May 2 – Gulf Streaming

Today’s Factismal: Benjamin Franklin completed the first scientific investigation of the Gulf Stream 229 years ago today.

Benjamin Franklin was America’s first and foremost citizen scientist. And perhaps his most practical discovery is also one of his least-known ones. Franklin was able to chart the Gulf Stream, a discovery that allowed American ship captains to navigate the Atlantic Ocean both faster and more safely than their British competitors.

Benjamin Franklin's chart of the Gulf Stream

Benjamin Franklin’s chart of the Gulf Stream

What originally spurred Franklin’s curiosity was a complaint from his boss in England. Ships sailing from Cornwall to New York took much longer to arrive than ships sailing from London to Rhode Island, and his boss wanted to know why. So Franklin went to his brother-in-law, who was a whaler from Nantucket, and asked him. The answer, his brother explained, was because the ships sailing from London rode with a current that flowed from Europe to America while those sailing from Cornwall went against a current that flowed from America to Europe. The whalers knew about the current because it was also rich in fish and whales. Franklin worked with his brother-in-law and other sea captains to produce a map of the current, which they then published. But, with typical British intransigence, the English sea captains decided to ignore the “Yankee map”.

Over the next several years, Franklin would take careful measurements of everything from location to water temperature, salinity, color, and wildlife as he sailed back and forth from America to Europe on his many trips. During the last few trips, Franklin even brought along a weighted barrel fitted with valves so that he could capture water from several fathoms below the surface for measurement. He finally compiled all of his results and published them on May 2, 1785, putting the final flourish on work that had begun seventeen years earlier.

But Franklin couldn’t have accomplished his work without the contributions of the ship captains who helped him chart the current. Today, scientists are attempting to learn more about severe weather using Doppler radar. And they need your help to refine their data, just as Franklin needed the ship captains. All you need to do is look outside the next time it rains or snows and tell the scientists at the PING network what conditions look like on the ground. To help, go to the PING project:

3 thoughts on “May 2 – Gulf Streaming

  1. Pingback: June 20 – Disco Volante – Little facts about science

  2. Pingback: December 22 – Days of Future Past | Little facts about science

  3. Pingback: September 15 – Making the Tardigrade | Little facts about science

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