The 1897 Andree Expedition Tries to Balloon Over the North Pole
Andree and his Eagle crew.
It is not a little strange to be floating here above the Polar Sea. To be the first that has floated here in a balloon. How soon, I wonder, shall we have successors?… S.A. Andree in his diary
The harshly beautiful but deadly Arctic and Antarctic regions captured the imaginations of explorers and adventurers in the second half of the 19th century and lured them into several polar exploration expeditions. The North Pole’s frozen siren song touched Swede Salomon August Andree who believed that he could use his technological skill with hydrogen balloons and his intrepid spirit to reach the North Pole.
He proposed a plan to let the wind power a hydrogen balloons from Svalbard, located north of Europe about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, across the Arctic Sea to the Bering Strait. He projected that the hydrogen balloon would fetch up in Alaska, Canada, or Russia and pass near or directly over the North pole on the way.
Salomon August Andree Develops a Ballooning Background
Salomon Andree worked as an engineer at the patent office in Stockholm, Sweden, but he saved his true passion for ballooning. In 1893, he bought his own balloon, the Svea, and he took it on nine expeditions, starting from Stockholm and travelling a total distance of 900 milesDuring the Svea flights, the prevailing western winds tended to snatch control of his balloon and carry him out to the Baltic Sea. The winds dragged his basket and caused it to skim the surface of the water and slam it into one of the countless rocky islets in the Stockholm chain of islands. Once the winds blew him clear across the Baltic Sea to Finland and his longest trip was due east from Gothenburg across Sweden and out over the Baltic to Gotland.
Andree Tests His Drag-Rope Steering Technique
During some of his Svea flights Andree tried out the drag rope steering technique that he had developed and wanted to use on his North Pole expedition. Drag ropes made to hang from the balloon basket and drag part of their length on the ground, supposedly countered the tendency of lighter than air craft to travel at the same speed as the wind which made steering by sails impossible. The friction of the ropes was designed to slow the balloon to the point where the sails would help guide the craft other than making the balloon rotate on its axis.
Andree contended that with the system of drag rope and sails, his Svea essentially functioned as a dirigible. The drag ropes continuously fell off, tangled up with each other, or got stuck to the ground, which pulled the often low flying balloon down into a dangerous bounce. Modern balloonists discredit Andree’s claim that his balloon functioned as a dirigible and that drag ropes function as balloon steering technique.
Andree Explains His Ideas to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
In the late Nineteenth Century, Sweden had unfulfilled Arctic ambitions which patriotic Swedes often contrasted with adjoining Norway which held a leading edge in Arctic exploration. Swedish politicians and scientists wanted Sweden to overtake Norway both on the ground and in world reckoning, so Andree found receptive ears for his ideas.
At an 1895 lecture at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, he found a supportive audience of geographers and meteorologists. He explained that a polar exploration balloon would need to have the lifting power to carry three people and their scientific equipment. He said that the balloon would have to retain hydrogen well enough to stay aloft for 30 days and the hydrogen must be manufactured and the balloon filled at the Arctic launch site. Finally, he said, the balloon must be steerable to a degree.
Accepting Andree’s optimistic projects, the Royal Swedish Academy approved Andree’s expense calculations which amounted to nearly one million current United States dollars. After the Academy’s endorsement, most of Sweden and people from other parts of the world rushed to contribute to the project, including King Oscar II of Sweden and Alfred Nobel who created dynamite and the Nobel Prize.
Parisian Experts Prepare the Polar Balloon
Henri Lachambre, the world famous craftsman, made Andree’s polar balloon in his balloon workshop in Paris, the world capital of ballooning, while in France and Germany, seasoned balloonists voiced their skepticism of Andre’s methods and inventions. Still optimistic and encouraged by nationalism and the international media, Andree forged ahead. His finished balloon was a varnished, three layer silk balloon, and 67 feet in diameter. Andree called it Ornen, Swedish for The Eagle.
The Eagle Doesn’t Fly in 1896
Andree chose two volunteers to accompany him on his 1896 maiden voyage. Nils Gustaf Ekholm was an experienced Arctic meteorological researcher, and Nils Strindberg, a brilliant student conducting original research in physics and chemistry and a skilled amateur photographer.
After more than a year of preparation, the First Andree Polar Expedition left Stockholm on waves of patriotism. Headlines around the world recorded his progress toward Danskoya off the northwest coast of Spitsbergen, Norway. The wind and weather didn’t cooperate and on August 17, 1896, Andree deflated his Eagle and the expedition returned to Stockholm, with hopes as flat as their balloon.
Nansen’s Fram Expedition Sets Precedents and Garners Headlines
As a counterpoint to Andree’s failed balloon polar expedition, Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen attempted to reach the North Pole between 1893 and 1896, by following the natural east-west Arctic Ocean current. Despite the skepticism of other polar explorers he took his ship Fram to the eastern Arctic ocean and froze her into the pack ice, waiting for the drift to carry the Fram towards the North Pole.
After 18 months, Nansen and his companion, Hjalmar Johansen, left the ship with a dog team and sleds and traveled toward the North Pole. They didn’t reach it, but the set a record of the farthest north latitude of 86 degrees 13.6’N, before they retreated to the safety of Franz Josef Land. In the meantime, the Fram continued drifting westward until it finally emerged in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Nansen’s Fram Expedition set the standard for polar exploration and incorporated the important principles of using Inuit and Lapp methods of Arctic survival. Nansen also achieved worldwide fame in 1896, painfully driving home Andree’s failure to even get off the ground with his Polar expedition.
Salomon Andree firmly resolved to capture the fame for himself and the Eagle in 1897.
The Andree Expedition is Found After 33 Years Lost in the Arctic
Even before the failed 1896 Andree Expedition, Nils Ekholm had warned Salomon Andree about the leaks in the Eagle and predicted that it leaked too much to reach the North Pole, much less progress to Russia or Canada. He estimated that it could remain airborne for 17 days at the most, not the 30 days that Andree predicted and he warned Andree that he would not accompany him on his scheduled summer 1897 expedition unless he purchased a stronger, more skillfully sealed balloon.
The 1897 Eagle Lift Off and Disaster
Andree didn’t follow Nils Ekholm’s advice and purchase a better balloon, so he had to pick Knut Fraenkel, a civil engineer and an athlete, to replace Ekholm and provide meteorological observations. Although he didn’t have Ekholm’s training, Fraenkel meticulously recorded the movements of the three men during their last few months, leaving a valuable record for posterity. The three explorers returned to Danskoya and on July 11, 1897, they climbed into the Eagle’s heavy basket.
The Eagle had two ways of communicating with the outside world-buoys and homing pigeons. The buoys were steel cylinders encased in cork that were dropped from the balloon into the water or onto the ice for the currents to carry to civilization. Only two buoy messages were ever found. Andree released at least four pigeons, but a Norwegian steamer retrieved the only one ever found. The message, dated July 13, gave the travelling direction of the Eagle and added “All well on board.” Andree dictated a last minute telegram to King Oscar and another to the Aftonbladet, a Swedish newspaper, which held press rights to the expedition.
As they gained altitude, the Eagle immediately lost 1,170 pounds of rope which transformed it from what Andree believed was a steerable balloon into an ordinary hydrogen balloon which the wind immediately commandeered. It rose to 2,300 feet, an unimagined height, but the loss of the ropes and the weight the balloon carried doomed the voyage from the start. In all of his messages to the outside world, Andree didn’t mention that the Eagle was sailing too high and losing hydrogen at a rapid rate. In his diary he noted that eventually all of the sand and some of the food was thrown overboard to keep the Eagle airborne.
The Eagle traveled for two days and 3 ½ hours before it sank gently down into the ice and snow on July 14, 1898.
The March Over “Dreadful Terrain”
The men spent the next week debating and deciding where to go. The distant North Pole didn’t figure into their decision making. They had to decide between two depots of food and ammunition that had been established for them in case of such an emergency. One depot was located at Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land and one was located at Seven Islands in Svalbard. Consulting their maps which later proved to be incorrect, they decided that the distances were equal and opted to strike out for the bigger depot at Cape Flora. Andree had stocked the Eagle with food and equipment, some of it chosen without much thought to Arctic conditions. Andree had not always chosen his equipment to match Arctic conditions, “dreadful terrain,” as he called it, that featured ice floes, high ridges, and partially frozen melt ponds.
On July 22, 1897, the three men started out for Franz Josef Land to the southeast, but soon they found that the two story ice ridges effectively blocked any progress and the ice drifted backwards in the opposite direction. By August , they had decided to aim for Seven Islands in the southwest instead, with the idea of marching six to seven weeks to reach the supply depot there. Again, the Arctic terrain challenged them, sometimes forcing them to crawl on all fours with only the occasional relief allowing them to use their boat on open water. Then the wind turned and the ice floes moved backwards away from Seven islands.
Settling and Dying on Kvitoya Island
By September 12, 1897, the explorers had accepted the inevitability of wintering on the ice and camped on a large floe. They rapidly drifted due south towards Kvitoya, in the Svalbard chain of islands in the Arctic Ocean and on October 2, the ice floe directly under their hut began to break up and they were forced to move all of their stores on Kvitoya Island itself. At the end of the coherent part of his diary, Andree noted, “Morale remains good. With such comrades as these, one ought to be able to manage under practically any circumstances whatsoever.”
From the incoherent and badly damaged last pages of Andree’s diary, historians have deduced that all three men were dead within a few days after they moved onto Kvitoya Island.
The Bratvaag and the Isbjorn Explore Kvitoya Island
For the next 33 years the disappearance of the Andree expedition and the fate of its three members remained a mystery and part of the cultural consciousness of Sweden and the rest of the world. Psychics, historians, and ordinary citizens produced varying theories about the fate of the three men, including the idea that Eskimos had killed them. Finally in 1930, the crew of two ships, the Bratvaag and the Isbjorn ended the speculation. Ironically, the Norwegian Bratvaag Expedition had been studying the glaciers and seas of the Svalbard chain of islands when it found the remains of the Andree Expedition on August 5, 1930.
The summer of 1930 had been uncommonly warm and the sea was practically ice free, and on this summer day the fog over the island had thinned. Some of the Bratvaag’s crew landed on Kvitoya Island, which they called “inaccessible” and two of them discovered Andree’s boat frozen under a mound of snow and full of equipment. Peder Eliassen, the Bratvaag’s captain, had the crew search the site and their discoveries included a journal and two skeletons which they identified as Andree’s and Strindberg’s remains based on monograms found on their clothing.
The Bratvaag left Kvitoya Island, continuing its scheduled hunting and observations, with Captain Eliassen intending to return to search for more artifacts as soon as more ice melted. Newspaper reporters chartered the sealing sloop Isbjorn of Tromso, Norway, to intercept the Bratvaag. The Isbjorn missed the Bratvaag, so the Isbjorn crew headed of Kvitoya instead, landing on the island on September 5, 1897. They found pleasant weather and even less ice than the Bratvaag and the newspaper reporters photographed the area and discovered Fraenkel’s body and further artifacts, including Strindberg’s film, logbook and maps. On September 2, the crew of the Bratvaag turned over their discoveries to a scientific commission that the Swedish and Norwegian governments had formed in Tromso and on September 16, the crew of the Isbjorn followed suit. The bodies of the three explorers arrived in Stockholm on October 5, 1930.
Wecome Home to Sweden
On October 5, 1930, the remains of Salomon Andree, Knut Fraenkel, and Nils Strindberg were brought straight from the ship through the center of Stockholm. Swedish historian Sverker Sorlin wrote the procession bearing the bodies began “one of the most solemn and grandiose manifestations of national mourning that has ever occurred in Sweden.”
Books LLC History of Svalbard: S.A. Andree’s Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897, Bratraag Expedition, Operation Gauntlet, Spitsbergen Treaty, Books LLC, 2010
Howell, Michael and Ford, Peter. The Ghost Disease and Twelve Other Stories of Detective Work in the Medical Field, Penguin, 1986
Lachambre, Henri and Machuron, Alexis, Andree’s Balloon Expedition In Search of the North Pole 1898, Kessinger Publishing LLC, 2008
The New Yorker, April 12, 2010, Jean-Louis Etienne and the Andree Expedition.
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