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 and writing letters as a woman. He is also known for chowing down on native foods and 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 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 Juan Ponce de León. That's according to Jared Lloyd writing for the Coastal Review Online. After leaving the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico, 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 that 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 and build 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, writes Laura Bliss for City Lab. He was working in London as deputy postmaster general for mail to and from the American colonies. That was in 1768. Franklin was talking to his cousin, 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, losing 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, cementing the importance of knowing the stream for European mariners.

Although Franklin did make observations of the stream and write 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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Why do you think that nobody had charted the Gulf Stream before?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • 26ehprin
    5/03/2018 - 10:42 a.m.

    I think people didn't chart the Gulf Stream, because they were scared. The winds and current was so strong, they thought their boats may flip, or be torn apart. I think they also thought they would go off the edge of earth.

  • ethanm-orv
    5/07/2018 - 09:53 a.m.

    i never knew that he did that.

  • 26klpetr
    5/08/2018 - 10:22 a.m.

    I think nobody charted it before because they didn't know what it was. They also may have been scared of it because they though the world was flat and maybe thought it would pull them over the edge of the world. Another reason I think is because they may have thought it wasn't always there, it could've just been a strong wind.

  • 26jpquin
    5/08/2018 - 10:25 a.m.

    I am not really 100% sure yet, but I think maybe why nobody created the Gulf Stream before was that maybe no one was smart enough to make it. Franklin was a very smart person, like he mailed under cover as a girl. And that is why I think no one originally made it before, or maybe someone did, but did not get recognized for it.

  • joeyw-orv
    5/09/2018 - 11:23 a.m.

    I think that not many people tried to chart the Gulf Stream because they were scared they would fall off the earth. In that time, more people thought the Earth was flat than however many people do today. They also may have thought the stream was dangerous because they would have been killed in the stream.

  • 26otgere
    5/10/2018 - 10:23 a.m.

    Ben Franklen is a very important man to American History. He put a key on a kite. He also was park of the Declaration of Independence.

  • 26pjhamm
    5/10/2018 - 10:25 a.m.

    I think that nobody charted the gulf stream before, because they just thought it was a small thing in the swing of things. They thought it was just choppy waters. They were to caught up in themselves.

    Comment: This was a cool article.

  • 26gmnels
    5/10/2018 - 10:27 a.m.

    I think because the winds and waves were so harsh and hard. If someone else did it they may not be here.Only strong people could have done that.I couldn't do that.

  • 26kadubo
    5/15/2018 - 10:24 a.m.

    Because they probably wanted to be safe because they didn't really have the information about it. This was a really good article because it talks about the Gulf Stream and how people were finding out about it.

  • 26sgbock
    5/15/2018 - 10:27 a.m.

    I think that they didn't write it because they were very very scared and terrified because of the large sea. mostly of the currents and the wind.

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