The Library of Virginia
U.S. Exploring Expedition
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United States Exploring Expedition. During the Year 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Under the Command of Charles Wilkes, U.S.N. . . . Atlas to volume 7. Philadelphia: Printed by C. Sherman, 1849.

The United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 was the largest and most successful scientific enterprise undertaken by the federal government to that time. Under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, of the United States Navy, the explorers mapped portions of the South Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Northwest, Polynesia, and the Antarctic Ocean, becoming the first Americans to venture into the south polar region. The expedition's members collected thousands of geological, botanical, and zoological specimens and made the largest contribution to scientific knowledge of any American enterprise to that date. The specimens that the explorers brought back to the United States became the nucleus of the collections of the then- new Smithsonian Institution.

Congress ordered that the explorers and a team of scientists publish the findings in a limited edition of one hundred copies. Originally planned as a twenty-four-volume work, four of the volumes were never printed and a fifth never officially distributed; a fire at the printing house destroyed a portion of the press run of several of the other volumes. Per the instructions of Congress, Virginia received a nineteen-volume set of the extremely rare and magnificent compilation, which has been part of the Library of Virginia's collections ever since. The engravings are especially noteworthy. The illustration of sea anemones is from James D. Dana's analysis of the small creature, printed in 1849 in the atlas to volume seven in the set. The atlas completely revolutionized scientific understanding of zoophytes, the invertebrate animals such as sea anemones, coral, and sponges.