Salomon August Andrée’s Ill Fated Polar Balloon Expedition

Örnen (The Eagle) along with Salomon Andrée and Knut Frænkel shortly after its descent onto pack ice. Photographed by Nils Strindberg.

Örnen (The Eagle) along with Salomon Andrée and Knut Frænkel shortly after its descent onto pack ice. Photographed by Nils Strindberg.

On October 18, 1854Swedish engineer, physicist, aeronaut and polar explorer Salomon August Andrée was born. Andrée died while leading an attempt to reach the Geographic North Pole by hydrogen balloon. The balloon expedition was unsuccessful in reaching the Pole and resulted in the deaths of all three of its participants.

Salomon Auguste Andrée attended the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1874. Two years later he went to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where he was employed as a janitor at the Swedish Pavilion. In the United States, Andrée met the balloonist John Wise which highly influenced his further career. Andrée was occupied as an assistant at the Royal Institute of Technology in the early 1880s and later participated in a Swedish scientific expedition to Spitsbergen led by Nils Ekholm. There, Andrée was responsible for the observations regarding air electricity. During the next decade, he published scientific journals about air electricity, conduction of heat, and inventions.

In his attempt to reach the Noth Pole by hydrogen balloon was supported by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and funded by people like King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel. On July 11, 1897 Salomon Andrée along with his companions engineer Knut Frænkel and photographer Nils Strindberg lifted off with their balloon. Unfortunately, the three sliding ropes that were supposed to  drag on the ice and thus function as a kind of rudder were lost right at the beginning. Within 10 hours of lift-off, they were caught by powerful winds from a storm raging in the area. The heavy winds continued and, together with the rain creating ice on the balloon, impeded the flight.

The crew was forced to down on the ice after traveling 475 km. They had supplies for three months and also carried three sledges and a boat with them. They set off eastbound to reach one of the deposits. However, due to the currents moving the ice, the men instead traveled west. Even though they changed their direction, the three men were only able to travel slowly as they pulled their sledges themselves. In October they reached land and set foot on Kvitøya, east of Svalbard. It is believed that Nils Strindberg died within a week of their arrival, he was buried among the rocks. The other men were later found dead in the tent.

It has not been possible to establish the reason for Strindberg’s death. However, the diary revealed that all three men were sometimes plagued by digestive trouble, illness and exhaustion during the trek over the sea ice. It is believed that the ultimate cause of death may had something to do with the ingestion of polar bear flesh carrying Trichinella parasites. The Danish physician Ernst Tryde examined the remains of a polar bear on the spot and published the results in his book The Dead on White Island.  Another theory of the crew’s death was published by the Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson theorized in his book Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic. He theorized that Nils Strindberg may have drowned while chasing the polar bear and the other two men had asphyxiated on carbon monoxide from a malfunctioning stove while cooking in their tent. To account for the unburned amount of fuel in the stove Stefansson referred to his own experience with malfunctioning stoves that required regular pumping up to keep burning.

Eleven months after Andrée’s first sighting of White Island, a Swedish polar expedition led by A. G. Nathorst was passing by just 1 km offshore from the camp, but the weather stopped them from getting ashore. The remains of the three men were found in 1930 by the Norwegian Bratvaag Expedition which picked up remains including two bodies. A month later the ship M/K Isbjørn, hired by a newspaper, made additional finds, among them the third body. Further, diaries, notebookes, photographic negatives, the boat and many utensils and other objects were recovered. Upon the homecoming of the men’s remains King Gustaf V delivered an oration, and the explorers received a funeral with great honors.

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