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The Gulf Stream is a warm-water current originating in the Caribbean, flowing through the straits between Florida and Cuba, up the eastern seaboard before turning across the Atlantic, where its residual effects can be seen on the western coasts of Ireland and Scotland. The phenomenon was long known by European navigators, with the Spaniard Ponce de Leon complaining in 1513 that his ship was unable to make any headway because of the strength of the opposing current. While long utilized by mariners, scientific attempts to understand the Gulf Stream really only begin with Benjamin Franklin in the 1760s, and it was he that give it the name. At the time he was Postmaster General of the American colonies. Among his many responsibilities was the transatlantic mail service, and he became aware that the packet boats made the crossing to Britain significantly faster than ships making the return voyage. He asked the question of his cousin, Nantucketer and whaling captain Timothy Folger. Folger was well-aware of the current as whales tended to congregate in its warmer waters, and that was where the whalers knew to look for them; Folger then drew a rough map of the course and confines of the Gulf Stream.

Although Franklin informed his British counterparts of this, the information was very largely ignored. The London chart-publishers Mount and Page inserted the detail on their map of the North Atlantic in about 1768, but it was left to the French publisher George Louis le Rouge to publish the first Folger-Franklin map, for use by French naval captains during the Revolutionary War. Because of its military significance, the chart did not enter general circulation.

After the Revolutionary War, Franklin wrote an article for the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1786, illustrated with a version of the Folger chart. This was the first chart to widely publicise the Gulf Stream, and served as a spur for other scientists, such as Jonathan Williams, and hydrographers to investigate, inspired a number of derivatives but also compelled more general mapmakers to include its depiction in their general charts of the Atlantic.



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Jonathan Williams 1793 chart of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Stream

An 18th-century Gulf Stream chart by Franklin’s grand-nephew Jonathan Williams

A scarce and interesting 1793 chart depicting the Gulf Stream, as well as thermometric observations of the Atlantic made on several trans-Atlantic voyages by Jonathan Williams. A grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Williams (1750-1815) served as his uncle’s personal secretary during his service as American agent in England in the early 1770s and as ambassador […]

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An 18th-century Gulf Stream chart, with a Ben Franklin connection

An interesting chart depicting the Gulf Stream and thermometric observations of the Atlantic made by American Jonathan Williams, Jr. Williams (1750-1815) was a grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin and was his personal secretary during the latter’s service as American agent in England in the early 1770s and ambassador to France during the Revolution. He later served […]

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Gulf Stream chart based on Ben Franklin

An interesting chart of the Gulf Stream, based on Ben Franklin’s pioneering research. The map depicts the Gulf Stream issuing through the strait separating Cuba and Florida, flowing northeast along the coastline, then turning eastward and gradually dissipating. The second, larger flow, which follows a circular, clockwise path, is almost certainly a depiction of the […]

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1794 Thomas Truxtun 'General Chart of the Globe"

1794 Thomas Truxtun world map featuring the Gulf Stream

A rare 18th-century world map by American naval hero Thomas Truxtun, featuring the course of the Gulf Stream and bearing an interesting connection to Ben Franklin. The map was drawn by Thomas Truxtun (1755-1822), who had an illustrious naval career as a privateer during the Revolution, well-traveled merchant captain during the post-war years, and commander […]

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Early map of the Gulf Stream

Early map of the Gulf Stream from “The Naval Chronicle”

This map depicts the “Florida Stream,” i.e., the Gulf Stream, flowing from the Gulf of Mexico north along the East Coast before turning southeast toward Africa. It appeared in a Spring 1804 number of The Naval Chronicle, accompanied by a letter to the editor dated Jan. 23, 1804. The author of the letter—identified only by […]

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A rare and striking oceanographic world map

A rare, informative and most attractive oceanographic world map summarizing the state of knowledge in the mid 19th century. Centered on the Pacific basin, the map depicts the world on a Mercator projection to about 70° north and south latitude, with insets of the polar regions at upper left. There is no inland inland detail, though […]

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