S. A. Andrée and Knut Frænkel with the crashed balloon on the pack ice. The exposed film for this photograph and others from the failed 1897 expedition was recovered in 1930. Photographed by Nils Strindberg. SPRI P: 48/28/1
‘Andree and Fraenkel stood looking at it, as if the first to arrive at the scene of a disaster or a remarkable anomaly, while Strindberg walked off on the ice and took photographs of it’.
from The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson
In 1897, the race to reach the Geographic North Pole was still an open contest. Several explorers before Andrée had tried and failed (including Peary, Franklin and Nansen), but none of them had made an attempt to get there in a hot air balloon. Salomon August Andrée was inspired to see if he could sail over the top of the world after a conversation with fellow explorer A. E. Nordenskiöd in 1894, who was considering using a balloon to discover more about Antarctica.
Making the balloon
Andrée, already a keen aeronaut, secured funding and commissioned Henri Lachambre’s balloon workshop in Paris to manufacture a balloon strong enough for long flights from 600 pieces of fortified silk. He recruited two young fellow Swedes to accompany him: photographer Nils Strindberg, to create a photographic aerial record of the arctic, and engineer Knut Fraenkel, to record the scientific observations of the expedition.
Andrée, Strindberg and Fraenkel set off in their balloon from Danes Island on July 11th 1897, after one failed attempt the previous summer. Although blustery, the wind was far from favourable. The balloon struggled from the start, dropping three of its four guide ropes; losing gas from several unvarnished seams and becoming frozen and waterlogged the further north the explorers drifted. Sixty five hours and 295 miles after departure, the balloon was forced down onto pack ice. The men had three sledges and a boat along with supplies for several weeks. They camped on ice floes for over two months, shooting and eating polar bears, seals or ivory gulls when their rations ran out.
Men standing over a polar bear. Knut Frænkel left, Nils Strindberg right
In September, they saw land for the first time since July and decided to move on to White Island to build themselves a sturdier camp for the winter, aiming to continue their journey in the Spring. No one knows how the men died, but it would appear that they did so within days of reaching the island, as although they had gathered materials with which to build, they were never used and the sledges and boat were never unpacked. The remains of the explorers were discovered by chance during a thaw in 1930 and from Andrée’s diary found in the camp, it was discerned that the three Swedish explorers never came any closer than 475 miles from the North Pole. Their remains were found by the crew of a whaling ship 33 years later, both the diary and the camera along with five rolls of exposed film, were found near their bodies.
The remains of the three explorers are brought straight from the ship through the center of Stockholm on October 5, 1930, beginning “one of the most solemn and grandiose manifestations of national mourning that has ever occurred in Sweden” (Sverker Sörlin).
The fate of the expedition was shrouded in mystery and its disappearance part of cultural lore in Sweden and to a certain extent elsewhere. The explorers were actively sought for a couple of years and remained the subject of myth and rumor, with frequent international newspaper reports of possible theories. An extensive archive of American newspaper reports from the first few years, 1896–99, titled “The Mystery of Andree”, shows a much richer media interest in the expedition after it disappeared than before. A great variety of fates are suggested for it, inspired by finds, or reported finds, of remnants of what might be a balloon basket, or great amounts of balloon silk, or by stories of men falling from the sky, or visions by psychics, all of which would typically locate the stranded balloon far from Danskøya and Svalbard.
The second half of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century has often been called the Heroic Age of polar exploration and this expedition, of manly daring and lands being conquered by technological ingenuity, appealed powerfully to the imagination of the age.
This photograph, taken from the Scott Polar Research Institute’s photographic libraries captures the moment that the balloon falls to earth on the fated expedition. Andrée was fastidious about documenting his attempt to reach the North Pole. Not only did he keep a diary, but he also invited the talented young photographer, Nils Strindberg, to be the official expedition photographer. Ninety three of the photographs were saved and are and many are on display at the Gränna museum in Sweden.
This photograph is part of our forthcoming exhibition The Thing Is … which will explore the many ways in which we consider and care for museum objects, how and why objects gain meaning and why we collect them and their accompanying stories. Pairing an object from each of the University of Cambridge Museums and the Botanic Gardens with an object taken from the reserve collections at the Polar Museum, The Thing Is … uses innovative touch screen technology to explore the relationships between each pair and invites the public to contribute to the curatorial process. The dialogue between the objects highlights the often surprising correspondences between things and audiences.
Kaddy Benyon is the The Polar Museum, Scott Polar Research Institute’s invited poet in residence funded by Arts Council England to research and write her second collection, Call Her Alaska, a contemporary re-imagining of The Snow Queen. Kaddy is a Granta New Poet and was highly commended in the Forward Prizes in 2013.
Born in 1973, she worked as a television scriptwriter for a number of years, penning over 70 episodes of Hollyoaks and Grange Hill, as well as three young adult novels. After completing an MA in Creative Writing, Kaddy won the Crashaw Prize with the manuscript for her first collection of poetry, Milk Fever, (Salt Publishing, 2012).
Kaddy Benyon and Bridget Cusack