Dinner to the "Challenger" Staff

Nature (July 1876)

[238] On Friday last, Sir. C. Wyville Thomson and other members of the Challenger staff were entertained at dinner in the Douglas Hotel, Edinburgh, by a large and distinguished company. Besides the civilian chief himself, the other members of the staff present were Mr. J. V. Buchanan, Mr. J. Murray, Lieut. Balfour, Dr. Crosbie, and Paymaster Richards. The Lord Provost occupied the chair, the croupiers, as the vice-chairmen are called in Scotland, being Professors Huxley and Turner. The speeches were unusually happy and spirited, but we have space to give only a few quotations from that of Prof. Huxley in proposing the health of the scientific staff of the Challenger, and their director, Sir C. W. Thomson. After referring to previous Government expeditions for ocean exploration, Prof. Huxley pointed out that the peculiarity of the Challenger Expedition was that in her case the cruise became secondary and the scientific object primary; that she was, in fact, fitted up and instructed with the view of obtaining certain scientific data which were requisite for the further progress of natural knowledge. In her case the duty of geographical exploration was reduced to nil, and the duty of scientific investigation had become paramount.

After showing the great importance of acknowledge of the nature of the sea—bottom, Prof. Huxley went on–

"Thirty years ago it would have been absolute madness for anyone–I was going to say–to have hoped to obtain any knowledge of the nature of the sea-bottom or of the things which lived there at depths of 5,000, 6,000, 13,000, or 20,000 feet. But then here comes one of those admirable examples of the way in which the theoretical life of this world and the practical life interlock with one another, and interact with one another. Theoretical science, abstract investigation, carried on without reference to any practical aim whatever, that sort of abstract investigation which recent Acts of Parliament have endeavoured to throw a slur upon in this country, though I am happy to say that that has been removed in the House in which it originated–that kind of abstract investigation without immediate practical result, gave us the electric telegraph. When the electric telegraph was got, practical men desired to use it as a means of connecting remotely removed countries. For that purpose it was necessary to lay submarine telegraphs. For that purpose it was necessary to improve our means of sounding; and so out of the electric telegraph came those means of sounding at great depths of the sea, which have enabled us, for the first time, to bring up from the bottom, from a depth of two or three, or it may be four miles of sea-water, the actual things which are to be found at that enormous depth. That took place twenty years ago. In 1858, my friend Commander Dayman was engaged in the survey of the Atlantic for the purpose of the cable; and the Americans, who joined in the like service, had invented means by which specimens could be brought up from that depth. So that, if I may so say, ten years ago it was in the air to apply those new methods, supplied by practical life to scientific purpose, to apply the methods of sounding, the methods of dredging, and the methods of ascertaining temperature which had been devised for the purposes of the telegraph engineer, to further investigation of the contents and nature of the sea. But it is all very well for ideas to be in the air, and in this case there were two very clear brains at work on the subject–one of them the brain of our distinguished guest of to-night, Sir C. Wyville Thomson–and the other the brain of my friend Dr. Carpenter, who is well known in the scientific world."

Prof. Huxley then referred briefly to the history of recent deep-sea explorations and to the influence brought to bear on the Admiralty to send out the Challenger. He spoke of the object of the expedition and of the important results which have been achieved. "It was a very considerable task," he said, "it was a task which would have been absolutely chimerical thirty years ago, but it was a task which had been rendered possible, and which has been actually performed in the most satisfactory manner. The Challenger has brought home, I am informed, the records of such operations performed at between 300 and 400 stations–that is to say, at 300 or 400 points along that 70,000 miles, we know exactly the depth of the sea, the gradations of temperature, the distribution of superficial life, and the nature of what constitutes the sea-bottom; and such a foundation as that for all future thought upon the physical geography of the sea up to this moment not only had not existed, but had not even been dreamed of. I won't detain you by speaking of the great results of the expedition, for one very good reason, that I don't know them. They are in the breast of my friend at the opposite end of the table. But he has been good enough to favour us at the Royal Society from time to time with reports of what he has been about, and some of the discoveries which have been made by the Challenger are undoubtedly such as to make us all form new ideas of the operation of natural causes in the sea. Take, for example, the very remarkable fact that at great depths the temperature of the sea always sinks down pretty much to that of freezing fresh water. That is a very strange fact in itself, a fact which certainly could not have been anticipated à priori. Take, again, the marvellous discovery that over large areas of the sea the bottom is covered with a kind of chalk, a substance made up entirely of the shells of minute creatures–a sort of geological shoddy made of the cast-off clothes of those animals. The fact had been known for a long time, and we were greatly puzzled to know how those things got to be there. But the researches of the Challenger have proved beyond question, so far as I can see, that the remains in question are the shells of organisms which live at the surface and not at the bottom, and that this deposit, which is of the same nature as the ancient chalk, differing in some minor respects but essentially the same, is absolutely formed by a rain of skeletons. These creatures all live within 100 fathoms of the surface, and being subject to the fate of all living things, they sooner or later die, and when they die their skeletons are rained down in one continual shower, falling through a mile or couple of miles of sea-water. How long they take about it imagination fails one in supposing, but at last they get to the bottom, and there, piled up, they form a great stratum of a substance which, if upheaved, would be exactly like chalk. Here we have a possible mode of construction of the rocks which compose the earth of which we had previously no conception. But this is by no means the most wonderful thing. When they got to depths of 3,000 and 4,000 fathoms, and to 4,400 fathoms, or about five miles, which was the greatest depth at which the Challenger fished anything from the [239] bottom–and I think a very creditable depth too–they found that, while the surface of the water might be full of these calcareous organisms, the bottom was not. There they found that red clay so pathetically alluded to by my friend on the right [Commander Stewart, who replied for the Navy] as the material in which glory called him he might be reduced. This red clay is a great puzzle–a great mystery–how it comes there, what it arises from, whether it is, as the director had suggested, the ash of foraminiferæ; whether it is decomposed pumice-stone vomited out by volcanoes, and scattered over the surface, or whether, lastly, it has something to do with that meteoric dust which is being continually rained upon us from the spaces of the universe–which of these causes may lie at the bottom of the phenomenon it is very hard to say; it is one of those points on which we shall have information by-and-by. I will not detain you further with speaking of the matters of interest which have come out of this cruise of the Challenger; I will only in conclusion remind you that work of this kind could by no possibility be done without the zealous aid of an intelligent executive. That is the first condition, but our thanks have already been rendered to the executive officers of the Challenger. In the second place, it could only have been done by the aid of such a scientific staff, composed of picked men as was sent out in the Challenger, such men as Buchanan, Murray, and Mosely, and Wild, and Suhm; and I can hardly mention the name of the last gentleman without, in passing, lamenting that he alone of all the staff who left our shores,–he who certainly was the last person we should have imagined we should not see again–that a man of his accomplishments and promise and geniality and lovability should be the only one not to be welcomed back by the friends who loved him, and by the country which would have been glad to adopt him. But, again, a work such as has been done by the Challenger could only have been effectively carried out under the direction, not only of a man who intellectually knew what he was about; but whose moral qualities were such as to get the people with whom he was associated to work with him."

Prof. Huxley concluded by referring to the harmony which throughout prevailed among the staff of the Challenger.

"When men are shut up together in a limited society, whether it be a cathedral town or a ship, they beign to hate one another unless the bishop is a very wise person. In this case I doubt not that the bishop was a very wise person, and I do not believe that the whole course of the Challenger afforded occasion for any such triangular duels as one hears of in the novels of Captain Marryat."

Sir C. Wyville Thomson made a suitable reply to the toast, giving a brief account of the various operations of the Challenger, and referring to the great amount of work yet to be done ere all the results could be given to the world.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University