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Updated on: December 2023

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Salomon Andree Born, 1854

The Andree polar balloon expedition was a source of great national pride to the Swedish people, but the project was doomed, almost from the beginning.

Born in Granna, Sweden, Andree studied mechanical engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, and then worked for a few years in the field. When he was 22, he attended the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and got a job at the Swedish Exhibit as a janitor. While in the United States, he got interested in ballooning, spending a great deal of time with John Wise, an American balloonist. When he went back to Sweden, he found employment as an aeroelectrical observer at the International Polar Scientific Program. Later, he worked at the Swedish Patent Office as first engineer.

It was 1893 before Andree got his first balloon, called the Svea, and made a total of nine balloon voyages with it, traveling a combined distance of 930 miles. He noticed that the balloon had a tendency to carry him out over the Baltic, and he got the idea to be the first man to fly over the geographic North Pole. It should be easy, he thought.

Andree had invented his own system of steering, which involved "drag ropes," heavy waxed ropes that dragged along the ground, creating enough friction to slow the balloon down so that the winds could be managed. He thought that his system made his balloon as easy to navigate as a dirigible, an idea that was thoroughly discounted by experts in the field -- then and now.

The late 19th century was the height of the polar expedition craze, and Sweden felt that it was getting left behind. Andree was an excellent speaker, and when he brought his ideas to the public his enthusiasm was contagious. Speaking to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1895, he told the attending geographers and meteorologists that in order to be successful, a polar balloon expedition must meet four conditions: the balloon must have enough power to lift a team and all necessary equipment and supplies; it must be able to stay airborne for 30 days; the team must be able to manufacture hydrogen for the return flight; and the balloon must be steerable. Andree thought that those four conditions could be easily met.

Andree figured that it would take about 130,800 kronor to finance such an expedition, a sum about equal to $1 million in today's U.S. dollars. The Royal Academy approved the plan, and financing proved to be no obstacle. King Oscar II himself donated 36,000 kronor, and Alfred Nobel kicked in a considerable sum as well. Other donations quickly followed.

For his team, Andree picked himself, Nils Gustaf Ekholm, and Nils Strindberg. Ekholm was an experienced Arctic meteorologist. Strindberg was a younger man, a promising university student in physics and chemistry, and a talented amateur photographer. (He was also, incidentally, second cousin to the playwright, August Strindberg.) As a team, the men covered a broad range of technical and scientific know-how, but none of them was particularly athletic, or trained for survival in harsh conditions.

Andree made a series of bad predictions. He believed that the Arctic summer was ideal weather for the expedition, allowing the men to work around the clock because of the long daylight conditions. He thought that the slight precipitation they encountered would either melt away, if the temperature was above freezing, or brush off in the wind, if it was not. He believed that the winds would blow more or less in the same direction throughout the expedition. More seriously, he thought his navigational system employing drag ropes would ensure the success of the expedition, despite the fact that he had had a great deal of trouble with it on test flights.

In 1896, the team made their first attempt. The balloon used was called the Ornen, the Swedish word for Eagle. It was made of three layers of silk, was about 67 feet in diameter, and had been manufactured by the French firm of Henri Lachambre, a leader in the field of balloon aeronautics. And it leaked. The worst of the leaking came from the stitching holes along the seams -- eight million of them. Strips of silk had been glued on top of them, and varnish had been used to seal the whole balloon, but it just wasn't enough. For every day aloft, the balloon lost about 150 pounds of lift force.

The crew made their first attempt at Danes Island, Spitsbergen. They were accompanied to the launch site by journalists from all over the world. The Swedish people waited anxiously, in a surge of patriotic pride. They had been waiting for over a year for the event and the day had come at last.

They would have to wait a little longer, it seemed. The winds were wrong. The crew waited for six weeks, but it was no use, and they finally packed up their balloon and went home. They would try again later.

Ekholm, the only man on the crew with Arctic experience, had been appalled at what he had learned during the first trial. By his estimations, the balloon could only stay aloft for 17 days at the rate it was losing hydrogen. He informed Andree that if the situation could not be improved, he would not be on board on the next attempt.

Ekholm had attempted to take accurate measurements of the hydrogen loss during the trials, but had been puzzled by some abnormalities. On the boat trip back to Stockholm, an engineer from the hydrogen plant cleared up the mystery. Andree had been secretly topping off the hydrogen in the balloon to make the loss seem less.

By the time the second attempt was made, in 1897, Andree had a new crew member. Ekholm had left the project and had been replaced by Knut Fraenkel, a 27 year old civil engineer. He didn't have Ekholm's experience in meteorological matters, but he was well qualified to take over the tasks of measurement and recording on the trip. He was also a younger, fitter man, who enjoyed hiking and athletic pursuits.

This time the winds were favorable, and the team was ready to depart. They were loaded heavily. Besides the expected supplies of food, clothing, ammunition, and scientific and photographic equipment, they had a collapsible boat, a sledge (convertible into two sledges) of Andree's own design, and the materials to construct a darkroom while in flight. In addition, they had an assortment of improbable "extras": Russian and U.S. money in coin, an expensive porcelain bowl, a white shirt in its original wrapping material, a dress tie, old newspapers, and two tickets to the 1897 Stockholm Exhibition. They also had a good supply of champagne donated by sponsors, and two bottles of port which had been given to them by the king.

Within minutes of moving out over the water, the balloon crew was in trouble. The drag ropes pulled the balloon down so far that the basket actually dragged on the water. The crew dumped 450 pounds of ballast sand overboard. At the same time, the ropes got tangled up amongst themselves, and the whole lot pulled free from their holds. In all, 1630 pounds of weight was lost in an instant.

The balloon now had no steering ability whatsoever, and was functioning as an ordinary hydrogen balloon. With the loss of weight, the balloon soared 2300 feet into the air. The lower air pressure made the hydrogen escape even faster from its stitching holes.

Andree had taken along two methods of communication with the outside world: buoys and homing pigeons. The buoys were essentially steel bottles enclosed in cork, meant to be dropped into the waters below and carried by current to civilization. The homing pigeons, 36 in total, were transported in wicker cages and supposedly trained to take messages back Sweden. Only three messages, two by buoy and one by pigeon, were ever recovered. They all bore optimistic messages. The diaries of the crew told another story.

The balloon was completely out of control, flying much too high, and losing too much hydrogen. The fabric was soon heavy with rain ("dripping wet" according to Andree's diary) and the men threw all of their remaining sand and some of their supplies overboard in a futile effort to keep it aloft.

After ten and a half hours the vehicle crashed for the first time. After that, it bumped along the surface for another 41 hours before its final crash. The final landing seems to have been fairly gentle: none of the equipment was harmed. That night, the men got the first sleep they had had in over two days.

Strindberg's camera was still functioning, and he took a series of photos of the crash scene. Over the next three months, he took about 200 photographs. Andree kept the "main diary" of the group. Fraenkel kept a meteorological journal. Strindberg, in addition to his photographs, kept a personal stenographic diary. It was fortunate for history that the men kept such complete records. Otherwise, we would know very little of the expedition; the men were never seen alive again.

The sled that Andree had designed proved impractical for the terrain. He had put it together with no reference to Inuit sleds, and it consisted of a rigid construction and runners. They had packed no furs for the trip, only heavy woolen clothing and oilskins to protect them -- inadequately -- from the wet. Much of their trip was spent attempting to dry their clothing.

They spent about a week at the campsite before moving on. To begin with, they loaded nearly everything that had not already been cast overboard. This equipped them with about 440 pounds on each of two sledges. This was too much, for either the sledges or the men, and within a week they had abandoned all but about 130 pounds per sled.

They had, previously to the trip, laid down two supplies of food and ammunition, one at Cape Flora in Franz Joseph Island, and the other at Seven Islands in Svalbard. They headed for Cape Flora, the nearer choice, first, but the terrain proved too difficult and they soon revised their route and headed toward Seven Islands. After a while they found themselves on an ice floe. The terrain was easier there, but they soon discovered the wind was carrying them in the wrong direction. After a while they resigned themselves to settling on the floe for the winter.

They built a winter hut on the ice floe, using water-packed snow and a design of Andree's. A few days after they completed it, their floe came up against the island of Kvitoya, and began to break up, cracking immediately underneath their hut. They brought their supplies onto the island itself. "Morale remains good," wrote Andree in his diary that night. It was the last coherent entry that he made.

For the next 33 years, no one knew what had happened to the expedition. Rumors surfaced from time to time, ignited by a discovery of balloon silk or a psychic's vision. Strindberg's fiancée married another man.

Most of the time, Kvitoya is an inaccessible island, surrounded by polar ice and heavy fogs, but in 1930, the summer was particularly warm. The Norwegian Bratvaag Expedition, studying glaciers and hunting seals in the area, took the opportunity to make a rare excursion to the island. Discovering the boat of the Andree expedition, they searched further and found two skeletons and the remains of a camp, including the journals. The bodies were identified by monograms on their clothing as being those of Andree and Strindberg.

Another vessel, the Isbjorn, also out of Norway and chartered by news reporters, further explored the island when the news was made public. The third body, that of Fraenkel, was discovered, along with the photographic film and logbooks and maps.

Since all three bodies were cremated without autopsy, we'll never know for certain what killed them, but theories abound. Strindberg was evidently the first to die, and his body was wedged into a rock crevice by the other two men, who lived about two weeks longer. They had apparently been ill for some time, too ill to work. In fact, they had been too weak to completely unload their boat, and left ammunition and supplies with it, not having the strength to bring them to camp. Fraenkel died in his sleeping bag, and Andree was found propped against a rock.

One theory is that the men may have died from trichinosis, from a half-cooked polar bear that they had eaten. (A trichinosis-infected polar bear carcass was found at the camp.) Vitamin A poisoning from polar bear liver, has also been speculated as a cause, although it is documented that Andree was aware of the danger. Lead poisoning, from their canned supplies, has been suggested, as well as botulism, scurvy, hypothermia, and exhaustion. They may even have committed suicide -- they certainly had enough opium with them to do the trick.

The bodies of the three men were returned to Stockholm on October 5, 1930. It was an occasion of great national patriotism and mourning.

Sources: Chase's Calendar of Events, 2020 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months , Editors of Chase's Calendar of Events; 18 ; ; ; ; ; .

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