Today, Arctic ice. 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.
The cold North was the last
frontier in Europe's three-century Age of
Exploration. If that epoch began with Columbus, it
ended with a series of heroic attempts to penetrate
During the mid-nineteenth century, Arctic explorers
were driven by the hope of finding a sea passage
between the Atlantic and Pacific. Such a passage
did exist, but it gradually became clear that ice
kept it almost impassible. Then the North Pole
began calling out to explorers. It
appealed less to utility than it did to our old and
atavistic cravings to be first up the mountain.
The best route seemed to be the passage formed by
Greenland on the east, with Baffin and Ellesmere
Islands on the west. Today, we know that passage
opens into the Arctic Ocean about five hundred
miles from the Pole. We also know the ocean is
largely iced over.
Writer Bruce Henderson tells how Charles Hall made
the first attempt to reach to Pole in 1871. Hall
was an explorer and promoter who'd made journeys up
the west side of Greenland and written about them.
He'd cultivated friends in high places. In 1870 he
convinced Congress to fund a major expedition to
reach the Pole.
Congress refitted a sail-and-steam-powered ship
for Artic service and supplied it for two years.
Hall named it Polaris. But Congress also
meddled in the crew selection. So Hall set out the
next June with a sinister young scientific officer
(whose agenda remains a mystery) and an alcoholic
sailing master (in it only for money). They
despised each other and despised Hall as well.
That summer, Polaris got further north
than any previous expedition. Then ice closed in,
and discipline collapsed. Back from a two-week
scouting trip, Hall fell ill and was soon accusing
the scientific officer of poisoning him. Two weeks
later he died.
After that, chaos: The sailing master, drunk much
of the time, made it clear that he'd go no further
north. When the ice melted, he turned south. The
mishandled ship sprang a leak, so he began
offloading people and supplies to an ice floe. The
ship was then buffeted loose. It drifted away
stranding ten crewmen, two Inuit hunters, and one
hunter's pregnant wife and four children.
The sailing master made no attempt to
come back. He finally beached Polaris much
further south. The stranded crew meanwhile drifted
southward for six and a half months on their
dwindling ice floe. But for an occasional seal,
they starved until they were picked up, half dead,
off the Labrador coast. Remarkably, of seventeen
people, eighteen survived -- since a baby
had been born on the ice.
In 1968, a group went back to Hall's grave on the
northwestern corner of Greenland. They opened the
coffin to take hair and tissue samples. Chemical
analysis did indeed show high levels of arsenic --
pretty compelling evidence against the scientific
History cannot reveal all the dark corners of this
tale of conflict, starvation, heroism, and
venality. And the North Pole? Well, it had to wait
another thirty-six years for its first human
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Actually, two books on Hall's voyage were published
in 2001. They were Henderson, B., Fatal North:
Adventure and Survival Aboard the USS
Polaris: The First U.S. Expedition
to the North Pole. New York: Signet, 2001; and
Parry, R., The True Story of Murder and Survival
on the 1871 Polaris Expedition.
New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.
Here is an excellent chronology of Arctic
exploration:This site include images of the Inuits who
Travel Resources Overview
Stereopticon photo courtesy of
Whaling vessels near Baffin Island. Early 20th
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.