Survey of the Coast. An Act of February 10, 1807, provides for the systematic coastal survey under the Department of the Treasury. Jefferson selects Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler’s proposal for a trigonometric survey. However, Hassler's plan requires very sophisticated scientific instruments not available in the United States, and the start of work is delayed.

1811: Hassler leaves for England in 1811 to oversee the design and manufacture of the needed instruments. Hostilities break out, however, and he remains in England throughout the War of 1812. He does not return to the U.S. until after peace is negotiated in 1815. (See a University of Virginia biographic sketch for more information.)

1816: A formal agreement is reached between the United States government and Hassler. He begins a survey of New York Harbor; actual fieldwork starts in the early months of 1817.

1818: The survey is suspended pursuant to an Act of April 14, 1818 (3 Stat. 425), which repeals provisions of the law that permits civilians to conduct surveys.

1825: Hassler writes a defense of his work ("Papers on Various Subjects Concerned with the Survey of the Coast of the United States," 1825) and publishes it in the Philosophical Transactions of Philadelphia.

1832: The agency is reestablished in 1832. Hassler, at age 62, is appointed as Superintendent.

1834: Survey of the Coast finally takes its first soundings.

1835: Survey of the Coast publishes its first chart “of which there is a present record” (according to Shore and Sea Boundaries, Vol. 2), Bridgeport Harbor, Conn., dated 1835. This chart was probably engraved commercially on contract, since no engravers had been employed at this time.

1836: Survey of the Coast renamed to U.S. Coast Survey. In addition, from 1836 until the establishment of the National Bureau of Standards in 1901, the Survey is responsible for weights and measures throughout the U.S.

1843: Hassler dies. Alexander Dallas Bache, great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, succeeds Hassler. Bache is a physicist, scientist, and surveyor who establishes the first magnetic observatory.

1843 - 1845: The Survey produces a set of six charts of “New York Bay and Harbor and the Environs.”

1845: U.S. Coast Survey begins systematic studies of the Gulf Stream. It is the first systematic oceanographic project for studying a specific phenomenon commenced by any government or organization. Physical oceanography, geological oceanography, biological oceanography, and chemical oceanography of the Gulf Stream and its environs are covered in the initial orders, serving as a model for all subsequent integrated oceanographic cruises.

1847: Naturalist Louis Agassiz sails on Coast Survey Steamer Bibb to study fish and fauna of offshore New England area.

1851: U. S. Coast Survey commissions Louis Agassiz to conduct first scientific study of the Florida Reef system.

1853: First Tide Prediction Tables are published.

1854 -1855: U.S. Coast Survey employs James McNeill Whistler as an engraver. (He goes on to paint the iconic “Whistler’s Mother” in 1871.)

1861: Coast Survey Supervisor Bache publishes “Notes on the Coast of the United States,” secret documents used by the Union Army. This series of “Notes,” extending from Delaware Bay to Mississippi Sound on the Gulf Coast, contributes to the efficacy of the Union blockading squadrons.

1861-65: Coast Survey serves with Union Army and Navy in all theaters of the Civil War and with all major commanders. Coast surveyors serve as hydrographers, topographers, and scouts, oftentimes in advance of the front lines. In the Army, coast surveyors are given assimilated military rank while attached to a specific command.

1867: U.S. Coast Survey is the pioneer federal agency in Alaska. George Davidson, head of the Survey on the West Coast, accompanies the Revenue Cutter Lincoln in its inspection of Russian Alaska prior to the purchase of Seward’s Icebox. Also in this year, George W. Blunt, whose family produced Coast Pilot for 70 years, sells the rights to the Coast Survey for $20,000.s

1869: George Davidson, head of the Survey on the West Coast, obtains maps made by Kohklux, the leader of the Chilkhat Indians of southeastern Alaska. Davidson subsequently sets a policy (in 1888) noting, “special attention is called to the nomenclature of all points named, especially Indian names.”

1873: The Commission of Fish and Fisheries utilizes the Coast Survey steamer Bache for first deep water sampling and dredging cruises. This cooperative relationship continues for many years until the Fisheries Service obtains its own deep-water steamers.

1874-1877: Coast Survey employs the great naturalist John Muir as guide and artist on “Survey of the 39th Parallel” across the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah.

1874-1878: Steamer Blake makes many major innovations, including Sigsbee sounding machine and use of steel cable for oceanographic operations. Blake also pioneers deep ocean anchoring during Gulf Stream studies and is perhaps the most innovative oceanographic vessel of the nineteenth century.

1878: U.S. Coast Survey name is changed to Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) to reflect role of geodesy.

1882: William Ferrel designs the first tide-predicting machine used in the United States. This machine differs somewhat in design from any other machine up to that time.

1890: The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is established and the Superintendent of C&GS, Dr. Thomas C. Mendenhall, is selected as its first chair. The Navy Department and Coast and Geodetic Survey initiate a unified policy in the use of geographic names on charts and other publications, in response to complications resulting from a variety of forms of orthography and nomenclature of the same place or feature. The agencies are especially concerned about the Alaska charts where (using Mendenhall's words) "hardly a name did not admit three or more spellings and many features have more than one name."

1899: C&GS is authorized its own flag. It is blue, with a white circle and a red triangle, symbolizing triangulation. C&GS opens a field office in Seattle, Wash., to support ships and survey field expeditions; future Pacific Marine Center.

1901: National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) is established from U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Office of Weights and Measures. Also, with the transfer of the Philippine Islands from Spain to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names becomes involved in its first major program of standardizing a large number of names for a foreign area.

1917: U. S. enters World War I. Commissioned Officers Corps created from field corps of the Coast and Geodetic Survey; that organization is the forerunner of NOAA Corps. Half of commissioned officer service transferred to Armed Services; ships Surveyor and Bache transferred to Navy. Ship Albatross transferred from Bureau of Fisheries to the Navy.

1923-24: Coast and Geodetic Survey begins use of acoustic sounding systems; develops radio acoustic ranging, the first marine navigation system ever devised to not have to rely on some visual means of position determination. This system leads to discovery of SOFAR, telemetering radio sono-buoys, and marine seismic exploration techniques.

1926: Coast and Geodetic Survey begins to provide charts for air navigation (Air Commerce Act).

1927: Mississippi River Commission asks the Survey to map and analyze a disastrous flood. The map shows how levees were deliberately dynamited to flood the bayous and spare New Orleans.

1933: Coast and Geodetic Survey opens a field office in Norfolk, Virginia.

1934 – 1937: During the height of the Great Depression, Coast and Geodetic Survey organizes surveying parties and field offices that employ over 10,000, including many out-of-work engineers.

1939: Coast & Geodetic Survey ship Pioneer surveys the Bering Sea.

1941-1945: Technical capabilities of the Coast and Geodetic Survey and Weather Service are devoted completely to the war effort.

1942 -1945: The Coast and Geodetic Survey sends over 1000 civilian members and over ½ of its commissioned officers to the military services. Coast Surveyors serve as hydrographers, artillery surveyors, cartographers, army engineers, intelligence officers, and geophysicists in all theaters of the war. Civilians on the home front produce over 100 million maps and charts for the Allied forces. Eleven members of the C&GS give their lives during WWII.

1943: The Hydrographic Office, U.S. Navy Department, publishes "Gazetteer (No. 4) Hawaiian Islands," based on data compiled by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. C&GS publishes "Geographic Names in the Coastal Areas of Alaska" from material compiled under its supervision by personnel of the Works Project Administration.

1945: Coast Survey adapts “Gee” aerial bombardment electronic navigation system to hydrographic surveying, helps to usher in the era of marine electronic navigation.

1948: Pacific Tsunami Warning System is established in Honolulu.

1953: Coast and Geodetic Survey ship Hydrographer rides out Hurricane Florence in the Gulf of Mexico.

1955: Coast and Geodetic Survey ship Pioneer, conducting surveys off United States west coast, tows magnetometer invented by Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The crew discovers magnetic striping on the seafloor, a key element in formulating the theory of plate tectonics.

1962: C&GS establishes the Great Lakes Research Center, develops strong programs in coastal processes (including tides, currents, waves, and sedimentation) and water resources (water quality, water quantity, and ice and snow conditions).

1965: The Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA) is formed within the Department of Commerce, consolidates the Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Weather Bureau.

1969: Stratton Commission report “Our Nation and the Sea” recommends a new agency.

1970: On October 5, President Nixon issues an executive order establishing NOAA. NOAA is created within the Department of Commerce, combining Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, Weather Bureau, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Environmental Data Service, National Oceanographic Data Center, National Satellite Center, Research Libraries, and other components.

1974: NOAA’s National Ocean Services is responsible for compiling, printing and distributing the Great Lakes charts.

1983: By presidential proclamation, President Ronald Reagan declares a United States Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending out 200 nautical miles from our shores. NOAA embarks on program of multi-beam surveying of the EEZ, leading to many discoveries including numerous economically important salt domes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Additional Resources:

Office of Coast Survey’s Historical Map and Chart Collection

NOAA Celebrates 200 Years

Jefferson Authorizes Survey of the Coast, by Gaye Wilson, Monticello Newsletter, Fall 2007.

The 200th Anniversary of the Survey of the Coast, by John Cloud, National Archives Prologue, Spring 2007.

A Brief History of the Survey, Arlington National Cemetery

Shore and Sea Boundaries, Volume Two, by Aaron L. Shalowitz

The Surveyors: Charting America’s Course

Travel through time and across a growing nation with the visionary scientists and intrepid explorers of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in our video The Surveyors: Charting America's Course.

Full video download:

Revised: 10/2/2017