Today, a terrible story about bringing the data
home. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
What are the great survival
stories? Captain Bligh in his open boat? The Donner
Party in the Sierras? Far more stories than we
remember! Take the case of Adolphus Washington
Greely was born in 1844, joined the Union army as a
private, was thrice wounded in the Civil War and
promoted to major. After the war he was put in
charge of a new unit of the Signal Corps -- one
which would, some years later, become the U.S.
He spent five of those years stringing telegraph
lines in the remote American West. Then, in 1881, a
more dramatic mission: By now Greely's boss,
General Albert Myer, had
taken part in international meteorological
congresses. Myer had committed America to
international data gathering at stations encircling
the polar ice cap. Greely set off with 24 men to a
site on Lady Franklin Bay.
That's a spot far north of Baffin Island, north of
the magnetic pole, north of any prior human
settlement. It lay just south of the ninth circle
of Dante's Hell. Greely's group arrived, erected a
wooden building, and called it Fort Conger.
They settled in for the long task of measuring the
weather. Greely had forseen cabin fever and had
armed against it. He had spent $182 of government
money for books. For that he came under
congressional scrutiny. One congressman read this
into the record for voters back home: "Is there
anything in Innocents Abroad or
Leather Stocking Tales that has
anything to do with meteorology?"
That summer, supply boats couldn't get through.
Greely had no communications, but he had plenty of
provisions and he held the group together. Next
summer, still no supply ship. They were in trouble.
In August, 1883, they loaded their records and
specimens into their steam launch and set out for a
From there, the whole story grows too long, too
complex, and too horrible to tell in full. Ice
closed in on their launch. They had to ride ice
floes, then an iceberg, until it ran aground. All
the time they carried their records and specimens.
The 1883 rescue ship had been crushed by ice. Food
caches along the way were only enough for a few
days. They began starving. One man froze his hands
and feet. They had to be amputated.
A naval vessel found them in June, 1884. In the
end, 18 men had died of starvation and one had been
shot for stealing food. Six, including the amputee,
survived ten months after they'd set out. They had
eaten lichens. They had eaten their companions'
But they also brought back the best set of Arctic
data ever gathered. It cost a terrible price, no
doubt. But knowing what they'd accomplished is just
what sustained this heroic troop -- in facing death
and also in coming to terms with their own
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds