Benjamin Franklin was the first to chart the Gulf Stream
Benjamin Franklin was the first to chart the Gulf Stream This copy of the first chart of the Gulf Stream was printed in 1786, ten years after Benjamin Franklin first drew it up. (Library of Congress/Constantino Brumidi Fresco/US Capitol)
Benjamin Franklin was the first to chart the Gulf Stream
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Benjamin Franklin is known for shaping the Constitution. He is know for writing letters as a woman. He is known for chowing down on native foods. And he is known for hosting an anatomy school. It was in his home. What doesn’t often get mentioned is that he was also the first to chart the Gulf Stream. He completed the first scientific study of the current in 1775. That's according to Today in Science History.

The Gulf Stream is an ocean current. It moves clockwise through the Gulf of Mexico and up along the eastern coastline of North America. It is part of a large system of five circular gyres. These are in the North Atlantic. That's according to Kim Ann Zimmermann for LiveScience. “It altered sailing patterns. And it shaved time off a typically long and treacherous trip. So the Gulf Stream was instrumental in the colonization of the Americas,” Zimmermann writes.

It was also found early on by colonists. The first European to observe and write about the Gulf Stream was an explorer. His name was Juan Ponce de León. That's according to Jared Lloyd writing for the Coastal Review Online. He left the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico. Then Ponce de León and his crew sailed north. They were searching for new lands to plunder and pillage. Ponce de León wrote in his journal that the ships he was captaining were caught up in a strange current. It seemed to be stronger than the wind. That was in April 1513.

But “despite the magnitude of this discovery, neither Ponce de León nor the Spanish Crown paid heed to it,” Lloyd writes. “Back in Spain, the only thing that came of this expedition was the acknowledgment that Ponce de León had failed to find gold.” European explorers did continue to use the current. They built on their knowledge of it. But it wasn’t mapped or named until Franklin came along.

Franklin came to study the Gulf Stream because of a question. This is according to Laura Bliss writing for City Lab. He was working in London. He was deputy postmaster general for mail to and from the American colonies. That was in 1768. Franklin was talking to his cousin. His name was Timothy Folger. He was the captain of a merchant ship. He asked why it took ships like Folger’s so much less time to reach America than it took official mail ships.

“It struck Folger that the British mail captains must not know about the Gulf Stream. He had become well-acquainted with it in his earlier years as a Nantucket whaler,” writes Bliss. Folger told Franklin that whalers knew about the “warm, strong current.” They used it to help their ships track and kill whales.

“In crossing it [we] have sometimes met and spoke with those packets. They were in the middle of it, and stemming [sailing against] it,” Franklin later wrote that Folger told him. But the mail ships “were too wise to be counselled by simple American fishermen.” So they kept sailing against the current. They lost time as they did so.

“Folger sketched out the rough location for Franklin. He soon made prints, along with his cousin’s directions for how to avoid what he dubbed the ‘Gulph Stream,’” Bliss writes. Franklin gave copies to his mail ships. But they seem to have ignored the directions.

When Franklin shifted allegiances during the American Revolution, he gave ‘Gulph Stream’ directions to America’s French allies. This cemented the importance of knowing the stream for European mariners.

Franklin did make observations of the stream. He wrote them down. But “the accuracy of the chart is really due to Folger and his inherited whaling knowledge,” Bliss writes. “But Franklin was the one with the good instincts to map it. And that, combined with his general eminence, has landed him with most of the credit.”

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