Oceanography in the Rare Books Collection

During Biodiversity Month, the Museum Library has taken a deep dive into our rare oceanography books on the voyage of the HMS Challenger, renowned as being the pioneering expedition of modern marine science. The voyage had only one intent – to investigate “everything relating to the ocean”, the first to do so.

H.M.S. Challenger preparing to sound, 1872, steel engraving? from “Voyage of HMS Challenger, 1873-76”, “A Summary of the Scientific Results – First Part”, preface p.XXXIX, Queensland Museum Library.

Naturalist’s John Murray and Charles Wyville Thomson spearheaded the expedition, made achievable with the support of the British government and their provision of naval officers and a specially converted British Navy corvette. When the HMS Challenger set sail in December 1872 it was as an oceanographic vessel, equipped with a dredging platform, scientific equipment, a dark room and a laboratory.

Caption: “The Naturalists’ Work-room” Fig. 12, engraving by J. Cooper, from page 21 “Voyage of HMS Challenger”, 1873-76, Zoology Volume 1.

While the ship had around 260 crew on board, only 21 were naval officers, who oversaw sampling, to depths of 8,300 metres, of water and ocean-floor sediment samples, water temperatures and the speed and direction of currents.

Caption: Examining Contents of Trawl, (steel engraving?) from “Voyage of HMS Challenger, 1873-76: A Summary of the Scientific Results – Second Part”, page 1464.

There were just six scientific staff aboard the Challenger, as well as an official artist (also serving as secretary to Thomson). The naturalists catalogued and preserved a vast array of new species of fish, invertebrates (sponges, corals, worms, molluscs, crustaceans, starfish) and microscopic life.

When the HMS Challenger returned to England in May 1876, after navigating almost 128,000 kilometres of the nearly all the world’s oceans, it had amassed an impressive survey of hydrographical, meteorological, deep-sea deposit, botanical and zoological observations and discoveries. This data resulted in the mammoth 50-volume Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger: 1873-76.

In 1880 the first report, ‘The Narrative’, appeared, with the final report being issued in 1895. The reports engaged the experts of scientific fields to analyse the data, illustrated by an array of artists, engravers, lithographers and printers. In its entirety, the 50 volumes span 29,500 pages with 3,000 illustrations of copper and lithographic plates, woodcuts, photographs, maps, charts and diagrams.

One of the more famed reports is Ernst Haeckel’s Zoology—Vol. XVIII “Report on the Radiolaria”, published 1887. Haeckel, a naturalist and illustrator who was Professor of Zoology at the University of Jena at the time, admitted he assumed this report would take 3-4 years to complete. Instead, the detailed study of radiolarian took 10 years.

Vol. XXII analysed the deep sea fish data and specimens collected, including the depths at which the fish were collected. The lithographic plate for Aphanopus carbo (the top fish) is twice the size depicted.
Caption: “A. Aphanopus carbo & B, Leidopus tenuis, Deep Sea Fishes” Plate VII, lithograph by G.M.Herschell, from “Voyage of HMS Challenger, 1873-76”, Zoology Volume XXII

The museum library is fortunate to have all but one of the 32-volume set dedicated to Zoology. Curious to look at one of the 32 volumes? Visit BHL.

You can see more of the 3,000 images here.

One of the naturalists, Henry Nottidge Moseley (1844-1891), published his experiences from the Challenger voyage. The result is this 540-page account, Notes by a naturalist: an account of observations made during the voyage of H.M.S. “Challenger” round the world in the years 1872 -1876, under the command of Capt. Sir G.S. Nares and Capt. F.T. Thomson. The library holds the 1892 new and revised edition with map, portrait, and woodcuts, and a brief memoir of the author. Moseley notes recounts excursions that aren’t covered within the scientific reports, including journeys in Victoria and New South Wales through March-April 1874. He participated in trips to the bush near Melbourne, Sydney Harbour and the Blue Mountains. You can read his accounts on BHL here.

The book includes a foldout map, displaying the incredibly vast passage the voyage took over its three and a half years at sea.

Caption: Map of voyage of H.M.S. ‘Challenger’ from H.N. Moseley’s book