Charismatic but haughty, Captain Charles Wilkes became an experienced naval officer known for his expertise and accuracy in mapping and charting.
He was passionate about navigation technology. Before leading the U.S. Exploring Expedition, he headed the Navy’s Department of Charts and Instruments (now the U.S. Naval Observatory), where he worked tirelessly on synchronizing marine chronometers.
Despite the expedition’s success, Wilkes’s heavy-handed treatment of his crew resulted in his court-martial and a reprimand.
Instruments and Methods
Charles Wilkes spent a small fortune acquiring navigation equipment. He outfitted the expedition with 28 marine chronometers, 12 sextants, a library for each vessel, and many other astronomical and meteorological instruments.
The chronometers Wilkes purchased came from the finest English makers. The actual instruments used on the expedition were returned to the U.S. Navy and dispersed.
“. . . Meteorological observations in every shape + form. Transit observations of Star Passing the meridian for determining the rates of Chros [chronometers]. Observations of moon culminating stars, for the purpose of deducing Longitude, all these and more were daily being taken or made, the most important by Capt. Wilkes in person + the remainder under his direction + superintendence.”
—Lt. Micajah G. L. Claiborne, remarking about navigation observations during the Wilkes Expedition