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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Makers of Naval Tradition

Carroll Storrs Alden
and Ralph Earle

published by
Ginn & Company, 1942

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p111  Chapter VI

Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806‑1873)

Matthew Fontaine Maury

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Every naval vessel and merchant ship leaving American seaports for an extended cruise is equipped with pilot charts of the North Atlantic, the North Pacific, or other waters, published monthly by the Hydrographic Office of the Navy Department. These charts show currents, prevailing winds, the paths of storms that occurred during the corresponding period in previous years, and the best routes. At the head of each chart is inscribed, "Founded upon the researches made and the data collected by Lieut. M. F. Maury, U. S. Navy."

The story of Lieutenant Maury's career as a naval officer is entirely lacking in adventure, for he spent comparatively few years at sea and took part in no fighting. Yet his experience as a line officer was not without hints of power, and bore important results.

He received his commission as acting midshipman in 1825, when he was nineteen years old. The early frontier life of Tennessee furnished but poor preparation for even the small attainments in scholar­ship required of midshipmen at that time. His father, of stern Huguenot family, had strongly opposed his going into the navy and compelled his equally determined son to shift for himself in his plans for a career. Purchasing a horse on credit and accepting thirty dollars which was given to him by a sympathetic schoolmaster,  p112 Maury set out for Virginia. This was the state of his birth; and he had relatives there, not far from Washington, his ultimate destination. A letter written years later records that when he reached his cousin Reuben at Charlottesville he had only fifty cents left, "which I was exceedingly afraid Reuben would find out." When he reached another kinsman, at Fredericksburg, the fifty cents had shrunk to twenty-five. Here he sold the horse for the same amount he had paid for her and remitted the sum to the original owner. When he finally reported at the Navy Department in Washington, he discovered that since he had traveled without orders he could not be sure of reimbursement.

Happily, however, the Secretary of the Navy saw his way clear to place no more difficulties in the young man's path and to grant him mileage, fifteen cents a mile. This solved all problems and raised Maury, as he then felt, to a state not only of comfort but even of affluence.

As he accustomed himself to the routine of ship life, he discovered there was opportunity to do considerable studying without neglecting regular duties. Spanish was required of all midshipmen, and he procured a Spanish work on navigation and went through it. He also took up trigonometry with equal ardor. His methods of study while pacing the deck on watch are unique. He writes:

If I went below only for a moment or two, and could lay hands upon a dictionary or any book, I would note a sentence, or even a word, that I did not understand, and fix it in my memory to be reflected upon when I went on deck. I used to draw problems in spherical trigonometry with chalk on the shot, and put them in the racks where I could see them as I walked on deck.

 p113  With such application there could be no question about Maury's being prepared when the time came for promotion. About this time he published a book on navigation which was noticed favorably by the highest nautical authorities in England, and later became the textbook of the American Navy. In connection with his examination he related in the Southern Literary Messenger (the magazine that made Poe famous) a midshipman's experience which we may be very sure was his own. When the Board of Examiners, made up of naval officers, questioned the midshipman as to the "lunar problem," he pretended ignorance of Bowditch, whose solution was for most midshipmen merely a matter of memory and, stepping to the board, treated the problem as one of spherical trigonometry. Such originality was beyond the board, who could not follow him. They retired to consider his case, and on their return advised him to go to sea and study his profession. This deferred her promotion for two years. It happened, incidentally, that all the midshipmen whom this lad had coached passed high on the list.

In 1839, when Maury had been in the navy fourteen years, there occurred an accident which at the time seemed to end all his prospects. Having obtained a few weeks' leave, he had gone to Tennessee to see his father, who was old and infirm. He wished to make arrangements for bringing his parents back to Virginia to make their home with him. While returning through Ohio, traveling on the top of a stagecoach because he had given his more comfortable seat inside to a poor woman who could not stand the cold night air, he was thrown to the ground, dislocating his kneecap and fracturing his thigh bone. A not over­skillful surgeon in whose care he was placed set the bone so badly that  p114 it had to be broken again and reset. Thus it was three months before he could resume his journey to New York, across the Allegheny Mountains by sleigh in the dead of winter. As far as his leg was concerned, he recovered his strength very slowly. It is no wonder that, in writing to his parents, he exclaimed, "A terrible calamity is this, indeed, to me." And yet, years afterwards, his friends saw in the calamity a blessing in disguise. The enforced quiet gave him opportunity for thinking and writing. His was a nature so active and eager that damming up its stream only made the strong current at once seek a new channel.

Within a few months the Southern Literary Messenger began to bring out a series of articles entitled "Scraps from the Lucky Bag," written under the name of "Harry Bluff, U. S. Navy." In these Maury discussed the navy in its various phases and did not hesitate to lay bare its weakness, both as to personnel and matériel, as well as to suggest means for improving its organization. The articles, which appeared at intervals for three years, attracted wide attention and were regarded as so able by his fellow officers that they had them reprinted and distributed at their own expense. Maury was a pioneer. The influence of wild Tennessee where he had lived as a youth, then as much the frontier as Dakota was two generations later, may be seen in the freshness and vigor of his ideas. He thought for himself, and he hit on ideas so practical that there was no trouble in gaining recognition and support. For us of a later age the most interesting of the ideas he advanced at this time was an argument for the establishment of a naval school for midshipmen.

In his day the only provision made for the education of young midshipmen consisted of the "professors of  p115 mathematics" and "teachers of languages" scattered about, some at navy yards, but the larger number on ships. They were by no means a carefully selected corps, and whatever ability they had was constantly thwarted by the exactions of duty. The schoolmaster assigned to a ship leaving on a three years' cruise had no real authority. There was no schoolroom; and rare was the time, even if he found midshipmen eager to learn, when interruptions were not frequent. Many captains and executives deliberately broke up any attempt at study.

As showing the need of reform Maury wrote in his contribution of December, 1840:

The midshipman is practically taught to consider his attendance at school as the matter of the least importance in his routine of duties. He is interrupted at his lessons to go on shore for the captain's pig; or he is called from recitation to count the duck-frocks and trousers contained in the wardrobe of Tom Brown, the sailor. I have known a captain who forbade the midshipman to "work out longitude," on the ground that it was a secret of the captain and master; and, therefore, it was exceedingly officious and unbecoming the character of gentlemen for midshipmen to be prying into the rate and error of the chronometer, or to have anything to do with longitude.

What Maury proposed was a school ship on which midshipmen should be trained for two or three years in what might be regarded as the first principles of all subjects related to their profession (including a liberal admixture of science): mathematics, navigation, naval architecture (construction), gunnery, physics, astronomy, geodesy, tactics, and discipline. "Language, too, though last yet not least," he remarked, "should be included in the system." The school ship should  p116 "be kept regularly fitted for sea" and, manned by the midshipmen, should "take a cruise to sea of two or three months in the year, as well for exercise and relaxation as for the purpose of putting in practice what they had been taught while in port — firing at targets, and the like."

The interest in Maury's idea of a naval school was so widespread that it soon found expression in the recommendations included in the annual report of the Secretary of the Navy; and only five years later, 1845, a new Secretary, Bancroft, founded the important naval institution at Annapolis.

When it became known that Maury was the author of the articles in the Southern Literary Messenger his prestige was commonly acknowledged. His leg was to give him trouble for years to come and made it doubtful whether ever again he would be equal to arduous duty afloat. Soon, however, not upon his own application but on the recommendation of his fellow officers, he was placed in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments at Washington. This he developed into the National, or Naval, Observatory, including the Hydrographic Office. Here began his famous Wind and Current Charts.

Some eleven years before, while still a midshipman, he had been given the duties of master (navigator) on the sloop of war Falmouth, about to sail for Rio de Janeiro. In his earnest, thoroughgoing way he attempted to prepare for his duties by inquiring as to the winds and currents that he should meet and the proper course to follow. No one could give him the desired information; and when he sought for it in books, he was equally disappointed. A voyage to South America was a leisurely, zigzagging affair. Because of  p117 legends which told of sweeping currents to the north of Cape San Roque (the northeastern extremity of Brazil) which would cast any vessel coming within their influence upon an iron-bound coast, early navigators had thought it prudent to go first to Europe in order that they might follow a route that was old and tried. From the Cape Verde Islands they would sail before the wind and cross the Atlantic a second time, toward Cape San Roque; and if their destination was not a Brazilian port but one in Australia or China, they would cross the broad Atlantic a third time in order to round the Cape of Good Hope. This zigzagging was to a large degree because of tradition; the parts of the South Atlantic outside of this route, although free from rocks, shoals, or other particular perils of navigation, were avoided simply because they were unknown.

In the National Observatory Maury stressed sailing on a great circle when it was practicable, so that one might follow the shortest course between two points connected by the circle. His first step as pathfinder of the seas was, as he said, "to make an exhibit of what had been obtained from the old sea‑chests"; that is, bringing together the information he had gleaned from the one thousand or more old log books which he found stowed away in the Navy Department, he presented to mariners a set of Track Charts for the North Atlantic. These first charts he himself characterized as "meager and unsatisfactory"; but, bringing them to the notice of navigators, he called attention to the blank spaces on the charts and urged upon them the need of more and better observations. Each captain was promised that if he would coöperate in a general plan of observations at sea, at the end of a cruise sending regularly to the  p118 National Observatory at Washington an abstract log of his voyage, he would be furnished in return without cost a copy of the charts and sailing directions founded upon the observations.

In a very little while more than a thousand navigators were jotting down their records, day and night, in all parts of the ocean. The minimum requirement to secure recognition as a coöperator called for the following: the latitude and longitude of the ship, the height of the barometer, the temperature of the air and of the water, all at least once a day; the direction and force of the wind three times a day; the variation of the compass occasionally; and the set of a current whenever encountered. This was asked of merchantmen; of men of war a much more elaborate abstract log was required. Furthermore, navigators were to cast overboard at stated periods bottles containing their record of latitude and longitude and date, and also were to pick up such bottles wherever found, noting the exact position and time, and forward them to Washington.

Old seamen were at first skeptical of the information proffered them, believing that knowledge gained by their own experience was worth more than what charts and books could offer. But a few tried them and soon discovered that those who relied on the charts made quicker voyages than those who ignored them. The most famous race course in the world at this time was the fifteen-thousand-mile stretch from New York to San Francisco. The finest clipper ships afloat were engaged in this service, and every ship that sailed was racing against time. One of the best-known contests occurred in 1852, when four clippers sailed within a few days of one another; and it is evidence of the confidence that had been established in Maury's "Sailing  p119 Directions" that all four followed them with great care. Only one slight departure was made, when a captain on the outward voyage tried to gain on the charts by sailing two hundred miles to the west of the prescribed course and then, falling victim to the old dread of currents sweeping ships upon San Roque, laid his course due east. Because of this he lost three days in the race. The best record made in this race was 92 days, 4 hours, from port to anchor. This was exceptionally good time. The average passage, when use was made of charts, was 135 days; previous to the use of charts it had been 183 days. The charts meant a great saving annually to shipowners; indeed, one of the conservative British financiers estimated it as mounting up to several million pounds sterling.

In 1844 Maury read a paper before the National Institute, "On the Gulf Stream and Currents of the Sea." Fourteen years later he remarked, "Up to that time but little was known of this river in the ocean." Since then great attention has been focused upon it. The Coast Survey carried on extensive investigations, and the whole world became interested in the chapters devoted to this subject by Maury in his "Physical Geography." He could never have accomplished the great work he did without the thousands afloat making observations under his direction and the many enthusiastic, skilled officers in Washington acting as his assistants. The latter coöperated in digesting the data sent to the National Observatory and in incorporating them in the various charts of every sea being prepared there.

Europe had been interested for some time; but the greatest move for coöperation came in 1853, when, in response to an invitation issued by the United States  p120 to an international conference, ten great nations sent their representatives to Brussels "to agree upon a uniform mode of making nautical and meteorological observations." The countries participating in the conference were Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. As the delegates proceeded to organize, they voted to make Maury, who represented the United States, president; but with characteristic modesty he declined the honor, proposing that it be given to the representative of Belgium. Maury was the guiding spirit of the conference, and he was extremely success­ful in solving every difficulty and preserving the greatest harmony in the deliberations, which occupied the months of August and September; also, as will be shown, he held the discussion to practical ideas.

Maury announced the offer of the Secretary of the Navy to furnish a set of Wind and Current Charts to every merchant captain, no matter what his nationality, who would assist in securing careful observations as recommended by the Brussels Conference. Maury by his influence went far beyond this: he stimulated research work in meteorology in all quarters of the world. Almost at once Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Papal States each provided for giving the abstract logs kept on board their vessels, both commercial and naval, a full discussion with a plan of publishing the results later; and Prussia, Spain, Sardinia, the Free City of Hamburg, and the Republic of Bremen followed shortly afterwards.

One of the recommendations of the conference was that in case of war the abstract logs, no matter on what ships found, should be regarded as sacred and be forwarded to their proper destination.

 p121  It was the first League of Nations, and it is no wonder that Maury in his enthusiasm wrote;

Rarely has there been such a sublime spectacle presented to the scientific world before: all nations agreeing to unite and coöperate in carrying out according to the same plan one system on philosophical research with regard to the sea. Though they may be enemies in all else, here they are friends. Every ship that navigates the high seas with these charts and blank abstract-logs on board may henceforth be regarded as a floating observatory — a temple of science.

Honors of the highest kind from countries and learned societies were now showered upon Maury. It is not too much to say that he was honored as no American had been before him and as very few, if any, have been since. The emperor of Russia sought to make him "Knight of the Order of St. Ann"; the king of Denmark, "Knight of the Dannebrog"; the king of Portugal, "Knight of the Tower and Sword"; the king of Belgium, "Knight of the Order of St. Leopold"; the emperor of France, "Commander of the Legion of Honor"; while Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Holland, Sardinia, and France struck gold medals in his honor. The orders of knighthood he declined as inconsistent with the character and duty of an American officer; no man, however, could have been insensible to such distinction. That he prized the medals also is shown by his mentioning them in his will so that on his death they might be distributed equally among his children.

It was at this time also or a little later that he was made a member of learned societies as far separated as the "Natuurkundige Vereeniging in Nederlandsch Indie" (Batavia), "Société des sciences, des arts et des lettres de Hainault" (Mons), "Académie impériale  p122 des sciences de Russie" (St. Petersburg), as well as of several others almost as famous abroad, and of a large number in this country.

The impression Maury made abroad may, indeed, be compared with that made by Franklin three quarters of a century earlier. Europe realized that here was a man of genius who had conferred a lasting benefit upon the world.

Within five years after the conference it was estimated that nineteen countries, with a combined naval force and merchant marine of 124,150 vessels, were coöperating in this great work; those not coöperating were but four small maritime powers, with a total of 13,300 vessels. As Maury remarked, "Nations to which more than nineteen twentieths of the tonnage belongs have already joined hands."

Yet Maury was not content with this. He immediately added the following to the words just quoted:

In reviewing our labors, our object is not to boast; it is to gather strength to do more and to do it better. . . . We are investigating the laws of the atmosphere. It covers the land as well as the sea. It is a whole, and for its influences to be rightly understood, it must be treated as a whole. . . . Agricultural and sanitary meteorology is as important as nautical. Farmers and invalids are quite as much interested in the development of meteorological facts and laws on the land as merchants and sailors are on the sea. The farmers and the savants of the shore are therefore appealed to, to come up, join forces, and do for the land what seamen and shipping merchants have done for the sea.

This was addressed particularly to his own countrymen, and he repeatedly urged this most important extension of meteorological observations and reports to the end of his life, nearly twenty years later. If he  p123 had been listened to and followed, our nation would have speedily organized the Weather Bureau, which was not established for many years.

Another great service of Maury's, in which he did the pioneer work, had to do with the laying of the Atlantic cable. As early as 1848 he had come to the conclusion, in the course of his investigations of the winds and currents, that there existed between Newfoundland and Ireland a broad and level plateau at a comparatively moderate depth. From that time on, in his direction of the National Observatory, he kept such ships as were available employed in making deep‑sea soundings. In February, 1854, he summarized the results in a report to the Secretary of the Navy:

From Newfoundland to Ireland the distance between the nearest points is about 1600 miles, and the bottom of the sea between the two places is a plateau which seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of the submarine telegraph, and of keeping them out of harm's way. It is neither too deep nor too shallow; yet it is so deep that the wires but once landed will remain forever beyond the reach of the anchors of vessels, icebergs, and drifts of any kind, and so shallow that they may be readily lodged upon the bottom.

From the fact that soundings which brought up specimens from the bottom revealed that there was here no ooze, sand, or gravel, Maury further advanced as the plain inference: "These depths of the sea are not disturbed either by waves or currents. Consequently, a telegraphic wire once laid there would remain as completely beyond the reach of accident as it would be if buried in air‑tight cases."

To Cyrus W. Field, whose name will forever be associated with the Atlantic cable, Maury wrote many  p124 letters. Field went ahead and accomplished the great work. At a dinner given in New York in 1858 to celebrate the arrival of the first message across the Atlantic, Field is reported to have said, "I am a man of few words: Maury furnished the brains, England gave the money, and I did the work."

The story of the remaining years of Maury's life is for the most part painful and can be briefly told. The Civil War came and was for him a tragic experience. It blasted his career and obscured his fame with a suddenness such as has rarely come even with death.

Maury had no liking for slavery. In a letter written to a favorite cousin in 1851 he suggested the joy that would be his if the people of Virginia would rise up and say: "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in Virginia. . . . It would relieve our own loved Virginia of that curse." When the war clouds were hovering low, he was not blind to what was about to follow nor lacking in efforts toward averting the break. Pathetic in the extreme are the letters he wrote at this time to the governor of Pennsylvania and others, appealing to one of the Northern states to "step forth as mediator between the sections." When all had failed, Maury, like Lee, thought that his duty was to Virginia, and he resigned his commission. The step was in no sense by ambition, for no rank or assignment had been offered him in the Confederate service. In fact both the Southern president and the secretary of the navy had shown several times in their previous relations with him, when they held office under the government, that they were somewhat hostile. Moreover, in the field of research, where his interest especially lay, he had everything to lose and nothing to gain.

 p125  Maury's first detail in the Confederacy was as "Chief of the Seacoast, Harbor, and River Defenses of the South." In this his principal service consisted in inventing a torpedo and in mining the James River and other waters. Copper wire, rubber, and other necessary materials were extremely hard to procure. Nevertheless Maury got his work under way and would undoubtedly have furnished a terrible menace to the Union naval forces if the Confederate government had not suddenly interrupted his work and, without consulting him, ordered him to Europe as the purchasing agent of torpedo material. Maury was probably the leading expert of the world in torpedo warfare, and the transfer to a duty which could easily have been intrusted to a junior officer can be attributed only to an old‑time hostility. The move was assuredly providential from the standpoint of the Union cause. Because of torpedoes the North lost a ship in the James River, one at Charleston, and one in Mobile Bay; further, through dread of mines ships were kept out of certain waters; but this was nothing in comparison with what would have happened if Maury had been there to supervise the preparing and planting of mines.

Maury's stay in England during the last three years of the war was a sad exile. His health was poor, and he was sick at heart. At the close of the war he proposed going back and yielding himself up as a prisoner of war. But friends, both in the North and South, urged against this course. There continued in the North an especial bitterness against him; and even Charles Francis Adams, the United States minister to England, remarked, "all his friends should advise him against going back to the United States yet." While waiting for the amnesty proclamation he went to Mexico and  p126 then returned to England. In Paris and London he was employed by various of the leading governments of Europe to give courses instructing their officers in defensive sea‑mining and the electric torpedo.

It was at this time that the venerable University of Cambridge conferred upon Maury, Tennyson, and Max Müller, all on the same occasion, the degree of LL.D. It is hard to conceive a finer characterization of him than that given when he was presented for this distinguished honor:

I present to you Matthew Fontaine Maury, who while serving in the American Navy did not permit the clear edge of his mind to be dulled, or his ardor for study to be dissipated, by the variety of his professional labors, or by his continual change of place, but who, by the attentive observation of the course of the winds, the climate, the currents of the seas and oceans, acquired those materials for knowledge, which afterwards in leisure, while he presided over the Observatory in Washington, he systematized in charts and in a book — charts which are now in the hands of all seamen, and a book which has carried the fame of its author into the most distant countries of the earth. Nor is he merely a high authority in nautical science. He is also a pattern of noble manners and good morals, because in the guidance of his own life he has always shown himself a brave and good man. When that cruel civil war in America was imminent, this man did not hesitate to leave home and friends, a place of high honor and an office singularly adapted to his genius — to throw away, in one word, all the goods and gifts of fortune — that he might defend and sustain the cause which seemed to him the just one. "The victorious cause pleased the gods," and now perhaps, as victorious causes will do, it pleases the majority of men, and yet no one can withhold his admiration from the man who, though numbered among the vanquished, held his faith pure and unblemished at the price of poverty and exile.

 p127  About the same time Napoleon III offered to Maury the office of director of the French Imperial Observatory; but a general amnesty having been proclaimed in America, he preferred to return to his own country. At once the University of the South at Sewanee wanted him to become the head of that institution, but he declined in order to accept the chair of Meteorology at the Virginia Military Institute. We should be interested to know what determined the scientist who had known world honors to accept what many regarded as a very humble position. It is safe to say that no small consideration was the opportunity of again living in his beloved Virginia and of being in close proximity to his old friend General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Robert E. Lee, who had lately accepted the rector­ship of Washington (Washington and Lee) University, the grounds of which are contiguous to those of the Virginia Military Institute in the small town of Lexington. Here he spent the closing five years of his life.

A strange life was Maury's; and it is only in our day that the country is revising the severe judgment passed upon him because he left the flag and joined fortunes with the Confederacy. If his judgment was at fault, it should not blind us to his attainments and his great service to the navy.

"A dull life, but a fairly easy living," was the rather common idea of what the navy offered when Maury entered the service. To him it was neither. He did not appear at a time when opportunities for winning fame were thrust upon midshipmen, but his spirit was so eager and active that he was not content merely with doing the duty assigned and doing it well; he was constantly turning over in his mind possible improvements in the navy and in nautical science. In an  p128 address at the University of Virginia he referred to this habit as a rule of life to which he attributed a large degree of success: "Never to let the mind be idle for want of useful occupation, but always to have in reserve subjects of thought or study for the leisure moments and the quiet hours of the night."

Maury thought in his leisure moments, and he outlined the system of naval education which, in its main essentials, is still followed at our Naval Academy. He thought again, and he devised his Wind and Current Charts showing the shortest and safest routes, in the preparation of which he got the world to coöperate. He thought further, on all kinds of subjects, such as the Atlantic cable, Weather Bureau reports for farmers, trans-American railways, and the Panama Canal. His judgment was nearly always good; and his mental processes were so clear and logical that he enlisted the coöperation of multitudes, either to supply material for what he was constructing or themselves to build on what he suggested. Happily, too, Maury in his thinking did not make the mistake, so common to those who ponder long on deep and abstruse matters, of overemphasizing material research at the expense of spiritual power. Nature was to him an absorbing study because he saw in it the working out of God's law and purpose.

Though painfully reminded many times early in his career that he had not had the advantages of college training or even a fair common-school education, Maury stands in the front rank of American scientists. He never could have accomplished the great work he did but for the navy, of which he was a part; it was in the performance of duty in the navy that he hit upon his great mission as pathfinder of the seas, and it was by means of the support and coöperation primarily  p129 of the American Navy that he accomplished the accurate and far‑reaching results. He had organized for scientific research scarcely less than the entire navy.

Maury was an idealist. He thought long and carefully before he decided on what were "rules," but when he had accepted them he held to them very tenaciously. There was a certain "rule of conduct" of his own framing which repeatedly appeared in the introduction to successive editions of his "Sailing Directions to accompany the Wind and Current Charts"; it admirably expresses the ideal of true science:

To keep the mind unbiased by theories and speculations; never to have any wish that an investigation would result in favor of this view, in preference to that, and never to attempt by premature speculation to anticipate the results of investigation, but always to trust to the observations.

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