It’s said that history is written by the victors. But at the same time, those victors often end up mythologizing the brave, failed losers that came before them. According to National Geographic Magazine, our fascination with failed explorers isn’t just about scaring ourselves silly with stories of ice-encrusted tombs and cannibalism. It’s a vital function of our will to make progress.
In an interesting story in the September issue of the magazine, Hannah Bloch looks back at exploration’s greatest screw-ups and finds that they’re almost more important than the adventurers who are remembered as successes. “Failure — never sought, always dreaded, impossible to ignore — is the specter that hovers over every attempt at exploration,” she explains. “Yet without the sting of failure to spur us to reassess and rethink, progress would be impossible.” The same goes for technological and creative pursuits, too. Along with the story, NatGeo also has an excellent slideshow of rare archival photos of famously failed exhibitions — several of which they’ve shared with us, below.
There’s an image of George Mallory taken the day before he disappeared on Everest. There’s also one of the wreckage of Swedish aviator S. A. Andrée’s balloon, recovered 33 years after he and his crew died attempting to discover the North Pole. All in all, it’s a pretty remarkable collection of images. [National Geographic]
In 1897, S. A. Andrée attempted to reach the North Pole via balloon. Only two days after taking off from Svalbard, the balloon — which was virtually untested — went down hundreds of miles away from civilisation.
Andrée and his two crew members used their camera to document their long journey south, capturing incredible moments like the one above. Ultimately, they died on an uninhabited island of Svalbard — and 33 years later, the footage was recovered along with their remains (see The New Yorker‘s recent profile on Andrée for more).
Photograph courtesy Grenna Museum, Andréexpeditionen Polarcenter/Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography/National Geographic.
American explorer Robert E. Peary spent his entire career trying to reach the North Pole. On his third attempt, he believed he had succeeded — but it turned out that he had been about five miles away from its true location.
Photograph courtesy National Geographic/Robert E. Peary.
English climber George Mallory (seen second from the left, a few days before he died), was 37 when he and his partner set out to summit Everest. Historians believe his desperation to succeed — and his belief that he’d never have another chance — may have played a part in why both men never returned.
Mallory’s body was finally recovered in 1999, fueling the argument that they may have been the first to summit Everest, three decades before Norgay and Hillary.
Photograph courtesy J. B. Noel, Royal Geographic Society, with IBG/National Geographic.
Otto Lilienthal was one of the first humans to “fly,” thanks to his life-long experiments with glider technology. Though his contributions ended up being incredibly important to engineers working on manned flight a few decades later, he died in 1896 of a broken neck, after his glider stalled in mid-air.
Photograph courtesy National Geographic/R. W. Wood.
Apollo 13 is probably the most famous failure of 20th century exploration. The 1970 mission may have failed, but, as NatGeo points out, “it was a success as well: The astronauts came back alive.”
Photograph courtesy Universal Images Group Limited/Alamy/National Geographic.