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The Mystery of Andree


Photograph of S. A. Andree, showing his shoulders and face. Has a bushy mustache, and dark, straight hair parted on the left.

From a Photograph by Florman, Stockholm.
S. A. Andree.

On Sunday, July 11, Salomon August Andrée and his two companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Hjalmar Ferdinand Fräkel, set out on their remarkable balloon journey from Amsterdam Island, of the Spitzbergen group, in quest of the theoretical site of the north pole. The balloon, borne by a wind blowing from the south by east floated low and sluggishly over the Dansk Oe, and then, as it was lightened of ballast, shot upward, and, veering twelve degrees, continued in the direction of that spot after which the voyager had named the balloon "Le Pôle Nord."

To the small company of enthusiasts which had come on the Erling Jarl and the Svenskund to witness the departure, the huge sphere was visible for about an hour. As they lowered their gaze to the octagonal house and the deserted sheds near by, where the hydrogen had been prepared, they realized the tragedy of the event. There remaining only the memory of Andrée's unique individuality and a message hastily scribbled just before departure, "In the name of all my colleagues I send you our warmest greeting to our country and friends."

Mr. Andrée is an engineer and Chief Examiner of the Royal Patent Office in Sweden. He was a delegate to the Geographical Congress held in London, in July, 1895, and there made public for the first time his proposal to journey across the north pole in a balloon. He had then gained much practical experience in ballooning, and, with his theories supported by scientific facts which he was able to cite, he gave ready answers to the storm of questions asked of him by the savants present. Gen. A.W. Greely was the chief cross-examiner; and the earnestness of their debate doubtless proved of benefit to both. Where Mr. Andrée could not give facts he advanced plausible theories. Those who listened were impressed with the intense enthusiasm of the engineer, as well as with his scientific arguments. There was silence, finally broken by a Frenchman, who asked deliberately, as though conscious of the weight of his interrogation, "What would you do if your balloon collapsed and you came down in the water without time being given you to adjust your boat?"

To this Andrée replied with one word, "Drown."

Andrée first conceived the idea of traveling great distances by balloon in 1875, while he was making a voyage to the United States. He was struck with the continued regularity of the atmospheric currents blowing near the surface of the water, and drew the conclusion that, as the altitude increased, these currents would become even more regular and continuous. At this time he believed it possible to cross by balloon from America to Europe. It was, however, impossible for him to experiment extensively in aerial navigation until 1892, when he made some ascensions with the Norwegian aeronaut Cetti, and established the truth of some of his theories. That year be (sic) obtained a grant from the Swedish Government of $1,500, being a part of the Lars Hjertas Minne, a memorial fund established for scientific purposes.

He purchased a small balloon of a size to contain about 40,500 cubic feet of gas, and with it made a dozen or more ascensions in the suburbs of Stockholm and of Gothenburg. He was assisted in these experiments by his brother, Capt. Ernst Andrée of the Swedish merchant marine. The winds at Gothenburg are generally westerly, practically insuring to him the advantage of alighting on land. He was unusually fortunate in his descents, but once he came near losing his life in the Baltic Sea. This was in the Fall of 1893. He had made a particularly fine ascension, and by observations had obtained some valuable data. So interested did he become in his researches that he was far out to sea before he bethought himself to make a landing. Two courses were open to him -- either to continue his voyage to Finland or to attempt a descent on one of the islands that lay in his way. He chose the latter. He opened the valve and allowed enough gas to escape to bring him within a couple of hundred feet of the water. He then cast out a rope which reached the surface and retarded the progress of the balloon to a surprising degree. A steamer lay directly in his track, with smoke and cinders issuing from her funnels, rendering his situation one of great peril. When he attempted to draw in his cable the balloon could not stand the additional weight of the water-soaked hemp, and was borne nearer to the water. The Captain of the steamer, then conscious of the peril to all concerned, banked his fires, and Andrée, cutting his balloon loose from the rope, once more shot upward. Half an hour later he attempted to descend on a small island. The balloon struck the water before reaching land, rebounded, and passed directly over the island and into the water on the other side, with another rebound. At the next island Andrée jumped from the car and landed without worse injuries than a few bruises, while the balloon shot upward into the night and was gone. The next day he was rescued from the island by a Finnish fisherman, who the evening before had seen, to use his own words, "A huge ship, with a great yellow sail, rapidly approaching a neighboring island, pass over the land on reaching the shore, and sail away on the sea beyond."

When the theory that the north pole might be reached by balloon navigation was made public by Andrée's paper, read at the Geographical Congress, the aeronaut received war support from Baron Nordenskiold, the well-known arctic traveler, who undertook to raise a fund to defray the expenses of an expedition. The Swedes and Norwegians received the project with enthusiasm, and the required sum -- $36,100 --could have been raised ten times over had a popular subscription been started. As it was, the principal subscribers, without invitation, were Alfred Nobel, $17,300; King Oscar II., $8,650; Baron Dickon of Gothenburg, $8,650; while smaller sums , amounting to $1,500 were received from various scientific gentlemen. Col. Sellström sent $1,000, with a letter saying that, while he understood that the fund was complete, he nevertheless sent a little check "for extras that are sure to be required."


During the Winter of 1895-6 Andrée traveled extensively in France and England, discussing his theme with scientific men generally, and receiving from them many valuable suggestions. He also made a number of ascensions with French aeronauts near Paris. The order for his balloon was lodged with the house of Lachambre, in Paris. He chose as his companions Dr. Nils Ekholm, the celebrated meteorologist, and Dr. Nils Strindberg, a young physician. The steamer Virgo was charted to convey the party and their apparatus to the Spitzbergen islands. The three adventurers, with M. Lachambre and about twenty gentlemen of science, arrived at Spitzbergen on June 19, 1896. Two weeks were consumed in building the octagonal house which was to shelter the balloon while being inflated, and in putting up the apparatus for generating hydrogen gas. Another fortnight was required for the filling of the balloon. By July 24 all was in readiness for the ascent. A wind of sufficient regularity blowing from any point through 30 degrees south was all that he required. But Andrée and his colleagues waited for that breeze in vain.

During the first week in August Andrée made preparations for returning to civilization with his disappointed scientific crew. The balloon, house, and other apparatus were stored in Tromsoë, and Andrée arrived in Stockholm, only to find that the story of his defeat had preceded him. He met with much abuse, particularly from the French press, and there were many "told you soes."

Although it was generally supposed that another attempt might be made this year, the fact that Dr. Ekholm had withdrawn from the project was sufficient to give credence to a contrary report. It was given out that Dr. Ekholm had become convinced of the impossibility of reaching the north pole by Andrée's balloon, owing to the permeability of the sack, which allowed a constant escape of gas. There is, however, another side to this story. The doctor, who was the eldest of three, had, just prior to the departure of the expedition from Stockholm, taken unto himself a young wife, and it is said she exacted a promise from him that he would never attempt to risk his life in that way again.

Dr. Ekholm was quickly replaced by Mr. Fräkel, and the necessary funds for a second expedition were subscribed by King Oscar from his private purse. In December, 1896, Andrée found it necessary to send a letter to Le Figaro of Paris, denying the reports that he would make no further attempt. The Winter was spent in improving the steering apparatus by actual experiment, and in settling other difficult points of theory.

"Le Pôle Nord," manufactured by M. Lachambre, is made of varnished silk; the sack is seventy-five feet in height, while the car and observation platform give an additional twenty-two feet below. The dongola (sic) is made of wicker work, lined with varnished silk to keep out the wind; it is five feet deep and six and a half feet in diameter, and is used as the sleeping apartment, one of the aeronauts occupying it at a time.


Three feet above the platform is a wooden ring, of the same diameter as the car, on which are fastened the scientific instruments, most of them the inventions of Drs. Ekholm and Strindberg -- barometers, thermometers, altazimuth, anemometer; an instrument for determining the direction and velocity of clouds; one for recording the intensity of sunlight, compasses, photographic cameras, &c. In the netting above are arranged about 300 canvas pockets containing the provisions of the voyagers for four months, and their collapsible boat and sleds, with harness for the latter. Among the interesting appliances is the cooking stove, the invention of E. Goränson, an old friend of Mr. Andrée. It is a copper cylinder, 10 inches in diameter by 17 in height. When in use it is let down twenty-five feet below the car and its lamp is ignited through an india rubber tube, passing upward. When the soup or meat is cooked, a puff of wind down the tube extinguishes the flame, and the food is drawn up ready to be eaten. Besides the carrier pigeons which were taken along, to be released at certain points, Andrée arranged to drop cork buoys bearing the Swedish flag at every degree of latitude.


The steering apparatus consisted of two parts, the sails and guide ropes. The latter were three in number, suspended from a ring outside the platform. The aeronauts planned not to rise above 490 feet from the surface, and the guide ropes trailed behind. The sails were rigged from a bamboo yard arm extending horizontally across the second ring. The steering is managed as follows: Without the guide ropes the balloon would necessarily go before the wind, but by their slight obstruction and by shifting the yard arm to the right or left, or by taking in a sail on either side, a tack of thirty degrees can be made, just as a boat is tacked on the water.

The varying weight of a balloon was counted the greatest obstacle to the undertaking. For when the sun shines, the gas becoming heated, the balloon will rise, while a contrary effect is produced in a rain or snow storm. The former variance is overcome by the automatic valves arranged at opposite sides of the equator of the sack, which allow the escape of a given quantity of gas; the latter difficulty is, of course, rectified by the throwing overboard of ballast.

Some idea of the vastness of the preparations may be gathered from the enormous quantity of material employed in generating the hydrogen -- 40 tons of iron filings, 39 tons sulphuric acid, 75 tons water.

Mr. Andrée and his two colleagues, with the same retinue of scientific followers that accompanied them last year, left Trondhjen, Norway, on their chartered steamer July 6. They had been preceded by M. Lachambre, and when the party arrived at Spitzbergen they found the balloon house already up and the sack half inflated with gas. Everything seemed to favor the aeronauts this year, southerly winds continued to blow, and on July 11 the ascent was made under the most propitious circumstances.

According to Mr. Andrée, one of four landings are probable:

Siberia, at about latitude 70 degrees north, longitude 135 degrees east; the Samoyenden Peninsula, in latitude 70 degrees north, longitude 70 east; Alaska, in the vicinity of Cape Barrow, in latitude 70 degrees north, longitude 155 degrees west, where there is a United States Government post, and in British North America, in latitude 68 degrees north, longitude 100 degrees west. Circulars, advising people how to capture the balloon and rescue the aeronauts, have been printed in four languages and distributed throughout the stations in Northern Scandinavia, Finland, Russia, Siberia, and British America. As Andrée says, when he lands, if it be not in the water, he will be no worse off than Dr. Nansen was.

Mr. Andrée is forty-three years of age and unmarried, but he leaves an aged mother in Gothenburg, who, like the mothers of the Vikings of old, has buried her doubts and grief and wished her son success or death in his undertaking.

Walter Littlefield

From a Photograph by Florman, Stockholm.
Dr. Niles Strindberg.

Reproduced with permission: L.L. Lewis, Explorations (Newspaper Clippings Related to Polar Exploration), Vol. 1 & 2. University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence, KS.



Original Source:
The New York Times -- Illustrated
. New York, NY. August 1,

Jennifer Holvoet, Ph.D.
University of Kansas

Graphics digitized by:
Patrick Harper
University of Kansas.

Lesson(s) Related to This Article:

1. Balloon Innovations - Grades 5-9



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