The Gulf Stream: Methods of the Investigation and Results of the Research, Appendix No. 10 from the Annual Report of the Coast and Geodetic Survey for 1890

This is the account of John Elliott Pillsbury's curiosity and fascination with the great river in the sea known as the Gulf Stream. It is a memoir and that describes the methods Pillsbury used to investigate this prominent feature of the Atlantic Ocean and test the instrument he devised to measure direction and velocity of ocean currents at any depth. This work was completed while Pillsbury served as executive officer on board the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey steamer Blake from 1884-1889.

This excerpt includes the title page, pages 516-525, and figures 38-42 from The Gulf Stream: Methods of the Investigation.

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John Elliott Pillsbury, commanding officer of the USS Blake, an assistant in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, spent part of each of the years 1884-1889 at sea studying the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream, a fast-moving current of water flowing from the Gulf of Mexico, through the Straits of Florida, northeast toward Novia Scotia, and extending eastward towards Europe, has enthralled sailors, explorers, and fishermen for centuries. Because of its importance to navigation and commerce, superintendents of the Coast and Geodetic Survey assigned Pillsbury and the Blake to investigate and better understand the Gulf Stream's depth, velocity, temperature, location, and direction.

Exploration History

In this classic work, Pillsbury devotes several chapters to the captivating history of Gulf Stream exploration, crediting Christopher Columbus as its pioneering observer. He covers topics such as Ponce de Leon's personal discovery of the Gulf Stream, speculates on its cause, and discusses the current's influence on the settling of America. He also includes Benjamin Franklin's famous 1770 chart of the Gulf Stream for English captains who, unaware of this ocean current, lost valuable time trying to sail against it in their passages from Europe to North America. (pl. 33, facing p. 488)

The volume captures Pillsbury's and the Blake's successful pioneering efforts for deep-ocean anchoring by using steel wire instead of hemp rope and for measuring the direction and velocity of the Gulf Stream with a current meter that Pillsbury devised in 1876. During the cruises, the Blake anchored in depths up to 2,180 fathoms (over 13,000 feet), the greatest anchoring depth attempted up to that time.

This chart shows the currents of the Gulf Stream measured at 43 different stations at different depths

A hallmark of oceanographic work done by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey was attention to detail and a comprehensive tally of data collected during field work. This chart shows the currents of the Gulf Stream measured at 43 stations at different depths. (pl. 51 facing p. 550)

Pillsbury reported in this volume the influence of many factors on the Gulf Stream. He even studied the effect of the moon's transit on the famous current's velocity during the cruises. True to the tradition of previous annual reports of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and accompanying appendices, Pillsbury in this report described in detail the state-of-the-art oceanographic work carried out from the decks of the Blake.

Descriptive Content

The Gulf Stream is rich in descriptive text, data tables, illustrations, charts, maps, and eloquent prose. One gets a sense of the awe the Gulf Stream inspired in mariners when Pillsbury describes it as "the grandest and most mighty of any terrestrial phenomenon" (p. 472) and further, "[it] is difficult for the mind to grasp the immensity of this great ocean river" (p. 472). The Gulf Stream is still of enormous interest today because of its influence on climate, weather, navigation, fisheries, and ocean circulation.

Who cannot be moved by Pillsbury's evocative passage that so eloquently captures the grandeur of the Gulf Stream:

"Man stands with bowed head in the presence of nature's visible grandeurs, such as towering mountains, precipices, or icebergs, forests of immense trees, grand rivers, or waterfalls. He realizes the force of waves that can sweep away light-houses or toss an ocean steamer about like a cork. In a vessel floating on the Gulf Stream one sees nothing of the current and knows nothing but what experience tells him; but to be anchored in its depths far out of the sight of land, and to see the mighty torrent rushing past at a speed of miles per hour, day after day and day after day, one begins to think that all the wonders of the earth combined can not equal this one river in the ocean" (p. 473).


  • Author: John Elliot Pillsbury (1848-1919)
  • Date Published: 1891
  • Publisher: Government Printing Office
  • Location: Washington, DC
  • Length: 160 pages

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The Gulf Stream: Methods of the Investigation and Results of the Research, Appendix No. 10 from the Annual Report of the Coast and Geodetic Survey for 1890 (pdf, 98 MB)

Related Web Sites

Visible Earth: Gulf Stream's Brightness Temperature from NASA

NOAA's Gulf Stream Finder Project

Short biographical sketch of John Elliott Pillsbury and a picture of his gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery

NOAA Central Library