For most of us enduring the long winter night in Antarctica, stories of polar exploration still continue to fill one with admiration for the self-sacrifice, tenacity, and indomitable human spirit displayed by those intrepid souls from an age long ago. In the annals of exploration there are many odd, mysterious, and fascinating tales, but few are as intriguing as one that began one hundred and fifteen years ago this July at the other end of the Earth.
Salomon August Andrée, who usually went by “S.A.” as an adult, was a Swedish engineer with a penchant for adventure who at the age of twenty-two decided to undertake a study tour of the United States in 1876. He managed to get a job as a janitor in the Swedish Pavilion at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia where the world’s latest technology was on display. While in Philadelphia, he met American ballooning pioneer John Wise who was launching balloon ascents from the Exposition grounds. Although unable to afford the price of a ride, Andrée was intrigued by balloon technology and the possibilities it provided for exploration and the advance of scientific knowledge. This interest continued to incubate until 1892 when Andrée made his first balloon ascent. The following year he was able to secure a large sum from funds and private patrons to purchase his own balloon for the purpose of making scientific observations. From 1893 – 1895 Andrée made nine ascents in his hydrogen balloon, Svea, and his scientific reports were deemed “first-class”.
Andrée’s polar ambitions gained support with an address to The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1895. He proposed a trans-arctic balloon expedition from Spitsbergen across the polar sea to Russia, Canada, or the United States. He received financial support from Alfred Nobel (dynamite magnate and founder of the Nobel Prize) and King Oscar II, among others. Sweden had a proud history of exploration and national pride did not want to suffer in the quest for a prize that was essentially in their backyard, the North Pole.
With funds equivalent to roughly one million dollars in today’s money, Andrée acquired the necessary expedition accoutrements. The most expensive item was the balloon itself. Made in Paris (the ballooning capital of the world) by Henri Lachambre, the balloon was fabricated from layers of varnish silk. The gas tightness of the balloon seams would be critical to the success of the expedition, as it was essential the balloon remain aloft long enough to accomplish the journey. Unfortunately, glued on seam reinforcing strips or secret formula sealant could not prevent hydrogen gas from escaping through the 8 million stitching holes at a greater rate than expected and along with it about 150 pounds of lift a day.
In the summer of 1896, the three expedition members, S.A. Andrée, Nils Strindberg, and Nils Ekholm, headed to Spitsbergen accompanied by the necessary support equipment and personnel for their first attempt of polar flight with an untested balloon. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon one’s view of this enterprise, the wind direction proved unsuitable for a trans-polar flight and the group returned to Sweden for another attempt the following summer. Nils Ekholm, skeptical of the balloon’s ability to retain enough hydrogen to complete the trip, took this opportunity to excuse himself from the expedition.
Favorable winds prevailed on 11 July 1897 when three Swedish explorers (S.A. Andrée, Nils Strindberg, and Knut Fraenkel who replaced Nils Ekholm) lifted off from Spitsbergen in their hydrogen balloon, The Eagle. Almost immediately things began to go wrong. A downdraft pressed the balloon down towards the surface of the sea and the gondola touched the water. Two of the three guide ropes that were meant to drag along the ice to provide some modicum of steering were lost in the first few minutes. This loss of almost 1000 pounds of ballast caused the balloon to rise much higher than planned, which in turn resulted in the expansion of hydrogen in the rigid silk envelop and hastened the escape of the precious gas. The Eagle rose to about 2000 feet and within an hour had disappeared from sight.
The first few hours of the trip was quite pleasant with sunshine and clear blue skies. Just after midnight, the balloon encountered light fog and drizzle conditions. Ice accretion in clouds and fog had not been considered during expedition planning. The weight of ice and water on the balloon cloth resulted in The Eagle bumping along the polar ice by the next afternoon and for the following two days. Sixty-five hours after departure and three hundred miles short of the North Pole, the balloon was now firmly held in an icy embrace. If it were not for bad luck, this expedition would not have had any luck at all.
Plans had been made for this eventuality with such items as guns, skis, snowshoes, a tent, and 4-months of provisions, but dragging heavy sledges across the difficult terrain of arctic ice in the summer is a daunting task. They shot polar bear and seals to supplement their diet. After several weeks of marching they realized the pack ice was moving in the opposite direction and their forward progress had been minimal. They changed direction and finally spotted a remote island, White Island, in early October. The arctic winter was rapidly approaching and better shelter than a tent was needed if they were to survive.
Nothing further was heard of the expedition for the next 33 years. In 1930, a Norwegian sailing vessel stopped at White Island to look for seals and to take rock samples. On their second day of exploring the island, they discovered the headless corpse of S.A. Andrée leaning against a rock. The remains of his two companions were found soon after, along with artifacts from the expedition which importantly included diaries and undeveloped photographic plates. The cause of death remains a mystery to this day, although is appears Strindberg was the first to die from what was conjectured to be a polar bear attack. His body was placed between two rock outcroppings and covered with stones. The others apparently died within days. When their camp was found, equipment and valuable items, such as diaries, lay scattered about with indifference. One can speculate they perished from exhaustion and exposure. They had endured much, but the death of their friend and the prospect of a harsh, dark polar winter ahead must have sapped their last remnant of resolve.
On a rainy day in October 1930, a ship with naval escort entered Stockholm harbor carrying the cremated remains of the explorers. Never before in Sweden had there been such an outpouring of public grief. King Gustaf V declared, “In the name of the Swedish nation, I here greet the dust of the polar explorers who, more that three decades ago, left their native land to find an answer to questions of unparalleled difficulty.”
It is interesting to note seventy-two years after the launch of the Andrée Polar Expedition, also in the month of July, three explorers left their native land to answer questions of unparalleled difficulty. They too were on a journey of scientific inquiry, propelled in a vehicle partially powered by (liquid) hydrogen containing a craft named “The Eagle” that would touch down on the surface of the moon.