Between the ship-crushing ice floes, polar bear attacks and maddening quiet, exploring the Great White North in the 19th century was not a recommended endeavour. Yet hundreds of intrepid adventurers tried — and many died. But one Swede thought he had the answer: simply float above the tundra in a gas-filled dirigible.
Flying over the pole in a balloon appears to have occurred to [polar explorer] S.A. Andrée on the evening of March 16, 1894, after a meeting of the Swedish Anthropological and Geographical Society in Stockholm, when the explorer A. E. Nordenskiöld asked Andrée to walk home with him. In 1878 Nordenskiöld, on the Vega, had finally discovered the Northeast Passage. He was interested to know what Andrée thought of using captive balloons — ones tethered to the ground, that is — to rise above the wall of ice surrounding Antarctica and see what lay beyond it. Andrée said, Why not rise above the ice and keep going?
A year later, on February 13, 1895, Andrée described his intentions in an address to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. The following August, in London, at the Sixth International Geographical Congress, during a morning session devoted to polar exploration, he gave essentially the same speech, called "A Plan to Reach the North Pole by Balloon". He followed General Greely, the American, whose subject was a history of Arctic expeditions, in which he delivered a sort of roll call of nations and names, prefaced by remarks depicting the Arctic as a place where "solitude and monotony, terrible in the weeks of constant polar sunlight", nearly overthrew the mind "in the months of continuous Arctic darkness". It was a territory "of silence awful at all times, but made yet more startling by astounding phenomena that appeal noiselessly to the eye; of darkness so continuous and intense" that a person was led to wonder "whether the world has been cast out of its orbit in the planetary universe into new conditions."
Because I would have chafed at such dramatised talk, however fervent or earned, I imagine Andrée as waiting impatiently to speak. He was 39, blond, tall and well built, with wide shoulders and a strong jaw. A woman in the audience described him as "heroic-looking." An acquaintance portrayed him in a letter as "a worthy descendant of the old Vikings". When he felt something passionately, he wasn't above rhetoric, and he liked the long run-up. In his Swedish accent, words such as "have" came out "haff".
"The history of geographical discovery is at the same time a history of great peril and suffering," he began. "While forcing their way through unknown regions across the vast deserts of Australia, Asia, Africa, the prairies of North America, or through the forests of South America and Central Africa, the explorers have encountered dangers, endured hardships, and been obliged to conquer difficulties, of which no clear idea can be formed by those who have never passed through similar experiences."
In warm climates, however, "nearly every hindrance can be said to contain a means of success." Natives often "bar the way of the explorer, but just as often, perhaps, they become his friends and helpers." Lakes and rivers carried him places; plus he could drink from them and find in them things to eat. In the desert, despite the harsh sun, there could also be "a luxuriant vegetation that serves as a shelter," not to mention people who have been where you are going and can tell you the best way to get there.
In the Arctic, "the cold only kills," Andrée continued. There were "no oases in the icy desert, no vegetation, no fuel," just "a field of ice that invites to a journey," but this field, "covered with gigantic blocks," had proved too daunting to cross. The current might lead a vessel forward, but only into waters filled with ice that crushed ships, and in the high reaches of the Arctic desert, no natives were around to help you. The sun lit one's way in the summer, but it also rotted the ice so that your sledge balked and bogged down and with each step you might sink to your knees. Only by considerable toil could you advance, and then only farther into a landscape that had no comforts or shelter.
"If we further remember that the Arctic explorer can engage in active travelling during a brief season only," Andrée said, "and that during the remainder of the year he is compelled to inactivity under the weakening influence of cold, together with darkness, while he has to resort to the nourishment that is usually unsuitable and often insufficient, and that is always haunted by the consciousness, that the results he can attain will almost inevitably be meagre in comparison with those which can be secured by explorers in other parts of the globe; then it must be admitted that Arctic research offers drawbacks which are materially greater than those encountered by geographical explorers in other places."
Laying out his case, Andrée went on — perhaps incautiously — to malign the sledge, the only means for Arctic travel that had "hitherto been used or even been available for use." Whether drawn by dogs or men, it had failed to carry anyone far enough, "although new efforts to make them a success have repeatedly been made. The fact remains that, in the attempts made for centuries to cross the polar ice, numerous lives and vessels have been lost and large sums of money wasted."
No nation took greater pride in its sledging or its sledgers than Britain, and no nation had lost more of them. Perhaps Andrée was giving the same speech he had given in Sweden, where sledging was not so revered. Possibly he didn't care what the British thought. Or maybe, as his friends sometimes said, he had a tin ear and didn't understand the effect his remarks might have. It requires little of the imagination, however, to hear throats being cleared and feet shuffling.
Nevertheless, Andrée was now at the hinge of his speech. "It would seem," he went on, "as if it were about time to look into the matter carefully, with a view to ascertaining whether there is no other means of transportation than the sledge available for a journey in the regions referred to. We need not pursue the investigation very far to discover such a means, one that appears to be created for the purpose in question. I refer to the balloon."
The perfect and navigable balloon, "which is worshipped because nobody has ever produced one," was not what was needed, he said. The version at hand would suffice — people weren't aware of how suitable it was because, more than seeing its advantages, they were accustomed to noting its defects. "Such a balloon is capable of carrying an exploring-party to the pole and back again," Andrée said. "It is possible, with such a balloon, to cross the Arctic plains."
His purpose declared, he now needed to persuade, and he softened his tone. "To make a journey across the Arctic deserts, is not a purely scientific, but a technical problem." The results of such a voyage were important for science, but the means must be devised by the engineer. A balloon to reach the pole needed to carry three people, he continued, all the instruments they required for scientific experiments, and their food. It should be able to remain aloft for 30 days (the record was fifteen), and, unlike all balloons thus far known, it had to be able to be steered. Last, it had to be inflated in the Arctic.
A larger balloon, with sufficient lift, had been built and displayed in 1878 in Paris at an exhibition, where it made fifteen hundred ascents, each time carrying 30 or 40 people, Andrée said. Since then a number of balloons had had the carrying power that the Arctic balloon required. "It is evident that the problem involving the manufacture of a balloon that will satisfy requirement No. 1 has long since been solved by the arts," he said.
Balloons had also been made that retained gas long enough to suggest that a 30-day flight was achievable. The hydrogen could be manufactured at the launching place or brought in canisters aboard ships. To prevent the wind from interfering with the balloon while it was being filled, a shed could be built as a hangar. Finally, the difficulty in sailing a balloon to a specific destination was that conventional balloons could travel only where the wind blew. A balloonist might take to the air hoping to be carried by currents to where he wanted to land, but the currents could change on him. Andrée announced that he had designed a system using guide ropes and a sail that had allowed his balloon to travel at cross-purposes to the wind.
Next Andrée described the attributes of the balloon he needed. The basket should be "spacious and comfortable," have fl oats attached, and be hung from the balloon in such a way that it could be disengaged quickly, possibly by pulling a single rope. "The occupants will thus be able to save themselves at sea, when a vessel heaves in sight, by descending to the surface, and, if a heavy wind is blowing, ridding themselves of the balloon." (Such an escape was possible only if a ship was seen. When asked what he would do if his balloon came down in the water with no one around, he said, "Drown".) The balloon should also carry "a sledge, a canvas boat, a tent, arms and ammunition, and provisions for four months, all with a view to making a rescue possible in case of a mishap."
To build the balloon and equip the expedition would cost about thirty-eight thousand dollars. The balloon would travel approximately 250m above the ground-below the clouds, that is, and above the fogs. It should start as close to the pole as possible, and as early in July as a brisk and steady south wind arrived. A moderate wind would be better than a powerful one, since the ground would pass in a more regular way, and more of it could be added to the map. "The stay in the unknown regions should be of such long duration as circumstances will permit," he said, "and if chances to visit the surface should occur, they must be improved," meaning acted on.
Being almost finished, Andrée said that he couldn't "help adding a few remarks which will tend to show that not only is it possible to cross the Arctics by balloon, but that these regions are particularly well suited for balloon voyages." Obstacles for other expeditions would be advantages for a balloon trip, he said. Since the sun never set during the Arctic summer, he and his companions would be able to take photographs at all hours of territory that had never been viewed, and, since they could always see where they were going, they would not have to tie up at night, "and incur the risk of a heavy gale destroying the harnessed balloon." In addition, the constant sun kept the temperature steady, which helped preserve hydrogen. "In the tropics, on the other hand — for instance, in Central Africa — a balloon would be strongly heated during the day, and considerably cooled at night, whereby great losses of gas and ballast would result."
Furthermore, with the balloon travelling continuously, the trip would take half as long as otherwise. The "glossy" ground without trees to tangle the guide ropes meant that the basket would proceed at a constant altitude, making photographs and scientific measurements easier to manage than if the balloon were passing over a forest. Thunder and lightning, which were common at the equator, and which the balloon, with its ropes wet from rain, would be especially vulnerable to, were almost unknown in the Arctic. Finally, snow, which might collect and sink the balloon, hardly ever fell during the Arctic summer. Any that appeared when the temperature was warmer than freezing would melt, Andrée said, and if the temperature was lower the snow would blow away. What portion settled on the balloon would evaporate, "the evaporation in these regions being very considerable during the season in question."
"The methods heretofore employed to cross the polar ice have not led to the desired result," Andrée said in closing, "and there is no reason to suppose that future attempts of the same nature will be more successful." Undoubtedly, more was to be learned from people who set out in ships and sledges, he conceded, but the knowledge would arrive in increments and only gradually, and a century might pass before the pole was reached. Moreover, the farther the sledges advanced, the more difficult the terrain was likely to be, and the slower their progress.
"With these facts before us, it is only natural to look for other means of accomplishing the difficult task, and every reasonable proposition with a view to solving the problem should be carefully considered," he said. "The solution here proposed, to explore the Arctics by balloon, is not based on obscure theory, but on clear and indisputable facts, which appear to me quite convincing. They teach us — (1) That a balloon can be sent far into the Polar Regions; (2) that it can be kept afloat there a sufficiently long time for the purpose in question; (3) that such a balloon can carry the exploring party there and back; and (4) that many of the peculiarities of the Arctic Regions that have heretofore been a great hindrance in making Arctic exploration, prove to be factors in favour of an expedition by balloon.
"Besides, is it not more probable that the north pole will be reached by balloon than by sledges drawn by dogs, or by a vessel that travels like a boulder frozen into the ice? And can anybody on good grounds deny that it will be possible, by a single successful balloon journey, to acquire in a few days greater knowledge of the geographical aspect of the Arctic Regions than would otherwise be obtainable in centuries?"
Excerpted from The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson. Copyright © 2012 by Alec Wilkinson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Ice Balloon: S. A. Andree and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration is available from Amazon.