James Cook's Contributions to Oceanography

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

In the 18th century, the Age of Exploration was winding down. But James Cook still managed to change what Europeans knew about the Pacific Ocean. Let's learn about some of his contributions to oceanography.

Age of Exploration

Imagine that you live in a small town. You know that there's a whole world beyond that town, but you're not sure what that world looks like. There is no television or internet to give you pictures or videos, and no food or clothing that comes from outside your little village. What's it like out there? How do you find out?

That's the situation many European countries found themselves in during the Age of Exploration, when overseas travel and exploration led Europeans towards globalization and to the discovery of places beyond Europe. Before the Age of Exploration, Europeans didn't really know much about the world beyond Europe. But during the Age of Exploration, ships sailed around the world, seeking to find new places to trade with and new cultures beyond Europe.

One of the most famous explorers from near the end of this era was James Cook, a British captain who traveled around the Pacific and had a deep impact on the European understanding of the world and of the science of oceanography. Let's take a closer look at him and his contributions to oceanography.

James Cook & His Voyages

By the time James Cook was born, in 1728, most of the Age of Exploration was over. Columbus had traveled to North America almost a century and a half before, and trade with India, Asia, and the Americas was in full swing.

James Cook
James Cook

But Cook, who had a career in the British Navy, was interested in exploring things that hadn't been explored before. There were rumors of a huge continent down south of the equator, and Cook was sent in 1768 to find it. He didn't succeed; however, he did map and explore New Zealand and eastern Australia (western Australia had already been explored by Europeans). On a later trip, he became the first European to land on a series of islands he dubbed the Sandwich Islands. Today, they are known as Hawai'i.

It wasn't just where Cook was traveling that made him different from other explorers, though. It was how he was traveling. Specifically, Cook took with him on his voyages a large number of scientists. He was interested in not only finding new places, but in exploring the science of the oceans.

Not only that, but Cook was also one of the few captains at the time that required his crew to eat vegetables and fruit. He stocked canned and pickled produce and sought out local fruits and vegetables whenever they made port. Because of this, his crew avoided scurvy, a disease that many sailors at the time got because of the lack of produce. The health of Cook's sailors was almost unheard of at the time.

Contributions to Oceanography

As we've seen, James Cook did things a little differently from other captains at the time. And because of his work with scientists in particular, as well as his determination to travel around the Pacific Ocean, Cook made major contributions to oceanography.

One of the greatest legacies that Cook left was a detailed vision of the Pacific Ocean and its islands and continents. Before Cook, some Europeans had accidentally stumbled upon different places in the Pacific region, but Cook spent extensive time traveling and mapping different areas of the Pacific. More importantly, as he traveled he used a new device, a chronometer, which is a device to measure precise time. This allowed Cook to calculate exact longitude measurements, something that at the time was difficult to do.

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