I’m a little surprised, frankly, that I’m four years into this blog and I’ve never mentioned this book. I saw it on the shelf the other day at a used book store, and I can’t believe I haven’t told you about it.
This is the story of an uber-geek named Tommy Thompson who bets the the house on finding the Central America, a steamer that went down in rough seas in 1857 carrying a lot of gold.
The book really digs into the technology behind how they found this ship, from the towable sonar arrays to the remote submersible vehicles to the floating work platform with little thrusters to keep is exactly stationed over the work site, almost two miles below. It’s intoxicating how they put everything together to find the ship.
Even more interesting is Tommy Thompson himself — a guy who isn’t a treasure hunter by trade, but who’s determined to find the ship just to prove he can. There’s a great chapter early on where he takes bits and pieces of information reported from the Central America and other sources on the fateful night, then builds a matrix of this information to determine where other searchers have gone wrong (see below for more on this). You get the feeling that finding the ship takes a temporary back seat to Thompson’s intellectual triumph.
Thompson is utterly inspiring for people like us. In a section on his earlier life, the author explains how Thompson’s goal was to always have about 10 research projects underway at any given time. When he (1) discovered what he needed, or (2) found that his project was unworkable, he would remove that from his current project list and rotate another one in.
I love this, because I work in much the same way, though not as formally (discussed in perhaps the most famous post on this blog). At any given time, I have a half-dozen or side ideas that are percolating below the surface, and every once in a while, I sit down to try and prove or disprove one. (The attempt usually ends with Joe telling me to knock it off and get back to work…but sometimes I accomplish something worthwhile.)
While Googling for the book to get an image of the cover, I found this Web site about the Central America. Oddly, I can’t find a reference to the book, but there’s a great deal of history about the ship, the quest to find it, and the legal battles that ensued once the treasure was located. According to the contact page, the site is run by a financial company.
I also found this site, which may be a little more official. Thompson talks about himself in the first person here, so the site may be his own. On a page about the search, he discusses the search matrix we mentioned above:
Bob and I compiled extensive passenger and crew information into what we termed a “data correlation matrix.” On a 12-by-12-foot sheet of paper we entered every comment, every observation, every fact that might offer some insight as to where the ship might have been when it disappeared beneath the waves.
We took the matrix to Dr. Lawrence D. Stone, one of the world’s leading experts on search theory, a method using probability and statistical analysis to find objects, particularly in the ocean. He had helped locate the US nuclear submarine Scorpion lost in the Atlantic in 1968 and was impressed with the information we had gathered about the Central America.
Although no one had previously applied search theory to a historical database like our matrix, Larry proceeded to create thousands of computerized models of possible sinking scenarios based on variables such as the Central America’s last known coordinates, the hurricane’s probibly wind speed and direction, and likely ocean currents at the time of the disaster. Ultimately, he came up with a 1400 square mile search area (larger than the state of Rhode Island).
I’ve decided to sit down and read this book again — it’s that good. I’d also like to apologize for not mentioning it until now. If you’re like me (and if you read this site faithfully, you are), then you need to read this book. I’m half-tempted to create a forum so we can all read and discuss it.
I remember finishing the book on the flight from Nassau back to Atlanta — I felt like I could solve any problem I’ve ever faced. Somewhere in the middle, the book quietly crosses the line between a historical account and an inspirational example of what someone can do when they set their mind to it and look past all the obstacles.