John Mercer Brooke

John Mercer Brooke

John Mercer Brooke (December 18, 1826 December 14, 1906) was an American sailor, engineer, scientist, and educator. He was instrumental in the creation of the Transatlantic Cable, and was a noted marine and military innovator.

Early life and career

John M. Brooke was born in Fort Brooke (modern-day Tampa), Florida. He was related to Congressman John Francis Mercer. His father was an army officer, General George Mercer Brooke, who died in San Antonio, Texas. He was a kinsman of General Dabney Herndon Maury as well as Virginia governor Robert Brooke.

Brooke graduated from one of the earliest classes of the United States Naval Academy[1] and became a lieutenant in the United States Navy in 1855. He worked for many years with Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury at the United States Naval Observatory (USNO), charting the stars as well as assisting in taking soundings of the ocean's bottom to determine the shape of the sea floor. Many believed the sea floor was flat, but all previous soundings as deep as eleven miles (18 km) could not find the ocean bottom. Part of this was due to powerful undercurrents far below, rivers in the ocean traveling in various directions. In the struggles with soundings, which nobody had done anything of value at great depths, it was Maury's failure with a unique device he invented that gave Brooke an idea of taking deep sea soundings. Brooke perfected a "deep-sea sounding device" which was used afterwards by navies of the world until modern times and modern equipment replaced it. At Maury's direction, Brooke also added a "core-sampling device" for taking samples of the material of the sea floor.

Brooke's deep-sea sounding and core-sampling device

The outcome was a cannonball with a hollow tube through the center of it — a tube coated on the inside so as not to contaminate the samples. Studying this seafloor material with his microscope, Maury saw something that fascinated him. A sample was sent to Jacob Whitman Bailey at the United States Military Academy, who in November 1853 responded:

"I was greatly delighted to find that all these deep soundings are filled with microscopic shells; not a particle of sand or gravel exists in them. They are chiefly made up of perfect little calcareous shells (Foraminifera) and contain, also, a small number of silicious shells (Diatomaceae). It is not probable that these animals lived at the depths where these shells are found, but I rather think that they inhabit the waters near the surface; and when they die, their shells settle to the bottom."[2]


The inference in all of this is that the area where the samples came from was the "telegraphic plateau" as called by Maury who had sent out ships to sound those depths at two hundred mile intervals from Newfoundland to Ireland. Maury had charted the underwater mountain ridge. The microscopic organisms left the sea floor on this "telegraphic plateau" were deep and soft so that the area was that of a long mountain chain with the top of those underwater mountains having a firm and soft coating of these dead organisms. This meant that the area was deep enough that no ship's anchor nor any fisherman's net would drag the area. The fact that there was no abrasion on these minute organisms meant that there were no strong currents in that area at that depth. Soon after publishing this, Cyrus West Field wrote to Maury of the USNO on the feasibility of laying a transatlantic cable and was given a positive reply and later details explanation face to face. Cyrus Field also contacted Samuel Morse regarding the feasibility of transmitting an electric current a distance of 1,600 miles (2,600 km) underwater. Again, Field was given an affirmative and soon visited Morse. Cyrus Field continued contacting these two men, Maury and Morse, gathering all possible information and offered them shares in his great adventure that would become a reality in 1858 when the Queen of the United Kingdom communicated with President Buchanan in Morse code through the transatlantic cable.[3][4]

Later career

As an expert in maritime surveys, he participated in exploratory missions in the Pacific. He had a role in the counseling and instruction of officers of the nascent Japanese Navy. In Japan, he was a technical adviser aboard the Japanese steamer Kanrin Maru, and he helped sail the ship to the United States in February 1860. He was accompanied by Japanese representatives aboard the Powhatan.

In 1861, Brooke resigned from the U.S. Navy to join the Confederate Navy. He was involved in the conversion of the frigate USS Merrimack into the ironclad CSS Virginia. He was also instrumental in the development of a new rifled gun for the Navy that became known as the Brooke rifle.[5] In 1862, he was promoted to commander, and in 1863, to Chief of the Confederate Navy's Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, until the end of the war. He was instrumental in the organization and establishment of the Confederate States Naval Academy.[1]

After the war, he became a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, at Lexington, Virginia. He retired in Lexington in 1899. He died there in 1906 and is buried in its Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.

Family life

John Mercer Brooke's parents were George Mercer Brooke, b. 1785 (Va.) and Lucy Thomas.

John Mercer Brooke married:

  1. Mary Elizabeth Selden Garnett, b. 1 Mar 1826 who died. They had one daughter named Anna Maria Brooke, b. 12 Dec 1856 who never married.
  2. Catherine Carter "Kate" Corbin, the widow of Alexander Swift "Sandie" Pendleton kia September 22, 1864.

John Mercer Brooke and Catherine Carter "Kate" Corbin of Moss Neck Manor (and widow of Sandie Pendleton) married on 14 Mar 1871 at St. George's Episcopal Church (Fredericksburg, Virginia). John and "Kate" had three children:--

  1. George Mercer Brooke II b. 17 May 1875 (Father of George Mercer Brooke, Jr.)
  2. Rosa Johnston Brooke, b. 1876
  3. Richard Corbin Brooke, b. 1878

John Mercer Brooke and Catherine Carter "Kate" Corbin-Pendelton-Brooke are buried beside each other in the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, Lexington, VA


The US Navy honored his career by naming the first ship of a new class of Destroyer Escort / Fast Frigate ships in his name. USS BROOKE - DEG-1 (Later renamed FFG-1)

Further reading



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