Captain goes down with his ship


It was Nov. 29, 1929. On the ship’s deck stood James Percy Ault, captain, magnetician, navigator of the oceans for more than 13 years.

He was watching as his crew refueled the ship he commanded, the Carnegie, in Apia Harbor, Samoan Islands.

The ship, built in 1909 and owned by the Carnegie Institute, served to study the sea.

The Carnegie was built differently than other ships: not one ounce of magnetic material made up her hull. Her motor, a 150-horse power motor, was built of nonmagnetic material.

The ocean calm was suddenly shaken by an explosion within the ship. Ault, a graduate of Baker University, was thrust into the sea, dead. The Carnegie caught fire and burned itself beyond salvage.

Before the days of the Carnegie, Ault was a student, a teacher and an adventurer. His parents moved to Baldwin City to enroll their children, both male and female, in Baker University.

“All the Ault kids went to Baker,” University Archivist Brenda Day said. “Their family moved here to put the family through school. They were all brilliant.”

James Percy Ault, Day said, was the most brilliant of all.

“He was the most successful. He worked his way up to make it to captain,” she said. “He was inspired to do more things than he ever thought possible.”

Through the help of his physics teacher, Ault was able to get involved with the Carnegie Institute where he eventually received $1 million and a chance to command the ship.

“There were students in a variety of interests who were recognized and often given advanced positions such as those in U.S. government,” former University Archivist Harold Kolling said. “The Ault family had a lot of academic interests. James Percy was more interested in the field of physics.”

Because of his interest, Ault eventually sailed the seas, conducting oceanographic investigations as well as surveying the magnetic and electric fields in the ocean.

“To me, I look at him and see everything you want to see in someone – he was adventurous, passionate,” Day said. “He was one of those people you just look at and say, ‘I want to be like that.'”