“Who was Major Carlos de Zafra?” by S.M. O’Connor

      Major Carlos de Zafra, Senior (1882-1967) was a naval architect, marine engineer, a businessman, and an academic in New York City who was successively a curator for the now-defunct Museum of the Peaceful Arts[1] in 1930 and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in 1931.  He was also a husband and the father of three sons, one of whom became a noted physicist.   His sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have continued and built upon his legacy with contributions to public service, science, and education.   

      Born in New York City[2] Carlos de Zafra graduated from New York University in 1904.[3]  As a sophomore, he was News Editor, and later Associate Editor, of The Triangle, the successor publication to The University Item.  While he was a student, Scientific American Supplement published his article “The Cultivation of Tobacco in Connecticut” on January 25, 1902.  He was also an active acrobat in that period. 

     On December 10, 1906, he filed a patent for an explosive projectile.[4]  Subsequently, he received Patent #863,248 on August 13, 1907.  This must have remained an interest of his for some time.  In 1915, while Carlos De Zafra, M.E., was a lecturer at New York University, he wrote The Development of Armor-Piercing Shells (With Suggestions for their Improvement).   Two years later, he resigned his position with the Telautograph Corporation to accept a position as naval constructor with the Foundation Company, which was headquartered in the Woolworth Building in New York City.[5]

      In 1918, Charles Lincoln Seabury, an inventor of boilers and engines who had designed or built over 2,000 pleasure boats over the course of his career, became partners with Carlos de Zafra in 1918 in the firm of Seabury & De Zafra.[6]  Their headquarters was 150 Nassau Street in New York City.[7]  In the spring of 1922, Carlos de Zafra succeeded his late partner Charles L. Seabury when the Board of Seabury & de Zafra, Inc., Naval Engineers, Vessel and Insurance Brokers elected Major de Zafra to the presidency of the company.[8]  Later in 1922, Major de Zafra, then identified as a consulting naval architect and marine engineer, received an appointment to New York University’s engineering faculty in connection with the Sage Research Laboratory of Mechanical Engineering.[9]

      In 1929, he was Assistant Director of the Popular Science Institute.  He wrote at least one article for Popular Science.  “Choosing Tools to Last” was published in the March, 1929 issue.

These days, museum curators usually have advanced degrees in art history or the history of technology, but back in the 1930s art museums often hired artists to be curators and science museums often hired scientists or engineers to be curators.  With a background in academia, business, and writing about technology, Major de Zafra had exactly the right kind of resume to become a curator for major new science museums in New York City and Chicago.

      In 1930, Major de Zafra joined the curatorium of the Museum of the Peaceful Arts to plan the Marine Transportation Section.  He likely wrote the article “A Museum of Marine Transportation” that was published in Motor Boating in November of 1930.

      The Museum of the Peaceful Arts, founded by the late Henry R. Towne and recently considerably enlarged in its new quarters at 220 East 42nd Street, is now providing for a new Marine Transportation Section which is expected will ultimately become one of the world’s most important maritime museums.  Here will be found model ships showing the development in naval architecture from the ancient log dugout to the present transatlantic grayhound.[10]

      Major Carlos de Zafra has been commissioned to prepare the Marine Section, which it is planned to publicly open about March 1 [of 1931].  He will be interested in hearing from any who have models exceptional historical interest or value which they would like to see permanently housed where they may be of educational value and interest to the public.[11]


Figure 1 Credit: Dorothea de Zafra Atwell Caption: Dorothea de Zafra Atwell kindly shared this undated photo Major Carlos de Zafra, Senior. Mrs. Atwell shared this quote about her grandfather at the end of an article about his work on the water transportation department at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago from the December 2, 1931 issue of the New York University alumni magazine.  “…He holds a Commission of Major in the Ordnance reserves and is assigned as Chief of the Testing Laboratory Section of the New Ordnance District.  Prof. de Zafra was on the Instruction Staff at the Ordnance Reserve officers camp at the Aberdeen (Md.) proving ground the past two summers conducting the advance course in Mobile Artillery.”[12]

In mid-1931, upon the resignation Fred A. Lippold as Curator of Shipbuilding & Navigation at the Museum of Science and Industry, Major de Zafra, Professor of Engineering at New York University, agreed to become Curator of Shipbuilding & Navigation on a short-term basis.  Thus, he helped develop one of the M.S.I.’s oldest exhibits. [Now called the Ships Gallery, presented by Captain Dave Truitt, which officially opened to the public on the Lower Level (ground floor) of the M.S.I.’s West Gallery on Thursday, November 10, 2016.] He seems to have written the short article about the exhibit of model ships, “Exhibits Show Development of Water Transportation,” that was published in Marine Review.

THE Museum of Science and Industry, founded by Julius Rosenwald in Chicago, has recognized the importance of water transportation as an agent of civilization by providing approximately 22,000 square feet of its floor space for depicting the developments of shipbuilding and navigation. This space is being divided into twelve sections, as follows: Primitive craft, evolution of the sail ship, evolution of the merchant steamer, development of lake and ocean freighters, inland water transportation, shipbuilding, development of ship propulsion, ship interiors and interior equipment, deck and miscellaneous accessories, navigation, marine industries, pleasure craft, yachts, etc.[12]

In the presentation of over 225 models which will comprise the various exhibits, modern ideas in museum setting will be carried out to the full extent. Many of the exhibits will be so arranged that they may be operated by the visitor. For instance, a model of the six-masted schooner William L. Douglas will be mounted on a marine railway which will travel back and forth so that the visitor may see just how vessels are hauled out on such railways for under-water repairs. Likewise a floating dry dock will rise and lift a steamship out of the water or lower it to floating position. Models of various life saving devices will likewise be operated by the visitor and numerous dioramas will educate him in the differences between the methods of towing on the Mississippi river and the deep water towing along the Atlantic coast.[13]

There will be a full-sized replica of a small sailing ship on which the visitor may go aboard to see how the sailor lives surrounded by the various equipment to be found in the fo’castle. There will be a pilot house in which the visitor may simulate the steering of a ship by turning the steering wheel which will cause reactions similar to those of a ship responding to the helm.[14]

The marine section of the Museum of Science and Industry is under the curatorship of Major Carlos de Zafra, formerly consulting naval architect with the late Charles L. Seabury, who has had considerable experience in maritime displays and who has secured a leave of absence from the engineering department of the New York university to give his entire time to the planning of this section of the museum.[15]

      On Wednesday, April 22, 1936, Major Carlos de Zafra, Professor of Engineering at New York University and former Curator of Shipbuilding & Navigation at the M.S.I., delivered a speech entitled “Public Education through the New Technique of the Industrial Museum” for the Andiron Club of New York.  In it, he covered the Musée des Arts et Métiers (Museum of Arts and Crafts) of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts) in Paris, the Deutsches Museum von Meisterwerken der Naturwissenschaft und Technik (German Museum of Masterpieces of Science and Technology),[16] and the M.S.I.

Major de Zafra obtained the mast from Shamrock IV, the racing yacht of Sir Thomas Johnstone Lipton, 1st Baronet (1848-1936), as the Battery Hill Memorial flagpole as a gift to New York University from the Class of 1904.[18]  A self-made man, Sir Thomas Lipton was a Scotch-Irish merchant, brilliant self-promoter, sportsman, and philanthropist and whom King Edward VII made a Knight Commander and a baronet, presented it himself.  [His father had owned a small shop in Glasgow, but after he a stint as a sailor that allowed him to save up enough money to come to America, he learnt how American department store founders[19] were revolutionizing the retail trade in New York City and subsequently built a chain of grocery stores across Scotland.  However, Thomas Lipton is best remembered now for founding Lipton’s Tea (now called Lipton Tea) after a trip to a tea plantation on the isle of Ceylon in 1890 and as a yachtsman who vainly tried to win the America’s Cup with his racing yachts Shamrock in 1899, Shamrock II in 1901, Shamrock III in 1903, Shamrock IV in 1920, and Shamrock V in 1930.  The cowboy, stage and screen actor, humorist, and newspaper columnist Will Rogers (1879-1935) organized a campaign to raise money to buy a gold “loving cup” for Lipton, whom he dubbed the world’s “most cheerful loser.”  Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia (1882-1947) presented it to Sir Thomas Lipton in 1935.] The University Heights campus of New York University is now the site of Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.


      I have revised and expanded this part of Major Carlos de Zafra’s biography after his granddaughter, Dorothea de Zafra Atwell, whom I mentioned in the original version, supplied information I did not previously have about her family in the comments section, and that led to correspondence between us and additional research on my part.

      Major Carlos de Zafra was married twice and had a total of three sons, all three of whom were accomplished men.  Firstly, in 1911, he wed Mary Elizabeth Merriam (1877-1940), who had attended the Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. [17]  She was born in Rochester, New York. [18]  On her father’s side, she was descended from the Merriam family of Springfield, Massachusetts, who were famous publishers.[19]  Her mother was Elizabeth Georgina (Wolcott) Merriam, who was a descendant of Oliver Wolcott, Senior (1726-1797), one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.[20] 

      With Mary Elizabeth (Merriam) de Zafra, Carlos had his first son, Carlos de Zafra, Junior (1912-1979), who went on to become a high school teacher and prolific author. Major Carlos de Zafra, Senior, took, for his second wife, Ellen (Knox) de Zafra (1892-1984), who was ten years his junior.  She was a seamstress who worked in a design house, and they had two sons. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Roderick de Zafra, Senior (1925-1995) served in the Army Signal Corps and fought in the Korean War.  Dr. Robert Lee de Zafra (1932-2017) was a famous physicist who died at age of eighty-five in 2017.  As of the 1940 U.S. Census, fifty-seven-year-old Professor Carlos de Zafra, Sr. lived in Scarsdale, New York with forty-seven-year-old Ellen de Zafra; fourteen-year-old Charles R. de Zafra; eight-year-old Robert de Zafra; and Ellen’s parents: sixty-eight-year-old Charles Knox and sixty-two-year-old Mary Lee Knox.[21]

      Of Ellen (Knox) de Zafra, Dorothea de Zafra Atwell wrote, “I remember her well, and fondly.”[22]  Ellen had an identical twin sister, Jessica.[23]  The twin sisters were the youngest siblings in their family.[24]  After Carlos retired, he, Ellen, and Jessica purchased a vacation spot near Bar Harbor, Maine, which they operated over several summers in the 1950s.[25]  Ellen rented out rooms in the main house and cabins.[26]  Jessica was the chef for the tearoom, which served lunches, and catered events.[27]  Carlos kept the buildings in repair.[28]  They spent their winters in those years in Florida.[29] 

      During this period of his life, Dorothea de Zafra Atwell recalls, her grandfather was able to indulge in three hobbies.[30]  Firstly, he drew “finely detailed pen-and-ink landscape drawings.”[31]  Secondly, he carved or whittled “wood figures, each of which had a distinct personality.”[32]  Thirdly, he built and rigged “miniature ship models, each of which was an accurate reconstruction.”[33] Dorothea de Zafra Atwell commented, “My sister and I were in awe of Grandpa’s patience, skill, and attention to detail.”[34]

      Born in Rochester, New York, Carlos de Zafra, Jr. graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University, where he earned both his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree.  He was a high school teacher and prolific writer who published over 100 articles and three pamphlets on educational matters.  Carlos de Zafra, Jr. was proud of being descended from Oliver Wolcott.  Both Carlos de Zafra, Jr. and his wife, Dorothea (Michelsen) de Zafra (1909-2009), taught at John Marshall High School in Rochester, New York.  He taught social studies and she taught German at John Marshall High School and previously he taught in Holland, New York; in Batavia, New York; and in Benjamin Franklin High School.  In addition, he taught teaching methods in the field of social studies at the University of Rochester and elsewhere in the state.  His final teaching post was at Charlotte High School, from which he retired in 1970.  De Zafra sat on the Board of Directors of the Universalist Church of Rochester and was the founding president of the Robert Morris Council for Social Studies in Batavia.  He was survived by his wife and their two daughters: Martha Merriam de Zafra Harnish (who died in 2000) and Dorothea Elizabeth de Zafra. 

      Later, Dorothea E. de Zafra wed Wilbur Atwell.  Dorothea E. de Zafra-Atwell was Director of Science Education at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 1995 to 2002.  At her death in 2009, at the age of ninety-nine, Dorothea Michelsen de Zafra was survived by her daughter, Dorothea Elizabeth Atwell, and son-in-law, Wilbur Atwell.

      Lieutenant Colonel Charles Roderick de Zafra, Senior served in the Army Signal Corps and was wounded in the Korean War.  He and his wife, Ann Kathryn (Hunt) de Zafra (1924-1990), had one son, Charles Roderick de Zafra, Junior (1945-2012).  They also later adopted four more children.  Thus, Major Carlos de Zafra, Sr. had a total of seven grandchildren, though he did not live long enough to meet all of them.

      Born on September 16, 1945, in Northfield, Vermont, Charles Roderick (“Chuck”) de Zafra, Jr. served in the U.S. Army from 1963 to 1965 and died in Boulder, Colorado on March 7, 2012 at the age of sixty-six, having succumbed to cancer.  He was survived by his wife of forty-four years, Glenna; sons Lieutenant Colonel Charles Roderick de Zafra III (Marcie) and Aaron Anthony de Zafra (Christina); and four grandchildren: Ethan Alexander, Emily Grace, Sophie Katherine, and David Charles.  [Charles Roderick de Zafra III continued the de Zafra family tradition of service in the American Armed Forces, but he notably joined the U.S. Marine Corps rather than the U.S. Army.] Thus, Major Carlos de Zafra has at least four great-grandchildren.

      Dr. Robert Lee de Zafra received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 1958, taught at Stony Brook University for thirty-eight years, and was a resident of Setauket on Long Island.[35]   He was concerned with the rehabilitation of historical buildings and preservation of green space in Setaucket.[36]  He bought three historic properties to ensure the community maintained its character.[37]  [Setaucket was the center of the Culper Spy Ring, as depicted in the television series Turn: Washington’s Spies (2014-2017).[38]]  He resided in one of them with his second wife, Julia M. Phillips-Quagliata.[39]  In 1986, he participated in the first National Ozone Expedition to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, which Dr. Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration headed.[40] Dr. de Zafra’s group used a spectrometer he and colleagues at Stony Brook University had developed to study chlorine monoxide levels, and concluded the chemical was present in Antarctica in much higher levels than in other latitudes.[41]  The expedition concluded that chlorofluorocarbons, which were used both in refrigerants and as aerosol can propellants were responsible for the annual thinning of the ozone layer over Antarctica, the so-called hole in the ozone layer, which resulted in leaders of countries around the world hammering out the Montreal Protocol in 1987.[42]  Under this accord, governments created a timetable for companies to phase out chlorofluorocarbons in the hope that the ozone layer would then be able to heal itself, so to speak.[43] According to The New York Times obituary, Dr. de Zafra was survived by his wife, Julia.[44] He was also survived by his niece, Dorothea, the daughter of his elder half-brother, Carlos de Zafra, Jr.; as well as the children and grandchildren of his elder brother, Lt. Col. Charles Roderick de Zafra, Sr.


[1] The Museum of the Peaceful Arts later changed its name to the New York Museum of Science and Industry with the permission of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Science and Industry.

[2] We would now say he was born in the Borough of Manhattan, but he was born before the City of New York merged with Brooklyn, western Queens County, and Staten Island to form the City of Greater New York in 1898.

[3] “Gym Team Managers Elected,” The Triangle, 16 January, 1902, p. 92

[4] Patent #863,248.  The projectile was patented on August 13, 1907.

[5] “Men of the Iron Trade: Personal News of a Business Character Regarding Men of Affairs of the Industry,” Iron Trade Review, Volume 61, 9 August, 1917, p. 306

[6] “Obituaries,” Marine Review, May, 1922, p. 217

[7] Ibid

[8] “Seabury & Zafra to Enlarge,” The Nautical Gazette, 29 April 1922, p. 537

[9] “Appointed to New York University,” Motor Boat, 25 November, 1922, p. 40

[10] “A Museum of Marine Transportation,” Motor Boating, November, 1930, p. 74

[11] “A Museum of Marine Transportation,” Motor Boating, November, 1930, p. 74

[12] E-mail from Dorothea de Zafra Atwell to Seán M. O’Connor, dated June 9, A.D. 2020

[13] “Exhibits Show Development of Water Transportation,” Marine Review, November, 1931, p. 63

[14] “Exhibits Show Development of Water Transportation,” Marine Review, November, 1931, p. 63

[15] “Exhibits Show Development of Water Transportation,” Marine Review, November, 1931, p. 63

[16] “Exhibits Show Development of Water Transportation,” Marine Review, November, 1931, p. 63

[17] Please note that at the time Waldemar Kaempffert, the first Executive Director of the Museum of Science and Industry, began to bring Julius Rosenwald’s vision into reality, he translated the Deutsches Museum von Meisterwerken der Naturwissenschaft und Technik as “German Museum of Masterworks of Science and Technology” but today the institution calls itself the German Museum of Masterpieces of Science and Technology” in English-language version of its Website.

[18] E-mail from Dorothea de Zafra Atwell to Seán M. O’Connor, dated June 9, A.D. 2020

[19] His mentor was Alexander Turney Stewart (1803-1876), a fellow Scotch-Irish immigrant, who founded the department store and wholesaler, and mail-order retailer A.T. Stewart & Company, and was also a real estate investor and railroad founder.  He was one of the richest men in American history.

[20] E-mail from Dorothea de Zafra Atwell to Seán M. O’Connor, dated April 25, 2020

[21] E-mail from Dorothea de Zafra Atwell to Seán M. O’Connor, dated April 25, 2020

[22] E-mail from Dorothea de Zafra Atwell to Seán M. O’Connor, dated April 25, 2020

Brothers George Merriam (1803-1880) and Charles Merriam founded G. & C. Merriam, Inc. in 1831.  They were printers, bookbinders, and booksellers.  After the lexicographer, author, and editor Noah Webster, Junior (1758-1843) died, they purchased the rights to continue publication of his book An American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828.  In 1964, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. publishers of the Encyclopædia Britannica, purchased G. & C. Merriam, Inc. and it became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.  In 1982, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. changed the name of G. & C. Merriam, Inc. to Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.

[23] E-mail from Dorothea de Zafra Atwell to Seán M. O’Connor, dated April 25, 2020

As a representative of Connecticut in the Continental Congress, Oliver Wolcott, Senior signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Articles of Confederation in 1777.  During the American War of Independence, Wolcott also represented the Continental Congress as Commissioner of Indian Affairs and served as a major-general in the Connecticut Militia.  After the war, he was elected successively to the posts of Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut (1786-1796) and Governor of Connecticut (1796-1797) as a member of the Federalist Party. 

[24] 1940 U.S. Census

[25] E-mail from Dorothea de Zafra Atwell to Seán M. O’Connor, dated April 25, 2020

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

[32] Ibid

[33] E-mail from Dorothea de Zafra Atwell to Seán M. O’Connor, dated April 26, 2020

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid

[38] Neil Genzlinger, “Robert de Zafra, Who Made Key Findings on Ozone, Dies at 85,” The New York Times, 22 October, 2017 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/22/obituaries/robert-de-zafra-who-made-key-findings-on-ozone-dies-at-85.html) Accessed 12/20/17

[39] Ibid

[40] Ibid

[41] Ibid

[42] Ibid

[43] Ibid

[44] Ibid

[45] Ibid

[46] Ibid

[47] Ibid

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2 thoughts on ““Who was Major Carlos de Zafra?” by S.M. O’Connor

  1. Dorothea de Zafra Atwell April 17, 2020 — 11:01 pm

    Hello. I am Carlos de Zafra’s granddaughter whom you mention in the biographical addendum. I am pleased to say that I learned quite a bit about my grandfather’s professional life by finding and reading this article, but am writing to fill in significant omissions in geneology. Carlos de Zafra did indeed have two sons in his marriage to Ellen Knox, but Carlos de Zafra, Jr. (my father) was not one of them. My father was born to Major Carlos de Zafra and his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Merriam, whom he married in 1911. Sons by Major de Zafra’s second marriage were Robert Lee de Zafra, as you correctly noted, but also Charles Roderick de Zafra. The latter had a military career in the Army Signal Corps, achieving the rank of Colonel, and was severely wounded in the Korean War. He and his wife, Katherine Hunt de Zafra, had a son, Charles Roderick de Zafra, Jr., and subsequently adopted four more children. So, Major de Zafra had a total of seven grandchildren, some of whom he never knew, but of whom four survive our uncle, Dr. Robert Lee de Zafra.


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