• Back to Encyclopedia Arctica homepage

    Silas Bent

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0122                                                                                                                  
    April 19, 1949


            By [V?]S

    Copy to [Alright

    on AGS


            Silas Bent (Oct. 10, 1820 - Aug. 26, 1887), naval officer and

    oceanographer, was in his day North America's protagonist of an ice-free

    polar sea. Born in South [ ?] St. Louis, the son of Judge Silas Bent

    and Martha (Kerr) Bent, he rose in the U.S. Navy from midshipman at six–

    teen to Lieutenant twenty-five years later. Various cruises familiarized

    him with many seas and gave him opportunity for oceanographic study. He

    rounded Cape Horn four times and the Cape of Good Hope once; he crossed

    the Atlantic five times and the Pacific twice. In 1849 he was with the

    U.S. Brig Preble in the harbor of Nagasaki when she succeeded in securing

    the release of eighteen shipwrecked American sailors who had been impris–

    oned by the Japanese. He was flag lieutenant aboa r d Commodore Matthew C.

    Perry's Mississippi on the Japan Expedition of 1852-54, and took part

    in hydrographic surveys the results of which are found in Sailing Directions

    and Nautical Remarks: by Officers of the Late U.S. Naval Expedition to Japan

    (1857). His paper "Report on the Kuro-Siwo or Gulf Stream of the North

    Pacific Ocean" was printed in Perry's Narrative of the Expedition of an

    American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, 1856

            Reports and theories of an open polar sea were much in the news and

    in the books of the period. The theories gained an ascendency over Bent,

    who read a confirmation of them into his own observations, especially those

    made during his voyages with Perry's squadron back and forth in the North


            In 1860 Bent was detailed to the Hydrographic Division of the Coast

    Survey of the United States; but he soon resigned because of his sympathies were

    002      |      Vol_XV-0123                                                                                                                  
    Silas Bent

    with the Confederacy. When he entered business in the city of St. Louis

    he did not lose interest in oceanography. On December 10, 1868, he deli–

    vered to the St. Louis Historical Society a discourse, "Thermometric Gate–

    ways to the Pole," and deliver e d it again, changed, lengthened, and titled

    "Thermal Paths to the Pole," before the St. Louis Mercantile Library Asso–

    ciation on January 6, 1872. These addresses were published as pamphlets at

    St. Louis in 1869 and in 1872.

            Basing himself on his own observations, and on the reports of

    polar explorers like Kaneand Hayes, and partly on writings of oceanogra–

    phers of the time, especially Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, Bent

    urged that tremendous quantities of warm water flow north from the tro–

    pics through both Atlantic and Pacific to enter the Polar SEa, the Pacific

    current by way of Bering Strait, the Atlantic by way of the gap between

    Iceland and Norway. Thus, he argued, such a quantity of warmth was car–

    ried north that although there was a great deal of ice in the Polar Sea

    the two currents, when they eventually joined up in the vicinity of the

    North Pole, would pool their heat so effectively that there resulted an

    ice-free space several hundred miles across.

            Bent considered that ships might attain this ice-free area, the

    Open Polar Sea, by following the course of one of the warm currents, a

    "Thermal Path to the Pole," either northeasterly from Bering Straits and

    then northerly, or northeasterly and northerly from Iceland. He considered

    that all past expeditions had made the fun a damental mistake of fighting the

    ice-laden currents that flow south from the Arctic Sea — they had failed

    to take advantage of relatively narrow but available channels created by

    the northeastward flow of the warm water and had instead persisted in

    steering north either too far east or too far west, where they met the

    003      |      Vol_XV-0124                                                                                                                  
    Silas Bent

    ice moving south.

            In his 1872 lecture Bent tells that he took part in a number of

    voyages across the Pacific, studying the current of that sea, and that he

    finally came to a view clear in his mind as to how the warm waters of the

    Pacific, although some of them turn around within that ocean and move south

    again, nevertheless enter the ARctic through Bering Strait in considera–

    ble volume. This result arrived at, he drew broad conclusions. We quote

    from page 16 of the 1872 edition:

            "Just as the work (of studying the Perry Expedition records) was

    completed upon these currents in the North Pacific, in 1855, the news was

    received in the United States that Dr. Kane had discovered an open sea

    near the Pole, and people began to ask how that could be possible, when it

    was well known that a belt or region of ice several hundred miles in width

    must lie to the south of that sea, and which was never dissolved.

            "The charts were upon my ta l ble, at which I was daily at work,

    showing the Gulf Stream and the Kuro-Siwo . . . with their warm branches

    or forks extending by Spitsbergen and Behring's Straits, and perfectly

    determined in both their width and direction as far as this ice belt is

    supposed to exist. Now applying the axiom in the physical science of the

    sea, as laid down by Maury, 'that whenever a current or stream of water

    is found flowing from any point in the ocean, other streams, or currents

    of equal volume must flow to that point,' and knowing that immense cur–

    rents flowed constantly down from the Arctic Ocean by every avenue openi g ng

    into the Atlantic and the Pacific, except along the pathways of these north–

    ern forks of the Gulf St r eam and Kuro-Siwo, it was almost impossible that

    the idea should not occur to my mind that these were the streams that not

    only carried this excess of water to the Pole, but also that the warmth they

    004      |      Vol_XV-0125                                                                                                                  
    Silas Bent

    carried with them was the direct cause of this open sea and that their

    paths through the ice-belt offer the only highways for ships to that sea;

    and I so sta e t ed it in my official report on the Kuro-Siwo to Commodore


            "Dr. Kane called at my office in New York on his return from this

    expedition in 1855, and I suggested to him that the open sea he had dis–

    covered most likely owed its existence to the Gulf Stream and the Kuro–

    Siwo. He seemed impressed by the facts presentedto him,and in his narra–

    tive, vol. 1, p. 309, admits, not only the possibility of such being the

    case, but speaks of it as being altogether likely."

            Bent now relates how he put his views before the American Geogra–

    phical and Statistical Society of New York through a letter to its presi–

    dent, Charles P. Daly and through attached memoranda. Daly at first ap–

    peared friendly to the Bent theory and promised in a letter that he would

    place it before the Society. Later, according to the way Bent analyzed

    it, Judge Daly came under the influence of Dr. Isaac I. Hayes, (q.v.) who

    agreed with Bent as to the existence of an Open Polar Sea, but who did

    not like Bent's view that the best route north to the open sea around the

    Pole lay through the gap between Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya. According

    to Bent, Hayes was already committed to the use of the route north between

    Greenland and Ellesmere Is k l and as an [ ?] avenue to the Open Polar Sea and did

    not want the public to become interested in a possibly [ ?] better route ly–

    ing farther east. So, Bent says, Hayes used his influence on Daly to get

    the Thermal Pathway hypothesis withheld from the Society.

            However, through various interventions of different menwhich Bent

    describes, his views were eventually placed before the Society, when they

    received a rather favorable reception, says Bent, in spite of the handicap

    005      |      Vol_XV-0126                                                                                                                  
    Silas Bent

    that Judge Daly was derogatory when he presented them.

            In his 1872 lecture Bent has a digression upon the fateful power

    over the climate of Europe which is possessed by the countries of the New

    World. For, says Bent, a narrow breach could easily be made through the

    Isthmus of Panama, whereupon the oceanitself would do the rest, widening

    theoriginal sea-level ditch into a broad strait so the Gulf Stream, in–

    stead of recoiling upon itself from the isthmian barrier and swinging

    past the [ ?] tip of Florida northeastward to pass Britain and Norway, would now

    rush westward into the Pacific. Then northern and central Europe would revert

    to what Bent calls its natural climate, the climate which they would have if

    there were no warm cur r ents in the North Atlantic, one similar to that of [ ?]

    northern Canada and Labrador. Bent says that of course this scheme is so

    cruel that nobody is ever going to carry it out.

            The final [ ?] paragraph of Bent's lecture of January 6, 1872 reads:

            "I therefore again --reiterate the convicti o ns expressed in my com–

    munications to the President of the Geographical Society of New York in1868,

    and which are the same, 6 substantially, that I expressed to Dr. Kane, in my

    office, in the winter of 1855-56: 'That the Gulf Stream and Kuro-Siwo are

    the prime and only cause of the open sea about the Pole, with its tempera–

    ture so much above that due to the latitude; that the only [ ?] practicable

    avenues by which ships can reach that sea, and thence to the Pole, is by

    followin g the warm waters of these streams into that sea; that to find

    and follow these streams, the water thermometer is the only guide, and that

    for this reason, they may be justly termed 'THE THERMOMETRIC GATEWAYS TO THE


            The 1872 pamphlet which carries the lecture has a 2-page appendix

    devoted to a dispatch to the Hydrogr a phic Office of the United States Navy

    006      |      Vol_XV-0127                                                                                                                  
    Silas Bent

    from Lts. Weyprecht and Payer, commanders of the Austro-Hungarian expedition.

    The dispatch is from Tromsö, Norway, the autumn of 1872. As interpreted by

    Bent it is to the effect that the expedition, which was then exploring that

    area, considered that with somewhat better luck, particularly if there had been

    less fog, they would have been able that summer to reach the Open Polar Sea in

    the region northeast of Spitsbergen. We quote from this dispatch.

            "At midnight of the 1st of September we attained, within loose drift

    ice, our highest latitude, by thelog, in 78° 48′ N. . . . . .

            "It now remained a question whether the region thus free of ice, tra–

    versed by us, was only a bight in the ice, or an open Polar Sea. We believed

    it to be the latter.

            "Two weeks after this discovery by Payer and Weyprecht, KCaptain Mack,

    a Norwegian, in another small fishing vessel, ran about three hundred miles

    to the eastward in this open sea without encountering ice; thus showing that

    they had completely pierced the ice-belt on the path of the Gulf Stream, and

    were fully within the OPEN POLAR SEA - the periphery of which at this part,

    you will observe, extends further south than my map hypothetically represents

    it, and wh i ch gives to that sea a larger diameter on the axes of the Gulf Stream

    and Kuro-Siwo than I had supposed it to have."

            Instead of be i ng lonely and peculiar in thinking that an open sea around

    the North Pole had been seen, Bent was really in tune with his time. The

    writings of some of the most famous contemporary theoretical geographers show

    them of a similar opinion. The field explorers also shared thse views, as

    demonstrated by the title THE OPEN POLAR SEA which Isaac Hayes gave in 1867 to

    a book that carries both his testimony as an eye witness and his conclusions

    as a scientist.

    007      |      Vol_XV-0128                                                                                                                  
    Silas Bent

            How widely and vividly popular such theories were in the eighteen seven–

    ties is difficult to realize in the nineteen fifties. The Open Polar Sea had

    captured and held in thrall the imagination of Europe and the United States.

    One sign of the popular demand for speculation and information is found in

    the circum a stance that a single one of its many advocates, Professor T.B.

    Maury, published in one year (between December, 1869 and October, 1870) five

    articles on Silas Bent and the iceless sea around the Pole in leading maga–

    zines of the time — three in Putnam's , one in the Atlantic and one in

    Appleton's . In the United States the inspiration for such articles derived

    largely from two men, Matthew Fontaine Maury (q.v.) and Silas Bent. Prof.

    Maury says in "The New American Polar Expedition and its Hopes" which ap–

    peared in the Atlantic Monthly for October 1870:

            "The Congress of the United States, during the late session, voted

    a large appropriation for an Arctic Expedition, to be sent out at once under

    the direction of the President of the United States and the Secretary of the


            According to Prof. [ ?] Maury this expedition was going to use, or

    at least ought to use, Bent's idea of "Thermometric Gateways to the Pole."

    Its course should be shaped to follow either of the two avenues melted through

    the drifting ice which had been theoretically deduced [ ?] by Silas Bent, as

    explained above, running northeasterly and northerly from BeringStrait or

    from Iceland toward the Pole. Professor Maury says:

            "Captain [Matthew Fontaine] Maury, considering only the stream is–

    suing at Florida, thus reasons: 'The miximum temperature of the Gulf Stream

    is 86°, or about 9°, above the ocean temperature due at the latitude. Increa–

    sing its latitude 10°, it loses but 2° of temperature, and having run three

    thousand miles to the north, it still preserves, even in winter, the heat of

    008      |      Vol_XV-0129                                                                                                                  
    Silas Bent [ ?]

    [ ?] summer. The heat it discharges over the Atlantic in a winter's day would be

    sufficient to raise the whole volume of atmosphere that rests upon France

    and the British Isles from the freezing point to summer heat. A simple calcu–

    lation will show that the quantity of heat daily carried off by the Gulf Stream,

    from the regions of Central America and Mexico, and discharged over the Atlan–

    tic, is sufficient to raise moun a t ains of iron [ ?] from zero to the melting

    point, and to keep in flow from them a molten stream of metal greater in

    volume than the waters daily discharged from the Mississippi River.' . . .

            "The asix axis of the Gulf Stream, according to Lieutenant Bache's Coast

    Survey, lies 80 miles from Charleston and . . . . 240 miles from Nantucket.

    If we run a great circle through these points, and extend it in the Polar

    Basin, we shall find that it enters the Arctic Ocean between Spitzbergen and

    Nova Zembla."

            It was this current, and its only slightly lesser brother the Japan

    Current, which Silas Bent relied upon to create the Open Polar Sea. In this

    reliance he was orthodox for his day. But he outlived the popularity of his

    theory though he did not quite see its demise. The Navy of the United States,

    Yankee whalers, and a confederate raider pursuing them, went north through

    Bering Straits without finding a northeastward pathway melted out for them by

    the Kuro-Siwo towards the Pole. Expeditions of various nations had similar for–

    tune north and north e ast of the gap between Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya in

    seeking the Thermal Path the Gulf Stream was to cleave through the ice in

    that direction.

            Of the antipodal theories, that the North Pole stood in an Open Polar

    Sea or on an Arctic Continent, the continental one proved more tenacious. Many

    still believed in the Continent through few believed in the Sea when Bent died at

    Shelter Island, New York, August 26, 1887. He was buried at Louisville, Kentucky.


    Vilhjalmur Stefansson

    Back to top