1785: Benjamin Franklin's 'Sundry Maritime Observations'

Portrait of Ben Franklin

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, statesman, inventor, and maker of "sundry maritime observations." Click image for larger view and image credit.


In a very long letter to a scientific colleague in France, Benjamin Franklin ruminated on a wide variety of maritime topics, from accidents at sea to how to keep sailors well fed during long voyages. Historically speaking, the most significant portion of the letter discloses his announcement to the mariners of the world the existence of the Gulf Stream. To be sure, the Gulf Stream had been discovered many times before, beginning with Ponce de Leon in 1513. This was the first time, however, that a map of the Gulf Stream had been produced and was made generally well known. This letter covers more than just a first description of the Gulf Stream; in Franklin’s words, it contains “sundry Maritime Observations,” including discussions of ship propulsion methods, hull designs, causes of disaster at sea, sea anchors, food at sea, and even the use of propellers to steer balloons. If this one letter had been all that survived of Franklin’s correspondence, he would have been remembered as a scientist of note and an individual with a remarkable span of knowledge on many subjects. As it is, this is one more example of why he is remembered as one of the greatest American intellects.

N° XXXVIII

A Letter from Dr. Benjamin Franklin, to Mr. Alphonsus le Roy, member of several academies, at Paris. Containing sundry Maritime Observations.

At Sea, on board the London Packet; Capt. Truxton, August 1785.

Sir:

Read Dec. your learned writings on the navigation of the ancients, which contain a great deal of curious information; and your very ingenious contrivances for improving the modern sails (voilure) of which I saw with great pleasure a successful trial on the River Seine have induced me to submit to your consideration and judgment, some thoughts I have had on the latter subject.

'The action of the wind'

Those mathematicians who have endeavoured [endeavored] to improve the swiftness of vessels, by calculating to find the form of least resistance, seem to have considered a ship as a body moving through one fluid only, the water; and to have given little attention to the circumstance of her moving through another fluid, the air. It is true that when a vessel sails right before the wind, this circumstance is of no importance, because the wind goes with her; but in every deviation from that course, the resistance of the air is something, and becomes greater in proportion as that deviation increases. I wave [waive] at present the consideration of those different degrees of resistance given by the air to that part of the hull which is above water, and confine myself to that given to the sails; for their motion through the air is resisted by the air, as the motion of the hull through the water is resisted by the water, though with less force as the air is a lighter fluid. And to simplify the discussion as much as possible, I would state one situation only, to wit, that of the wind upon the beam, the ship's course being directly across the wind and I would suppose the sail set in an angle of 45 degrees with the keel as in the following figure; wherein:

Designing sail array to minimize resistance of air to forward motion.

Designing sail array to minimize resistance of air to forward motion. Click image for larger view and image credit.


AB represents the body of the vessel, CD - Plate IV Figure I - the position of the sail, EEE the direction of the wind, MM the line of motion. In observing this figure it will appear, that so much of the body of the vessel as is immersed in the water, must, to go forward, remove out of its way what water it meets with between the pricked lines FF. And the sail, to go forward, must move out of its way all the air its whole dimension meets with between the pricked lines CG and DG. Thus both the fluids give resistance to the motion, each in proportion to the quantity of matter contained in the dimension to be removed. And though the air is vastly lighter than the water, and therefore more easily removed, yet the dimension being much greater its effect is very considerable.

It is true that in the case stated, the resistance given by the air between those lines to the motion of the sail is not apparent to the eye, because the greater force of the wind which strikes it in the direction EEE, overpowers its effects, and keeps the sail full in the curve a, a, a, a, a, a . But suppose the wind to cease, and the vessel in a calm to be impelled with the same swiftness by oars, the sail would then appear filled in the contrary curve b, b, b, b, b, when prudent men would immediately perceive that the air resisted its motion, and would order it to be taken in.

Is there any possible means of diminishing this resistance, while the same quantity of sail is exposed to the action of the wind, and therefore the same force obtained from it? I think there is, and that it may be done by dividing the sail into a number of parts, and placing those parts in a line one behind the other; thus instead of one sail extending from C to D, figure 2, if four sails containing together the same quantity of canvas, were placed as in figure 3 each having one quarter of the dimensions of the great sail, and exposing a quarter of its surface to the wind, would give a quarter of the force; so that the whole force obtained from the wind would be the same, while the resistance from the air would be nearly reduced to the space between the pricked lines ab and cd before the foremost sail.

It may perhaps be doubted whether the resistance from the air would be so diminished; since possibly each of the following small sails having also air before it, which must be removed, the resistance on the whole would be the same.

'A matter to be determined by experiment'

This is then a matter to be determined by experiment. I will mention one that I many years since made with success for another purpose; and I will propose another small one easily made. If that too succeeds, I should think it worth while to make a larger, though at some expence [expense], on a river boat; and perhaps time and the improvements experience will afford, may make it applicable with advantage to larger vessels.

Having near my kitchen chimney a round hole of eight inches diameter, through which it has a constant steady current of air, increasing or diminishing only as the fire increased or diminished, I contrived to place my jack so as to receive that current; and taking off the flyers, I fixed in their stead on the same pivot a round tin plate of near the same diameter with the hole; and having cut it in radial lines almost to the centre [center], so as to have six equal vanes, I gave to each of them the obliquity of forty-five degrees. They moved round, without the weight, by the impression only of the current of air, but too slowly for the purpose of roasting. I suspected that the air struck by the back of each vane might possibly by its resistance retard the motion; and to try this, I cut each of them into two, and I placed the twelve, each having the same obliquity, in a line behind each other, when I perceived a great augmentation in its velocity, which encouraged me to divide them once more, and, continuing the same obliquity, I placed the twenty-four behind each other in a line, when the force of the wind being the same, and the surface of vane the same, they moved round with much greater rapidity, and perfectly answered my purpose.

The second experiment that I propose, is, to take two playing cards of the same dimensions, and cut one of them transversely into eight equal pieces; then with a needle string them upon two threads one near each end, and place them so upon the threads that, when hung up, they may be one exactly over the other, at a distance equal to their breadth, each in a horizontal position; and let a small weight, such as a bird-shot, be hung under them, to make them fall in a straight line when let loose. Suspend also the whole card by threads from its four corners, and hang to it an equal weight, so as to draw it downwards when let fall, its whole breadth pressing against the air. Let those two bodies be attached, one of them to one end of a thread a yard long, the other to the other end. Extend a twine under the ceiling of a room, and put through it at thirty inches distance two pins bent in the form of fishhooks. On there two hooks hang the two bodies, the thread that connects them extending parallel to the twine, which thread being cut, they must begin to fall at the same instant. If they take equal time in falling to the floor, it is a proof that the resistance of the air is in both cases equal. If the whole card requires a longer time, it shows that the sum of the resistances to the pieces of the cut card is not equal to the resistance of the whole one*.

*The motion of the vessel made it inconvenient to try this simple experiment, at sea, when the proposal of it was written. But it has been tried since we came on shore, and succeeded as the other.

Suggested sail design to minimize resistance of air to forward motion

Suggested sail design to minimize resistance of air to forward motion. Click image for larger view and image credit.


This principle so far confirmed, I would proceed to make a larger experiment, with a shallop, which I would rig in this manner. - Plate IV. Figure 4 - AB is a long boom, from which are hoisted seven jibs, a, b, c, d, e, f, g, each a seventh part of the whole dimensions, and as much more as will fill the whole space when set in an angle of forty-five degrees, so that they may lap when going before the wind, and hold more wind when going large. Thus rigged, when going right before the wind, the boom should be brought at right angles with the keel, by means of the sheet ropes C D, and all the sails hauled flat to the boom.

These positions of boom and sails to be varied as the wind quarters. But when the wind is on the beam, or when you would turn to windward, the boom is to be hauled right fore and aft, and the sails trimmed according as the wind is more or less against your course.

It seems to me that the management of a shallop so rigged would be very easy, the sails being run up and down separately, so that more or less sail may be made at pleasure; and I imagine, that there being full as much sail exposed to the force of the wind which impells [impels] the vessel in its course, as if the whole were in one piece, and the resistance of the dead air against the foreside of the sail being diminished, the advantage of swiftness would be very considerable; besides that the vessel would lie nearer the wind.

Relationship of ship, cable, and anchor when bow of vessel is in trough in a heavy sea.

Relationship of ship, cable, and anchor when bow of vessel is in trough in a heavy sea. Ben Franklin's hypothesis of what happens when a vessel's bow is in a wave trough. Click image for larger view and image credit.


'Methinks it would be well to have a kind of large pulley wheel'

Since we are on the subject of improvements in navigation, permit me to detain you a little longer with a small relative observation. Being, in one of my voyages, with ten merchant-ships under convoy of a frigate at anchor in Torbay, waiting for a wind to go to the westward; it came fair, but brought in with it a considerable swell. A signal was given for weighing, and we put to sea all together; but three of the ships left their anchors, their cables parting just as the anchors came a-peak. Our cable held, and we got up our anchor; but the shocks the ship felt before the anchor got loose from the ground, made me reflect on what might possibly have caused the breaking of the other cables; and I imagined it might be the short bending of the cable just without the hause-hole [hawse-hole] from a horizontal to an almost vertical position, and the sudden violent jerk it receives by the rising of the head of the ship on the swell of a wave while in that position.

Relationship of ship, cable, and anchor when stern of vessel is in trough in a heavy sea.

Relationship of ship, cable, and anchor when stern of vessel is in trough in a heavy sea. Click image for larger view and image credits.


For example, suppose a vessel hove up so as to have her head nearly over her anchor, which still keeps its hold, perhaps in a tough bottom; if it were calm, the cable still out would form nearly a perpendicular line, measuring the distance between the hause-hole [hawse-hole] and the anchor; but if there is a swell, her head in the trough of the sea will fall below the level, and when lifted on the wave will be as much above it. In the first case the cable will hang loose and bend perhaps as in figure 5. In the second case (figure 6), the cable will be drawn straight with a jerk, must sustain the whole force of the rising ship, and must either loosen the anchor, resist the rising force of the ship, or break. But why does it break at the hause-hole [hawse-hole]?

Illustration of why anchor cable tends to break at hawse-hole

Illustration of why anchor cable tends to break at hawse-hole showing differential forces on cable strands during violent motion of ship (extension at abc and compression at def that tend to cause failure). Click image for larger view and image credit.


'When a vessel springs a leak'

One maritime observation more shall finish this letter. I have been a reader of news-papers now near seventy years, and I think few years pass without an account of some vessel met with at sea, with no soul living on board; and so many feet of water in her hold, which vessel has nevertheless been saved and brought into port: and when not met with at sea, such forsaken vessels have often come ashore on some coast. The crews who have taken to their boats and thus abandoned such vessels, are sometimes met with and taken up at sea by other ships, sometimes reach a coast, and are sometimes never heard of. Those that give an account of quitting their vessels, generally say, that the ship sprung a leak, that they pumped for some time, that the water continued to rise upon them, and that despairing to save her, they had quitted her lest they should go down with her. It seems by the event that this fear was not always well founded, and I have endeavoured [endeavored] to guess at the reason of the people's too hasty discouragement.

When a vessel springs a leak near her bottom, the water enters with all the force given by the weight of the column of water, without, which force is in proportion to the difference of level between the water without and that within. It enters therefore with more force at first, and in greater quantity, than it can afterwards when the water within is higher. The bottom of the vessel too is narrower, so that the same quantity of water coming into that narrow part, rises falter than when the space for it to flow in is larger. This helps to terrify. But as the quantity entering is less and less as the surfaces without and within become more nearly equal in height, the pumps that could not keep the water from rising at first, might afterwards be able to prevent its rising higher, and the people might have remained on board in safety, without hazarding themselves in an open boat on the wide ocean. (figure 8.)

Different stages of flooding of a vessel after suffering damage to hull.

Different stages of flooding of a vessel after suffering damage to hull. Figure 8 shows early stage of rapid flooding at low level causing panic among crew while figure 9 shows moderated flooding as water level approaches same level as sea surface which might be able to be controlled by ship's pumps. Click image for larger view and image credit.


Besides the greater equality in the height of the two surfaces, there may sometimes be other causes that retard the farther sinking of' a leaky vessel. The rising water within may arrive at quantities of light wooden work, empty chests, and particularly empty water casks, which if fixed so as not to float themselves may help to sustain her. Many bodies which compose a ship's cargo may be specifically lighter than water, all these when out of water are an additional weight to that of the ship, and she is in proportion pressed deeper into the water; but as soon as their bodies are immersed, they weigh no longer on the ship, but on the contrary, if fixed, they help to support her, in proportion as they are specifically lighter than the water.

And it should be remembered, that the largest body of a ship may be so balanced in the water, that an ounce less or more of weight may leave her at the surface or fink [sink] her to the bottom. There are also certain heavy cargoes, that when the water gets at them are continually dissolving, and thereby lightening the vessel, such as salt and sugar. And as to water casks mentioned above, since the quantity of them must be great in ships of war where the number of men consume a great deal of water every day, if it had been made a constant rule to bung them up as fast as they were emptied, and to dispose the empty casks in proper situations, I am persuaded that many ships which have been sunk in engagements, or have gone down afterwards, might with the unhappy people have been saved; as well as many of those which in the last war foundered, and were never heard of.

While on this topic of sinking, one cannot help recollecting the well known practice of the Chinese, to divide the hold of a great ship into a number of separate chambers by partitions tight caulked, (of which you have a model in your boat upon the Seine) so that if a leak should spring in one of them the others are not affected by it; and though that chamber should fill to a level with the sea, it would not be sufficient to sink the vessel. We have not imitated this practice. Some little disadvantage it might occasion in the stowage is perhaps one reason, though that I think might be more than compensated by an abatement in the insurance that would be reasonable, and by a higher price taken of passengers, who would rather prefer going in such a vessel. But our Seafaring people are brave, despise danger, and reject such precautions of safety, being cowards only in one sense, that of fearing to be thought afraid.

I promised to finish my letter with the last observation, but the garrulity of the old man has got hold of me, and as I may never have another occasion of writing on this subject I think I may as well now, once for all, empty my nautical budget, and give you all the thoughts that have in my various long voyages occurred to me relating to navigation. I am sure that in you they will meet with a candid judge who will excuse my mistakes on account of my good intention.

'Six accidents that may occasion the loss of ships at sea'

There are six accidents that may occasion the loss of ships at sea. We have considered one of them, that of foundering by a leak; the other five are, 1. Oversetting by sudden flaws of wind, or by carrying sail beyond the bearing. 2. Fire by accident or carelessness. 3. A heavy stroke of lightning, making a breach in the ship, or firing the powder. 4. Meeting and shocking with other ships in the night. 5. Meeting in the night with islands of ice.

To that of oversetting, privateers in their first cruize [cruise] have, as far as has fallen within my knowledge or information, been more subject than any other kind of vessels. The double desire of being able to overtake a weaker flying enemy, or to escape when pursued by a stronger, has induced the owners to overmast their cruizers [cruisers], and to spread too much canvas; and the great number of men many of them not seamen, who being upon deck when a ship heels suddenly are huddled down to leeward, and increase by their weight the effect of the wind. This therefore should be more attended to and guarded against, especially as the advantage of lofty masts is problematical. For the upper sails have greater power to lay a vessel more on her side, which is not the most advantageous position for going swiftly through the water. And hence it is that vessels which have lost their lofty masts, and been able to make little more sail afterwards than permitted the ship to sail upon an even keel, have made so much way, even under jury masts, as to surprize [surprise] the mariners themselves.

But there is besides, something in the modern form of our ships that seems as if calculated expressly to allow their oversetting more easily. The sides of a ship instead of spreading out as they formerly did in the upper works, are of late years turned in, so as to make the body nearly round, and more resembling a cask. I do not know what the advantages of this construction are, except that such ships are not so easily boarded. To me it seems a contrivance to have less room in a ship at nearly the same expence [expense]. For it is evident that the same timber and plank consumed in raising the sides from a to b, and from d to c, would have raised them from a to e, and from d to f (figure 9). In this form all the spaces between e, a, b, and c, d, f, would have been gained, the deck would have been larger, the men would have had more room to act, and not have stood so thick in the way of the enemy’s shot; and the vessel the more she was laid down on her side, the more bearing she would meet with, and more effectual to support her, as being farther from the center. Whereas in the present form, her ballast makes the chief part of her bearing, without which she would turn in the sea almost as easily as a barrel. More ballast by this means becomes necessary, and that sinking a vessel deeper in the water occasions more resistance to her going through it. The Bermudian sloops still keep with advantage to the old spreading form.

The islanders in the great Pacific ocean, though they have no large ships, are the most expert boat-sailors in the world, navigating that sea safely with their proas, which they prevent oversetting by various means. Their sailing proas for this purpose have outriggers generally to windward, above the water, on which one or more men are placed to move occasionally further from or nearer to the vessel as the wind freshens or slackens. But some have their outriggers to leeward, which resting on the water support the boat so as to keep her upright when pressed down by the wind. Their boats moved by oars or rather by paddles, are, for long voyages, fixed two together by cross bars of wood that keep them at some distance from each other, and so render their oversetting next to impossible.

A double-hulled catamaran-style vessel is inherently more stable than a single hulled vessel.

A double-hulled catamaran-style vessel is inherently more stable than a single hulled vessel. Click image for larger view and image credit.


How far this may be practicable in larger vessels, we have not yet sufficient experience. I know of but one trial made in Europe, which was about one hundred years since by, Sir William Petty. He built a double vessel, to serve as a pacquet [packet] boat between England and Ireland. Her model still exists in the museum of the Royal Society, where I have seen it. By the accounts we have of her, she answered well the purpose of her construction, making several voyages; and though wrecked at last by a storm, the misfortune did not appear owing to her particular construction, since many other vessels of the common form were wrecked at the same time.

The advantage of such a vessel is: That she needs no ballast, therefore swims either lighter or will carry more goods; and that passengers are not so much incommoded by her rolling: to which may be added, that if she is to defend herself by her cannon, they will probably have more effect, being kept more generally in a horizontal position than those in common vessels. I think, however, that it would be an improvement of that model to make the sides which are opposed to each other perfectly parallel, though the other sides are formed as in common thus (figure 10).

The building of a double ship would indeed be more expensive in proportion to her burthen; and that perhaps is sufficient to discourage the method.

The accident of fire is generally well guarded again by the prudent captain's strict orders against smoking between decks, or carrying a candle there out of a lanthorn [lantern]. But there is one dangerous practice which frequent terrible accidents have not yet been sufficient to abolish; that of carrying store-spirits to sea in casks. Two large ships, the Seraphis and the Duke of Athol, one an East Indiaman, the other a frigate, have been burnt within these two last years, and many lives miserably destroyed, by drawing spirits out of a cask near a candle. It is high time to make it a general rule, that all the ship's store of spirits should be carried in bottles.

The misfortune by a stroke of lightning I have in my former writings endeavoured [endeavored] to show a method of guarding against, by a chain and pointed rod, extending, when run up, from above the top of the mast to the sea. These instruments are now made and sold at a reasonable price by Nairne and Co. in London, and there are several instances of success attending the use of them. They are kept in a box, and may be run up and fixed in about five minutes, on the apparent approach of a thunder gust.

Of the meeting and shocking with other ships in the night, I have known two instances in voyages between London and America. In one both ships arrived though much damaged, each reporting their belief that the other must have gone to the bottom. In the other, only one got to port; the other was never afterwards heard of. These instances happened many years ago, when the commerce between Europe and America was not a tenth part of what it is at present, ships of course thinner scattered, and the chance of meeting proportionally less. It has long been the practice to keep a look-out before in the channel, but at sea it has been neglected. If it is not at present thought worthwhile to take that precaution, it will in time become of more consequence; since the number of ships at sea is continually augmenting. A drum frequently beat or a bell rung in a dark night, might help to prevent such accidents.

Islands of ice are frequently seen off the banks of Newfoundland, by ships going between North-America and Europe. In the day-time they are easily avoided, unless in a very thick fog. I remember two instances of ships running against them in the night. The first lost her bowsprit, but received little other damage. The other struck where the warmth of the sea had wasted the ice next to it, and a part hung over above. This perhaps saved her, for she was under great way; but the upper part of the cliff taking her foretopmast, broke the shock, though it carried away the mast. She disengaged herself with some difficulty, and got safe into port; but the accident shows the possibility of other ships being wrecked and sunk by striking those vast masses of ice, of which I have seen one that we judged to be seventy-feet high above the water, consequently eight times as much under water -- and it is another reason for keeping a good look-out before, though far from any coast that may threaten danger.

Birch bark canoes of the North American Indians are less apt to take in water because they are higher in the middle of the vessel where water is most apt to enter in the event of heeling over.

Birch bark canoes of the North American Indians are less apt to take in water because they are higher in the middle of the vessel where water is most apt to enter in the event of heeling over. Click image for larger view and image credit.


'The various means of giving motion to a boat'

It is remarkable that the people we consider as savages have improved the art of sailing -- and rowing -- boats in several points beyond what we can pretend to. We have no sailing boats equal to the flying proas of the south seas, no rowing or paddling boat equal to that of the Green-landers for swiftness and safety. The birch-canoes of the North American Indians have also some advantageous properties. They are so light that two men may carry one of them over land, which is capable of carrying a dozen upon the water; and in heeling they are not so subject to take in water as our boats, the sides of which are lowest in the middle where it is most likely to enter, this being highest in that part, as in figure 11.

The Chinese are an enlightened people, the most antiently [anciently] civilized of any existing, and their arts are antient [ancient], a presumption in their favour [favor]: their method of rowing their boats differs from ours, the oars being worked either two a-stern as we scull, or on the sides with the same kind of motion, being hung parallel to the keel on a rail and always acting in the water, not perpendicular to the sides as ours are, nor lifted out at every stroke, which is a loss of time, and the boat in the interval loses motion. They see our manner, and we theirs, but neither are disposed to learn of or copy the other.

To the several means of moving boats mentioned above may be added the singular one lately exhibited at Javelle, on the Seine below Paris, where a clumsy boat was moved across that river in three minutes by rowing, not in the water, but in the air, that is, by whirling round a set of windmill vanes fixed to a horizontal axis, parallel to the keel, and placed at the head of the boat. The axis was bent into an elbow at the end, by the help of which it was turned by one man at a time. I saw the operation at a distance. The four vanes appeared to be about five feet long and perhaps two and a half wide. The weather was calm. The labour [labor] appeared to be great for one man as the two several times relieved each other. But the action upon the air by the oblique surfaces of the vanes must have been considerable, as the motion of the boat appeared tolerably quick going and returning; and she returned to the same place from whence she first set out, notwithstanding the current. This machine is since applied to the moving of air balloons: An instrument similar may be contrived to move a boat by turning under water.

Paddles generate the most power when vertical to the surface as at Paddle C.

Paddles generate the most power when vertical to the surface as at Paddle C. Paddle A consumes most of its energy in forcing its way through the water and provides no forward momentum to a vessel until it arrives at the location of B. Click image for larger view and image credit.


Several mechanical projectors have at different times proposed to give motion to boats, and even to ships, by means of circular rowing, or paddles placed on the circumference of wheels to be turned constantly on each side of the vessel; but this method, though frequently tried, has never been found so effectual as to encourage a continuance of the practice. I do not know that the reason has hitherto been given. Perhaps it may be this, that great part of the force employed contributes little to the motion.

For instance (figure 12), of the four paddles a, b, c, d, all under water, and turning to move a boat from X to Y, c has the most power, b nearly though not quite as much, their motion being nearly horizontal; but the force employed in moving a, is consumed in pressing almost downright upon the water till it comes to the place of b; and the force employed in moving d is consumed in lifting the water till d arrives at the surface; by which means much of the labour [labor] is lost. It is true, that by placing the wheels higher out of the water, this waste labour [labor] will be diminished in a calm, but where a sea runs, the wheels must unavoidably be often dipt [dipped] deep in the waves, and the turning of them thereby rendered very laborious to little purpose.

Among the various means of giving motion to a boat, that of M. Bernoulli appears one of the most singular, which was to have fixed in the boat a tube in the form of an L, the upright part to have a funnel-kind of opening at top, convenient for filling the tube with water; which descending and passing through the lower horizontal part, and issuing in the middle of the stern, but under the surface of the river, should push the boat forward. There is no doubt that the force of the descending water would have a considerable effect, greater in proportion to the height from which it descended; but then it is to be considered, that every bucket-full pumped or dipped up into the boat, from its side or through its bottom, must have its vis inertia overcome so as to receive the motion of the boat, before it can come to give motion by its descent; and that will be a deduction from the moving power. To remedy this, I would propose the addition of another such L pipe, and that they should stand back to back in the boat thus (figure 13), the forward one being worked as a pump, and sucking in the water at the head of the boat, would draw it forward while pushed in the same direction by the force at the stern. And after all it should be calculated whether the labour [labor] of pumping would be less than that of rowing. A fire-engine might possibly in some cases be applied in this operation with advantage.

Methods of propelling vessels by water and air.

Methods of propelling vessels by water and air. Click image for larger view and image credit.


Perhaps this labour [labor] of raising water might be spared, and the whole force of a man applied to the moving of a boat by the use of air instead of water; suppose the boat constructed in this form (figure 14). A, a tube round or square of two feet diameter, in which a piston may move up and down. The piston to have valves in it, opening inwards to admit air when the piston rises; and shutting, when it is forced down by means of the lever B turning on the center C. The tube to have a valve D, to open when the piston is forced down, and let the air pass out at E, which striking forcibly against the water abaft must push the boat forward. If there is added an air-vessel F properly valved and placed, the force would continue to act while a fresh stroke is taken with the lever. The boatman might stand with his back to the stern, and putting his hands behind him, work the motion by taking hold of the cross bar at B, while another should steer; or if he had two such pumps, one on each side of the stern, with a lever for each hand, he might steer himself by working occasionally more or harder with either hand, as watermen now do with a pair of sculls. There is no position in which the body of a man can exert more strength than in pulling right upwards.

To obtain more swiftness, greasing the bottom of a vessel is sometimes used, and with good effect. I do not know that any writer has hitherto attempted to explain this. At first sight one would imagine, that though the friction of a hard body sliding on another hard body, and the resistance occasioned by that friction, might be diminished by putting grease between them, yet that a body sliding on a fluid, such as water, should have no need of nor receive any advantage from such greasing. But the fact is not disputed. And the reason perhaps may be this. The particles of water have a mutual attraction, called the attraction of adhesion. Water also adheres to wood, and to many other substances, but not to grease: On the contrary they have a mutual repulsion, so that it is a question whether when oil is poured on water, they ever actually touch each other; for a drop of oil upon water, instead of sticking to the spot where it falls, as it would if it fell on a looking-glass, spreads instantly to an immense distance in a film extremely thin, which it could not easily do if it touched and rubbed or adhered even in a small degree to the surface of the water. Now the adhesive force of water to itself, and to other substances, may be estimated from the weight of it necessary to separate a drop, which adheres, while growing, till it has weight enough to force the separation and break the drop off. Let us suppose the drop to be the size of a pea, then there will be as many of these adhesions as there are drops of that size touching the bottom of a vessel, and these must be broken by the moving power, every step of her motion that amounts to a drop's breadth: And there being no such adhesions to break between the water and a greased bottom, may occasion the difference.

'We have sometimes occasion to stop their motion'

So much respecting the motion of vessels. But we have sometimes occasion to stop their motion; and if a bottom is near enough we can cast anchor: Where there are no soundings, we have as yet no means to prevent driving in a storm, but by lying-to, which still permits driving at the rate of about two miles an hour; so that in a storm continuing fifty hours, which is not an uncommon case, the ship may drive one hundred miles out of her course; and should she in that distance meet with a lee shore, she may be lost.

To prevent this driving to leeward in deep water, a swimming anchor is wanting, which ought to have these properties.

1. It should have a surface so large as being at the end of a hauser [hawser] in the water, and placed perpendicularly, should hold so much of it, as to bring the ship's head to the wind, in which situation the wind has least power to drive her.

2. It should be able by its resistance to prevent the ship's receiving way.

3. It should be capable of being situated below the heave of the sea, but not below the undertow.

4. It should not take up much room in the ship.

5. It should be easily thrown out, and put into its proper situation.

6. It should be easy to take in again, and stow away.

A simple sea-anchor or drogue.

A simple sea-anchor or drogue. It is meant to slow forward motion of vessel when being driven before the wind. Click image for larger view and image credit.


An ingenious old mariner whom I formerly knew, proposed as a swimming anchor for a large ship to have a stem of wood twenty-five feet long and four inches square, with four boards of 18, 16, 14, and 12, feet long, and one foot wide, the boards to have their substance thickened several inches in the middle by additional wood, and to have each a four inch square hole through its middle, to permit its being slipt [slipped] on occasionally upon the stem, and at right angles with it; where all being placed and fixed at four feet distance from each other, it would have the appearance of the old mathematical instrument called a forestaff. This thrown into the sea, and held by a hauser [hawser] veered out to some length, he conceived would bring a vessel up, and prevent her driving, and when taken in might be stowed away by separating the boards from the stem (figure 15). Probably such a swimming anchor would have same good effect, but it is subject to this objection, that lying on the surface of the sea, it is liable to be hove forward by every wave, and thereby give so much leave for the ship to drive.

Two machines for this purpose have occurred to me, which though not so simple as the above, I imagine would be more effectual, and more easily manageable. I will endeavour [endeavor] to describe them, that they may be submitted to your judgment, whether either would be serviceable and if they would, to which we should give the preference.

A kite-shaped sea-anchor

A kite-shaped sea-anchor. Click image for larger view and image credit.


The first is to be formed, and to be used in the water on almost the same principles with those of a paper kite used in the air. Only as the paper kite rises in the air, this is to descend in the water. Its dimensions will be different for ships of different size. To make one of suppose fifteen feet high; take a small spar of that length for the back-bone, AB, figure 16, a- smaller of half that length C D, for the cross piece. Let- these be united by a bolt at E, yet so as that by turning on the bolt they may be laid parallel to each other. Then make a sail of strong canvas, in the shape of figure 17. To form this, without waste of sail-cloth, sew together pieces of the proper length, and for half the breadth, as in figure 18, then cut the whole in the diagonal lines a, b, c, and turn the piece F so as to place its broad part opposite to that of the piece G, and the piece H in like manner opposite to I, which when all sewed together will appear as in figure 17. This sail is to be extended on the cross of figure 16, the top and bottom points well secured to the ends of the long spar; the two side points d, e, fastened to the ends of two cords, which coming from the angle of the loop (which must be similar to the loop of a kite) pass through two rings at the ends of the short spar, so as that on pulling upon the loop the sail will be drawn to its extent. The whole may, when aboard, be furled up, as in figure 19, having a rope from its broad end, to which is tied a bag of ballast for keeping that end downwards when in the water, and at the other end another rope with an empty keg at its end to float on the surface; this rope long enough to permit the kites descending into the undertow, or if you please lower into still water. It should be held by a hauser [hawser]. To get it home easily, a small loose rope may be veered out with it, fixed to the keg. Hauling on that rope will bring the kite home with small force, the resistance being small as it will then come endways.

It seems probable that such a kite at the end of a long hauser [hawser] would keep a ship with her head to the wind, and resisting every tug, would prevent her driving so fast as when her side is exposed to it, and nothing to hold her back. If only half the driving is prevented, so as that she moves but fifty miles instead of the hundred during a storm, it may be some advantage, both in holding so much distance as is saved, and in keeping from a lee shore. If single canvas should not be found strong enough to bear the tug without splitting, it may be doubled, or strengthened by a netting behind it, represented by figure 20.

The other machine for the same purpose, is to be made more in the form of an umbrella, as represented, figure 21. The stem of the umbrella a square spar of proper length with four moveable arms, of which two are represented C, C, figure 22. These arms to be fixed in four joint cleats, as D, D, &c. one on each side of the spar, but so as that the four arms may open by turning on a pin in the joint.

A sea-anchor of umbrella form.

A sea-anchor of umbrella form. Click image for larger view and image credit.


When open they form a cross, on which a four square canvas sail is to be extended, its corners fastened to the ends of the four arms. Those ends are also to be stayed by ropes fastened to the stem or spar, so as to keep them short of being at right angles with it: And to the end of one of the arms should be hung the small bag of ballast, and to the end of the opposite arm the empty keg. This on being thrown into the sea, would immediately open; and when it had performed its function, and the storm over, a small rope from its other end being pulled on, would turn it, close it, and draw it easily home to the ship. This machine seems more simple in its operation, more easily manageable than the first, and perhaps may be as effectual.*

*Captain Truxton, on board whose ship, this was written, has executed this proposed machine; he has given six arms to the umbrella, they are joined to the stem by iron hinges, and the canvas is double. He has taken it with him to China, February, 1786.

'Sundry circumstances relating to the Gulph Stream'

Vessels are sometimes retarded, and sometimes forwarded in their voyages, by currents at sea, which are often not perceived. About the year 1769 or 70, there was an application made by the board of customs at Boston, to the lords of the treasury in London, complaining that the packets between Falmouth and New York, were generally a fortnight longer in their passages, than merchant ships from London to Rhode-Island, and proposing that for the future they should be ordered to Rhode-Island instead of New-York. Being then concerned in the management of the American post office, I happened to be consulted on the occasion; and it appearing strange to me that there should be such a difference between two places scarce a day's run asunder, especially when the merchant ships are generally deeper laden, and more weakly manned than the packets, and had from London the whole length of the river and channel to run before they left the land of England, while the packets had only to go from Falmouth, I could not but think the fact misunderstood or misrepresented.

There happened then to be in London, a Nantucket sea-captain of my acquaintance, to whom I communicated the affair. He told me he believed the fact might be true; but the difference was owing to this, that the Rhode-Island captains were acquainted with the gulf stream, which those of the English packets were not. We are well acquainted with that stream, says he, because in our pursuit of whales, which keep near the sides of it, but are not to be met with in it, we run down along the sides, and frequently cross it to change our side: and in crossing it have sometimes met and spoke with those packets, who were in the middle of it, and stemming it. We have informed them that stemming a current, that was against them to the value of three miles an hour; and advised them to cross it and get out of it; but they were too wise to be counselled [counseled] by simple American fishermen.

When the winds are but light, he added, they are carried back by the current more than they are forwarded by the wind: and if the wind be good, the subtraction of 70 miles a day from their course is of some importance. I then observed that it was a pity no notice was taken of this current upon the charts, and requested him to mark it out for me which he readily complied with, adding directions for avoiding it in sailing from Europe to North-America. I procured it to be engraved by order from the general post office, on the old chart of the Atlantic, at Mount and Page's, Tower-hill, and copies were sent down to Falmouth for the captains of the packets, who slighted it however; but it is since printed in France, of which edition I hereto annex a copy.

The Gulf Stream by Benjamin Franklin

The Gulf Stream by Benjamin Franklin. Click image for larger view and image credit.


This stream is probably generated by the great accumulation of water on the eastern coast of America between the tropics, by the trade winds which constantly blow there. It is known that a large piece of water ten miles broad and generally only three feet deep, has by a strong wind had its waters driven to one side and sustained so as to become six feet deep, while the windward side was laid dry. This may give some idea of the quantity heaped up on the American coast, and the reason of its running down in a strong current through the islands into the Bay of Mexico, and from thence issuing through the gulph [gulf] of Florida, and proceeding along the coast to the banks of Newfoundland, where it turns off towards and runs down through the western islands.

Having since crossed this stream several times in passing between America and Europe, I have been attentive to sundry circumstances relating to it, by which to know when one is in it; and besides the gulph [gulf] weed with which it is interspersed, I find that it is always warmer than the sea on each side of it, and that it does not sparkle in the night: I annex hereto the observations made with the thermometer in two voyages, and possibly may add a third. It will appear from them, that the thermometer may be an useful instrument to a navigator, since currents coming from the northward into southern seas, will probably be found colder than the water of those seas, as the currents from southern seas into northern are found warmer.

And it is not to be wondered that so vast a body of deep warm water, several leagues wide, coming from between the tropics and issuing out of the gulph [gulf] into the northern seas, should retain its warmth longer than the twenty or thirty days required to its passing the banks of Newfoundland. The quantity is too great, and it is too deep to be suddenly cooled by passing under a cooler air.

The air immediately over it, however, may receive so much warmth from it as to be rarified and rise, being rendered lighter than the air on each side of the stream; hence those airs must flow in to supply the place of the rising warm air, and meeting with each other, form those tornados and waterspouts frequently met with, and seen near and over the stream; and as the vapour [vapor] from a cup of tea in a warm room, and the breath of an animal in the same room, are hardly visible, but become sensible immediately when out in the cold air, so the vapour [vapor] from the gulph [gulf] stream, in warm latitudes is scarcely visible, but when it comes into the cool air from Newfoundland, it is condensed into the fogs, for which those parts are so remarkable.

The power of wind to raise water above its common level in the sea, is known to us in America, by the high tides occasioned in all our sea-ports when a strong northeaster blows against the gulph [gulf] stream.

The conclusion from these remarks is, that a vessel from Europe to North-America may shorten her passage by avoiding to stem the stream in which the thermometer will be very useful; and a vessel from America to Europe may do the same by the same means of keeping in it. It may have often happened accidentally, that voyages have been shortened by these circumstances. It is well to have the command of them.

'Why passages are generally shorter from America to Europe'

But may there not be another cause, independent of winds and currents, why passages are generally shorter from America to Europe than from Europe to America. This question I formerly considered in the following short paper.

At Sea, on board the Pennsylvania Packet; Capt. Osborne, April 5, 1775.

"Suppose a ship to make a voyage eastward from a place in lat. 40° north, to a place in lat. 50° north, distance in longitude 75 degrees.

" In sailing from 40 to 50, she goes from a place where a degree of longitude is about eight miles greater than the place she is going to. A degree is equal to four minutes of time; consequently the ship in the harbour [harbor] she leaves, partaking of the diurnal motion of the earth, moves two miles in a minute faster, than when in the port she is going to; which is 120 miles in an hour.

"This motion in a ship and cargo is of great force; and if she could be lifted up suddenly from the harbour [harbor] in which she lay quiet, and set down instantly in the latitude of the port she was bound to, though in a calm, that force contained in her would make her run a great way at a prodigious rate. This force must be lost gradually in her voyage, by gradual impulse against the water, and probably thence shorten the voyage. Query, In returning does the contrary happen, and is her voyage thereby retarded and lengthened ?"*

*Since this paper was read at the Society, an ingenious member, Mr. Patterson, has convinced the writer that the returning voyage would not, from this cause, be retarded.

A method of interweaving planking to increase vessel strength

A method of interweaving planking to increase strength of vessel and reduce cost of planking. Click image for larger view and image credit.


'Sailors, a brave and valuable order of men'

Would it not be a more secure method of planking ships, if instead of thick single planks laid horizontally, we were to use planks of half the thickness, and lay them doubly and across each other as in figure 23? To me it seems that the difference of expence [expense] would not be considerable, and that the ship would be both tighter and stronger.

The securing of the ship is not the only necessary thing; securing the health of the sailors, a brave and valuable order of men, is likewise of great importance. With this view the methods so successfully practiced by Captain Cook in his long voyages, cannot be too closely studied or carefully imitated. A full account of those methods is found in Sir John Pringle's speech, when the medal of the Royal Society was given to that illustrious navigator. I am glad to see in his last voyage that he found the means effectual which I had proposed for preserving flour, bread, etc. from moisture and damage. They were found dry and good after being at sea four years.

The method is described in my printed works, page 452, fifth edition. In the same, page 469, 470, is proposed a means of allaying thirst in case of want of fresh water. This has since been practised [practiced] in two instances with success. Happy if their hunger; when the other provisions are consumed, could be relieved as commodiously; and perhaps in time this may be found not impossible. An addition might be made to their present vegetable provision, by drying various roots in slices by the means of an oven. The sweet potatoe of America and Spain, is excellent for this purpose. Other potatoes, with carrots, parsnips and turnips, might be prepared and preserved in the same manner.

With regard to make-shifts in cases of necessity, seamen are generally very ingenious themselves. They will excuse however the mention of two or three. If they happen in any circumstance, such as after shipwreck, taking to their boat, or the like, to want a compass, a fine sewing needle laid on clear water in a cup will generally point to the north, most of them being a little magnetical, or may be made so by being strongly rubbed or hammered, lying in a north and south direction. If their needle is too heavy to float by itself, it may be supported by little pieces of cork or wood. A man who can swim, may be aided in a long traverse by his handkerchief formed into a kite, by two cross sticks extending to the four corners; which being raised in the air, when the wind is fair and fresh, will tow him along while lying on his back. Where force is wanted to move a heavy body, and there are but few hands and no machines, a long and strong rope may make a powerful instrument.

Suppose a boat is to be drawn up on a beach, that she may be out of the surf, a stake drove into the beach where you would have the boat drawn; and another to fasten the end of the rope to, which comes from the boat, and then applying what force you have to pull upon the middle of the rope at right angles with it, the power will be augmented in proportion to the length of rope between the posts. The rope being fastened to the stake A, and drawn upon in the direction C D, will slide over the stake B; and when the rope is bent to the angle A D B, represented by the pricked line in figure 24, the boat will be at B.

A make shift method to secure a boat upon a beach in absence of block and tackle.

A make shift method to secure a boat upon a beach in absence of block and tackle. Click image for larger view and image credit.


Some sailors may think the writer has given himself unnecessary trouble in pretending to advise them; for they have a little repugnance to the advice of landmen, whom they esteem ignorant and incapable of giving any worth notice; though it is certain that most of their instruments were the invention of landmen. At least the first vessel ever made to go on the water was certainly such. I will therefore add only a few words more, and they shall be addressed to passengers.

'When you intend a long voyage'

When you intend a long voyage, you may do well to keep your intention as much as possible a secret, or at least the time of your departure; otherwise you will be continually interrupted in your preparations by the visits of friends and acquaintance, who will not only rob you of the time you want, but put things out of your mind, so that when you come to sea, you have the mortification to recollect points of business that ought to have been done, accounts you had intended to settle, and conveniencies [conveniences] you had proposed to bring with you, &c. &c., all which have been omitted through the effect of these officious friendly visits. Would it not be well if this custom could be changed; if the voyager after having, without interruption, made all his preparations, should use some of the time he has left, in going himself to take leave of his friends at their own houses, and let them come to congratulate him on his happy return.

It is not always in your power to make a choice in your captain, though much of your comfort in the passage may depend on his personal character, as you must for so long a time be confined to his company, and under his direction; if he be a sensible, sociable, good natured, obliging man, you will be so much the happier. Such there are; but if he happens to be otherwise, and is only skilful [skillful], careful, watchful and active in the conduct of his ship, excuse the rest, for these are the essentials.

Whatever right you may have by agreement in the mass of stores laid in by him for the passengers, it is good to have some particular things in your own possession, so as to be always at your own command.

Separated water troughs for fowls so each can drink.

Separated water troughs for fowls so each can drink. Click image for larger view and image credit.


1. Good water; that of the ship being often bad. You can be sure of having it good only by bottling it from a clear spring or well and in clean bottles. 2. Good tea. 3. Coffee ground. 4. Chocolate. 5. Wine of the sort you particularly like, and cyder [cider]. 6. Raisins. 7. Almonds. 8. Sugar. 9. Capillaire. 10. Lemons. 11. Jamaica spirits. 12. Eggs greas’d. 13. Diet bread. 14. Portable Soup. 15. Rusks [sweet biscuits].

As to fowls, it is not worth while to have any called yours, unless you could have the feeding and managing of them according to your own judgment under your own eye. As they are generally treated at present in ships, they are for the most part sick, and their flesh tough and hard as whitleather. All seamen have an opinion, broached I supposed at first prudently, for saving of water when short, that fowls do not know when they have drank enough, and will kill themselves if you give them too much, so they are served with a little only once in two days. This is poured into troughs that lie slopeing [sloping], and therefore immediately runs down to the lower end. There the fowls ride upon one another's backs to get at it, and some are not happy enough to reach and once dip their bills in it. Thus tantalized, and tormented with thirst, they cannot digest their dry food, they fret, pine, sicken and die. Some are found dead, and thrown overboard every morning, and those killed for the table are not eatable. Their troughs should be in little divisions like cups to hold the water separately, figure 25. But this is never done. The sheep and hogs are therefore your best dependance for fresh meat at sea, the mutton being generally tolerable and the pork excellent.

It is possible your captain may have provided so well in the general stores, as to render some of the particulars above recommended of little or no use to you. But there are frequently in the ship poorer passengers, who are taken at a lower price, lodge in the steerage, and have no claim to any of the cabbin [cabin] provisions, or to any but those kinds that are allowed the sailors. These people are sometimes dejected, sometimes sick, there may be women and children among them. In a situation where there is no going to market, to purchase such necessaries, a few of these your superfluities distributed occasionally may be of great service, restore health, save life, make the miserable happy, and thereby afford you infinite pleasure.

The worst thing in ordinary merchant ships is the cookery. They have no professed cook, and the worst hand as a seaman is appointed to that office, in which he is not only very ignorant but very dirty. The sailors have therefore a saying, God sends meat and the devil cooks. Passengers more piously disposed, and willing to believe heaven orders all things for the best, may suppose that knowing the sea-air and constant exercise by the motion of the vessel would give us extraordinary appetites, bad cooks were kindly sent to prevent our eating too much; or, that foreseeing we should have bad cooks, good appetites were furnished to prevent our starving. If you cannot trust to these circumstances, a spirit-lamp, with a blaze-pan, may enable you to cook some little things for yourself; such as a hash, a soup, &c. And it might be well also to have among your stores some potted meats, which if well put up will keep long good.

A small tin oven to place with the open side before the fire, may be another good utensil, in which your own servant may roast for you a bit of pork or mutton. You will sometimes be induced to eat of the ship’s salt beef, as it is often good. You will find cyder [cider] the best quencher of that thirst which salt meat or fish occasions. The ship biscuit is too hard for some sets of teeth. It may be softened by toasting. But rusk is better; for being made of good fermented bread, sliced and baked a second time, the pieces imbibe the water easily, soften immediately, digest more kindly and are therefore more wholsome [wholesome] than the unfermented biscuit. By the way, rusk is the true original biscuit, so prepared to keep for sea, biscuit in French signifying twice baked. If your dry peas boil hard, a two-pound iron shot put with them into the pot, will by the motion of the ship grind them as fine as mustard.

Securing soup bowls at sea.

Securing soup bowls at sea. Click image for larger view and image credit.


The accidents I have seen at sea with large dishes of soup upon a table, from the motion of the ship, have made me wish that our potters or pewterers would make soup dishes in divisions, like a set of small bowls united together, each containing about sufficient for one person, in some such form as figure 26; for then when the ship should make a sudden heel, the soup would not in a body flow over one side, and fall into people's laps and scald them, as is sometimes the case, but would be retained in the separate divisions, as in figure 27.

'A few general reflections'

After these trifles permit the addition of a few general reflections. Navigation when employed in supplying necessary provisions to a country in want, and thereby preventing famines, which were more frequent and destructive before the invention of that art, is undoubtedly a blessing to mankind. When employed merely in transporting superfluities, it is a question whether the advantage of the employment it affords is equal to the mischief of hazarding so many lives on the ocean. But when employed in pillaging merchants and transporting slaves, it is clearly the means of augmenting the mass of human misery. It is amazing to think of the ships and lives risqued [risked] in fetching tea from China, coffee from Arabia, sugar and tobacco from America, all which our ancestors did well without.

Soup bowls retain their soup during rolling of vessel.

Soup bowls retain their soup during rolling of vessel. Click image for larger view and image credit.


Sugar employs near one thousand ships, tobacco almost as many. For the utility of tobacco there is little to be said; and for that of sugar, how much more commendable would it be if we could give up the few minutes gratification afforded once or twice a day by the taste of sugar in our tea, rather than encourage the cruelties exercised in producing it. An eminent French moralist says, that when he considers the wars we excite in Africa to obtain slaves, the numbers necessarily slain in those wars, the many prisoners who perish at sea by sickness, bad provisions, foul air, &c. &c. in the transportation, and how many afterwards die from the hardships of slavery, he cannot look on a piece of sugar without conceiving it stained with spots of human blood! Had he added the consideration of the wars we make to take and retake the sugar islands from one another, and the fleets and armies that perish in those expeditions, he might have seen his sugar not merely spotted, but thoroughly dyed Scarlet in grain.

It is these wars that make the maritime powers of Europe, the inhabitants of London and Paris, pay dearer for sugar than those of Vienna, a thousand miles from the sea; because their sugar costs not only the price they pay for it by the pound, but all they pay in taxes to maintain the fleets and armies that fight for it.

With great esteem, I am, Sir,
Your most obedient humble servant

B. FRANKLIN

Citation: Franklin, Benjamin. 1786. “A Letter from Dr. Benjamin Franklin, to Mr. Alphonsus le Roy, Member of Several Academies at Paris. Containing Sundry Maritime Observations. At Sea, on board the London Packet, Capt. Truxton, August 1785.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge II: 294-329. Includes chart and diagrams. Held by NOAA Central Library, Silver Spring, MD.

Note on Transcription: The preceding letter was transcribed from the original by NOAA Central Library staff in April 2002. [ ] indicates modern spellings inserted by the transcriber. Subheads were added for ease of reading.