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The Polar Museum: news blog

Spotlight on Antarctic Expeditions: The German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83

Y: 83/3/1-5. Five bottles collected from the base of the German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83. Perhaps they were part of the pyramid of bottles left at the hut?

Y: 83/3/1-5. Five bottles collected from the base of the German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83. Perhaps they were part of the pyramid of bottles left at the station?

In our third instalment of lesser known Antarctic expeditions, I want to introduce the German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83 – one of the earliest Antarctic expeditions represented in our collections. There have been four international polar years (IPY) so far: 1882-83, 1932-33, 1957-58 (combined with the International Geophysical Year) and 2007-08. The first IPY, which ran from 1 August 1882 to 31 August 1883, featured scientists from eleven countries running twelve expedition stations in the Arctic/sub-Arctic, and two in the sub-Antarctic.

The German IPY Expedition 1882-83 consisted of a main station in Moltke Harbour, Royal Bay, South Georgia, where eleven men over-wintered, and a secondary meteorological station at Port Stanley, Falklands Islands. The expedition, led by Dr Karl Schrader, left Hamburg on 2 June 1882. They spent three weeks in Montevideo where they enjoyed a holiday and took in the sights (!), as well as purchasing sheep, cattle and goats to supplement their provisions.

They left Montevideo on 23 July aboard the Moltke, arriving at South Georgia on 12 August. However, poor weather delayed landing and it was not until 22 August that they were able to start unloading the ship. After leaving South Georgia on 3 September, the Moltke called at Port Stanley to deliver meteorological instruments to Captain Seemann, who was running the sub-station there.

The expedition was supplied with prefabricated wooden huts for housing and observatories. Foundations 1.5m deep were eventually dug, and the walls of the main hut were insulated with peat from the island. However, severe weather meant constant repairs were necessary. They supplemented their supplies with seabird and penguin eggs, fish, watercress, and vegetable garden that they planted.

While in South Georgia, the expedition was to carry out the IPY’s programme of observations and measurements, the subjects and timings of which and the instruments to be used, were stipulated by the IPY’s international committee. The expedition was also supplied with additional equipment for observing the Transit of Venus, which occurred on 6 December 1882 and enabled the distance between the Earth and the Sun to be established while Venus passed between them. They conducted studies in meteorology, geophysics, glaciology, biology, tidal movements and other sciences. They also took the earliest photos of South Georgia, and conducted the first land-based study of the island, producing a 1:50,000 scale map of the Royal Bay area.

The expedition was collected from South Georgia by the Marie, which arrived earlier than expected on 1 September 1883. The station was packed up but much was left behind, including buildings, furniture, coal, food and a pyramid of empty bottles. The Royal Bay hut was used by later expeditions, but was burnt down in about 1915. The expedition reached Montevideo on 25 September 1883.

The objects we have from this expedition include five empty bottles (Y: 83/3/1-5), two ceramic insulators which would link to a central time clock (Y: 83/3/6-7), a metal ring possibly from a cooker (Y: 83/3/8) and a wooden peg for an unknown purpose (Y: 83/3/9).



  • Headland, R.K. (2009). A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: A synopsis of events and activities from the earliest times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09. London: Quaritch.
  • Barr, S. (2010). The Expeditions of the First International Polar Year. In: S. Barr and C. Lüdecke, ed., The History of the International Polar Years (IPYs). Berlin: Springer, pp.54-58.


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