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

Major Carlos de Zafra, Sr. 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 two sons, one of whom became a teacher and writer and the other of whom became a noted physicist.

In 1904, Major de Zafra graduated from New York University.[2]  As a sophomore, he was News Editor, and later Associate Editor, of The Triangle, the successor publication to The University ItemScientific 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.[3]  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.[4]

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.[5]  Their headquarters was 150 Nassau Street in New York City.[6]  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.[7]  Later in 1922, Major de Zafra, 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.[8]

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.[9]

Major Carlos de Zafra has been commissioned 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.[10]


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.  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.[11]

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.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]


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, and the M.S.I.

Carlos de Zafra, Sr., and his wife, Ellen (Knox) de Zafra, a seamstress who worked in a design house, had two sons. Carlos de Zafra, Jr. (1912-1979) was a high school teacher and prolific author who died in 1979 and Dr. Robert Lee de Zafra (1932-2017) was a famous physicist who died at age of eighty-five in 2017.  Carlos de Zafra, Jr. graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University, where he earned both his a=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.  Both he and his wife, Dorothea Michelsen de Zafra (1909-2009), taught at John Marshall High School in Rochester, New York.  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.

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.[15]   He was concerned with the rehabilitation of historical buildings and preservation of green space in Setaucket.[16]  He bought three historic properties to ensure the community maintained its character.[17]  [Setaucket was the center of the Culper Spy Ring, as depicted in the television series Turn: Washington’s Spies (2014-2017).[18]]  He resided in one of them with his second wife, Julia M. Phillips-Quagliata.[19]  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.[20] 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.[21]  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.[22]  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.[23] Dr. de Zafra was survived by his wife, Julia, and niece, Dorothea.[24]



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

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

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

[4] “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

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

[6] Ibid

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

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

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

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

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

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

[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] 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

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

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