Rare printing plate for a chart of Wickford Harbor, RI

E. Lester Jones, Superintendent [of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey], United States – East Coast / Wickford Harbor / Rhode Island , Washington, D.C; Aug. 1916.
Engraved copper plate, 17.75"h x 14.75"w plus margins, framed

The original copperplate for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey chart of Wickford Harbor, Rhode Island.

The United States Coast Survey
The early history of chart making in the United States was dominated by private publishers. The need for an organized, well-conceived and integrated coastal survey was obvious, however, and in 1807 the U.S. Coast Survey was established. Work proceeded slowly, and before 1845 very few usable charts were published. Within the next ten years, thirty-seven charts of various bays and harbors were completed, and the Coast Survey had become the largest employer of physical scientists in the United States.

The Coast Survey (renamed the Coast and Geodetic Survey in the 1870s) is the oldest scientific organization in the Federal Government. The website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers this tribute:

“These men and women… helped push back the limits of astronomic measures, designed new and more accurate observational instruments for sea and land surveying, developed new techniques for the mathematical analysis of the mountains of data obtained by the field parties, and further refined techniques of error analysis and mitigation. It was the Coast Survey that led American science away from the older descriptive methods to the modern methods of statistical analysis and the prediction of future states of natural phenomena based on mathematical modeling. Virtually all branches of science, including the social and biological sciences, have adapted similar methodologies and similar techniques in their quest for scientific truth. But, in the United States, it should be remembered that it was the Coast Survey that first trod that path.”

The chart
The present chart is a trove of data, including immensely detailed soundings and the locations of navigational aids and hazards. Also provided is detailed topographical and cartographical information on the adjacent coastal regions, including a small street plan of the town of Wickford.

Each Coast Survey represented an immense undertaking. For example, the Wickford Harbor chart contains data gathered over more than 40 years by at separate parties focusing respectively on terrestrial topography, triangulation, hydrography, and astronomical and magnetic observations.

Around 1825, commercial mapmakers in the U.S. rapidly switched over to the far more cost-effective (and profitable) lithographic printing process. However, unburdened by the profit motive and enamored of the superior image clarity afforded by engraving, the Coast Survey continued to employ engraved plates until the early 20th century, when it finally shifted to lithographic reproduction.

Guthorn, United States Coastal Charts provides a history of the Coast Survey and its methods. Far more detailed information may be found in Captain Skip Theberge’s “The Coast Survey 1807-1867,” available on line at http://www.lib.noaa.gov/edocs/CONTENTS.htm.


A few scratches, else excellent