top of page
Search
  • Jack Bowerman

James Percy Ault: A Scientist At Sea


James Percy Ault was a scientist at sea. A geophysicist and explorer, he traversed the globe in the early 1900s on research expeditions for the Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. He commanded the research vessel Carnegie for many years and died tragically with the destruction of the ship. He was also a devoted husband and father, and a man described by a colleague as having "exalted ideals and sterling character ... a charming personality ... and a spirit of sympathetic congeniality which won for him the highest esteem and enduring friendship of all whose privilege it was to work with him." He started his journey toward his life’s work at Baker University.


James Percy was born in Olathe, Kansas on October 29, 1881 to Addison and Mary McElwain Ault, the third of eight children. Apparently, he was known to family and friends as Percy. The family farmed 80 acres near what is now 119thand Antioch in Johnson county. Both Addison and Mary had received training as teachers and no doubt did some teaching in the country schools in the area. In 1895, the family moved to Baldwin where they acquired 50 acres just outside the city limit and just southeast of the train station at Media (West Baldwin). In 1897, Addison joined the faculty at Baker where he taught until 1904. Seven of the eight Ault children graduated from Baker.


In 1904, Percy received an A.B. from Baker. Through the inspiration of a young science professor, William Charles Bauer, Percy Ault and his classmates were guided to the Carnegie Institution of Washington where William’s brother, Louis Agricola Bauer, was head of one of the departments. During his time at Baker, Percy served as an observatory assistant in the magnetic observatory of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. After his graduation, Percy joined the Carnegie Institution as a magnetic observer with the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM). DTM was formed in 1902 by Louis Bauer with goal of mapping the geomagnetic field of the entire earth. Under Bauer’s direction, "observers," as they were called, made worldwide expeditions to gather magnetic field data. They trekked through some of the remotest regions of the planet. In 1905, after a short training period, Percy joined the crew of the Galilee, a sailing vessel chartered by Carnegie to undertake magnetic research around the globe. Percy remained on the Galilee until November 1906. He then made magnetic observations in Northern Mexico until March 1907.


On March 27, 1907 Percy married Mamie Totten. Mamie was born May 24, 1983 to James and Alice Prentice Totten of Washington, Kansas. Mamie enrolled at Baker as a freshman the year that Percy was a senior. After their marriage, the Ault’s moved to Washington, D.C. In 1908 Percy made a three-month canoe trip in the Canadian interior to make magnetic observations. In 1909 Percy received an A.M. degree in physics from Columbia University. Later in the same year he joined the crew of the newly commissioned research vessel Carnegie.


The Carnegie was a vessel specifically designed and built for magnetic research. It was constructed of wood and non-ferrous metals so as not to affect the magnetic observations. Until the widespread adoption of the gyro compass, the effect of the earth's magnetic field on a compass often led to major navigation errors, unnecessary course deviations, and mis-plotting of land features. Today, scientists are still trying to understand the reason for the earth's magnetic field, although the field's influences are known and have been plotted. Much of this current knowledge is owed to the early twentieth century research voyages of Carnegie, a unique pioneering ship specifically designed and specially built to be immune to the earth's magnetism. At the launching ceremonies at Tebo's Brooklyn yard on 12 June 1909, Doctor Louis A. Bauer, director of the Terrestrial Magnetism Department, said that Carnegie's mission would be "to increase our knowledge of the constitution of the earth's magnetic field and to learn more of the number of variations of the electricity in the atmosphere surrounding the earth." He noted that magnetic forces in most of the world change constantly, even though the change may be very gradual and may not be recorded on charts. In 1580, for example, a compass in London pointed eleven degrees east, but by 1658 the needle had shifted to due north, and by 1812 pointed to twenty-four degrees west of true north. "In the interval of about two hundred and thirty-two years, compass direction there changed thirty-five degrees," Doctor Bauer said. For twenty years the non-magnetic, wooden-hulled Carnegie sailed the oceans, including the iceberg- cluttered Arctic and Antarctic, carefully locating and finely measuring then unknown magnetic influences.


Percy was a magnetic observer on Cruise I during 1909 and 1910. On this maiden voyage, Carnegie went through a severe "dusting" in the stormy North Atlantic, riding through a series of heavy winds that thoroughly tested hull and rigging and verified the ship seaworthy. On the initial cruise, scientists discovered an error of one degree in compass variation on charts of the North Atlantic then in use. This finding may seem insignificant, but to a navigator on a

compass course, this deviation would take "collimating compass" equipped with a

the vessel ten to twenty miles off the planned route.


During 1911 Percy did office work at CIW in Washington and in 1912 he led a magnetic survey through Bolivia, Peru and Chile. In 1914 he was appointed Captain of the Carnegie for Cruise III, a position he would retain for Cruises IV, VI and VII. Under Captain Ault's leadership, the trim

square-rigger crisscrossed the seas in all types of weather. During the fourth cruise that began at New York in March 1915, Carnegie covered seventy-three thousand miles and circumnavigated the globe through sub-Antarctic regions. On this voyage and others, Carnegie many times escaped being crushed by icebergs. "Constant watchfulness and careful seamanship," said Captain Ault, "were required to prevent disaster." On several occasions, collisions were avoided by less than a ship's length when huge bergs appeared suddenly from fog, mist, or driving snow. "It seemed," said Captain Ault, "like trying to sail down Broadway in New York City with all the skyscrapers gone wild and drifting around in our pathway." Thirty icebergs were sighted during one nerve-wracking day. At one point in the Antarctic where the charts indicated an island, crew members did not see any land. Either the reported island had been an iceberg mistaken for land, or the action of the compass had misguided the discoverer into plotting the site incorrectly.


The Cruises of the Carnegie took Percy around the world several times. During the times between cruises, he worked on reducing data collected on the cruises and various magnetic research topics for CIW. One exception to this was his work for the Army in 1918 on the aerial navigation of airplanes using compasses, sextants and astronomical observation. Percy sailed the world seeking data on magnetism and atmospheric electricity. Some of his more important discoveries include submarine mountain ranges off the South American Coast and proof that the North Pole wobbles as the earth spins on its axis.


Percy and his wife had three daughters, Evelyn (b. 1912), Ruth (b. 1919) and Marjorie (b. 1923). Ruth died suddenly in 1920 from colitis. Percy was on Cruise VI of the Carnegie when Ruth died. The death had a great effect on Percy and nearly led him to resign. He was eventually convinced by his colleagues to continue the cruise.


From 1921 to 1927, Institution officials laid up Carnegie for extensive repairs, while they prepared a new program of oceanic investigations. Shipwrights installed new deck beams, planking and spars, and added thicker copper hull sheathing to afford the ship better protection against ice, and against shellfish that bore into timber. The latest scientific instruments were put in the top deck observation rooms, and in the laboratories.


After a colorful send-off on 5 May 1928 from Washington, D.C., Carnegie's home port, the ship departed on Cruise VII. On this voyage, scheduled to last three years, Carnegie circumnavigated the North Atlantic Ocean, passed through the Caribbean Sea, and transited the Panama Canal to cruise the southeast, central and north Pacific Ocean, touching at Easter Island, Peru, Tahiti, Guam, and Japan. The ship had sailed forty-three thousand miles, with about seventy thousand miles still to go, when the vessel stopped at Apia, Samoa, on 28 November 1929 for fuel and supplies. The next day, while crewmen took on gasoline, an explosion occurred. The blast blew Captain Ault off the quarter-deck, and he died soon afterward. Cabin boy Tony Kelar, standing near him, landed in the harbor and was lost, and several crewmen were badly injured by flames. Within a few hours, Carnegie burned to the waterline and the ship sank.


Institution officials never replaced Carnegie. After considering the time necessary to design a new vessel, and a construction cost that would far exceed the original Carnegie, officials decided to redirect the Institution's magnetism studies to less expensive expeditions. The non-magnetic brigantine Carnegie, a small ship for braving the seas in all types of weather, had logged an amazing record. From the time of launching in 1909 to the tragic fire twenty years later, Carnegie had traveled nearly three hundred thousand miles through the oceans of the world, a distance equivalent to more than one hundred crossings of the North Atlantic. Scientists aboard the ship had transmitted thousands of observations regularly to Washington for relay to hydrographic offices of maritime nations to aid cartographers in the correcting and updating of nautical charts. Carnegie had truly been a ship for the world.


Percy developed his love for scientific observation at Baker and devoted his life to research. He will always be remembered by the scientific community for his groundbreaking work and the personal sacrifices he made.

22 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Leaving comments

We would welcome comments on our posts which you do by clicking on the "Let's Chat!" button on the lower right of the screen.

Comments


bottom of page