Falling upwards, p.31
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       Falling Upwards, p.31

           Richard Holmes
 

  Many of Andrée’s larger claims would turn out to be chimerical, but it was an extraordinary and captivating performance just the same. Not least because he sounded almost exactly like one of Jules Verne’s fictional heroes, solemnly proposing ‘An Aerial Excursion Across the Icy Continent’ at some packed and breathless meeting of the Royal Geographical Society. It was as if the final destiny of nineteenth-century ballooning was to inflate fiction into fact (or indeed, vice versa).

  Two great polar explorers, the American General Adolphus Greely and the British Admiral Sir Albert Markham (whose cousin Sir Clements Markham would later champion Scott’s two expeditions to the Antarctic), were in attendance at Andrée’s London talk, and gave a guarded welcome to the project. By contrast, Nansen’s Fram scheme had been universally criticised when presented to the Royal Geographical Society three years previously.

  Although he did not actually mention Verne, it is clear from later references in his papers and diaries that Andrée saw himself as fulfilling the destiny of the whole previous century of historic ballooning. He would mention Pilâtre de Rozier’s pioneering ascents in France; Charles Green’s night flight across Europe; John Wise’s dream of crossing the Atlantic; James Glaisher’s heroic attempt to explore the seven-mile altitude limit; the intrepid flights of the Paris siege aeronauts (and notably the flight that ended in Norway); Wilfrid de Fonvielle’s bucolic five-day cross-country flights, anchoring the balloon each night; and the strange apotheosis of Henri Giffard’s gigantic captive balloon at the Paris Exhibition, like some ancient heroic god shackled by a race of modern industrial pygmies.

  Perhaps the most extraordinary blurring of fact and fiction occurred in the time frames that Andrée proposed for his polar expedition. His hydrogen balloon would be capable of staying aloft for at least a month, a feat never remotely approached by any previous balloon. It would be capable of carrying crew supplies and equipment that would last for at least three months, an equally astonishing boast. Moreover, it would be dirigible throughout the journey, both to the Pole and away from it, a highly contentious claim. Yet, paradoxically, the actual journey time from Spitsbergen to the Pole, a distance of some 660 nautical miles, would be amazingly short.

  Andrée gravely proposed three possible time scales, all ‘scientifically calculated’ according to previous flight data. The first was based on the speed of the famous siege balloon of November 1870, that reached Norway from Paris in fifteen hours. Based on this balloon’s velocity, Andrée projected that the North Pole could be reached from the Spitsbergen area in an astonishing six to eight hours. The second time scale, based on Andrée’s own crossing of the Baltic in the Svea during the storm of 1893, would occupy ‘little more than ten hours’.20 Both of these figures made the crossing of the huge, fearful Arctic ice cap sound like a walk in the park. His audience was reduced to amazed silence.

  The third projected schedule was perhaps a little more realistic. It was based on the meteorological records Andrée had himself taken at Spitsbergen during previous Arctic summers. He claimed that these revealed the existence of one of those largely regular and reliable ‘oceanic air currents’ of seasonal wind, which the great aeronaut John Wise and others had predicted. He believed that just such an oceanic current, a regular north-moving low-pressure cyclone, did indeed exist in the Arctic summer. It promised ‘an average steady 16.2-mile-per-hour breeze’ to the north, starting in June, which if unbroken would carry the balloon to the Pole in ‘approximately forty-three hours’. This would be just under two days and two nights (except that in the northern summer there would be no nights). Andrée considered this time frame, between forty and fifty hours of travel, the most likely and also the most practical. It would allow proper time for observations, meals, sleep and carrying out a full photometric survey with ‘2 photographic apparatus and 3,000 plates etc’.21 fn43

  The one thing that Andrée’s time projections did not include was how long, or which direction, the balloon would take to return from the Pole, although he did optimistically suggest that a journey from Spitsbergen directly across the Pole to the Bering Strait, a distance of 2,200 miles, might take a mere six days – ‘that is, one-fifth of the time during which the balloon can remain in the air’.22 He pointed out, with a rare smile, that once one had reached 90 degrees north, any direction was southwards, and therefore homewards: either towards Russian Siberia, or Canada, or Alaska, Iceland or even Greenland. Wherever one landed, he suggested, the Swedish pioneers would be greeted as aerial citizens of the world.

  The balloon he presented was confidently christened the North Pole. Intended as the last word in aeronautical engineering, it was simultaneously a kind of Vernian fantasy machine. Two hundred and twelve thousand cubic feet (about the same size as Nadar’s Le Géant), standing ninety-seven feet tall and sixty-seven feet in diameter, it was constructed from three layers of hugely expensive double Chinese silk, and protected from ice by a special varnished cotton top canopy or calotte. Its venting valves were placed at the side of the balloon, rather than at the top, to prevent them icing shut. The conventional open neck above the basket was replaced by an automatic pressure valve, adapted from one designed by Giffard.23

  The North Pole had an overall lifting capacity of 6,600 pounds (approximately three tons), of which three thousand pounds was free ballast in various forms. Of this, its complex system of three one-thousand-foot trail ropes, and eight shorter ballast ropes, provided 1,600 pounds – almost half – of the total adjustable ballast. So the ropes were crucial to its equilibrium. Altogether Andrée claimed to have designed into the balloon a large theoretical safety margin, allowing him to adjust altitude, and to respond freely to the expansion or contraction of hydrogen due to temperature changes in the Arctic air. Yet, apart from the calotte, he largely ignored the problems of moisture, Arctic fog and icing.24

  The payload elements of the aerostat were mounted in three special sections, one above the other, suspended from the main balloon ropes. They consisted of a closed crew basket, then an open observation deck, and finally – above the balloon hoop – a conic or circular storage section. This arrangement had never been tried, or even tested before, but was intended to demonstrate all Andrée’s technical skill and foresight.

  At the base was the specially insulated and enclosed wicker basket, six and a half feet in diameter and five feet in depth, ergonomically designed rather like a yacht’s cabin. Unlike conventional balloon baskets, it was sealed at the top with a flat roof, and accessed by a narrow hatch. Within, padded compartments were crammed with the latest scientific instruments, including chronometers, compasses, sextants, barometers, message buoys, and three pairs of Zeiss binoculars. Unusually for a balloon, it had a sleeping bunk, a galley and a night-stool. Typical of Andrée’s ingenuity was a mobile spirit cooker and oven, which could be lowered beneath the basket to prevent the risk of fire, and lit by remote control.

  Stores included three months’ worth of tinned food, rifles and ammunition, fishing gear, a Swedish flag, and a reindeer-skin sleeping bag, large enough to take all three crew. This three-man sleeping bag was characteristic of the Scandinavian approach to Arctic exploration. It assumed teamwork, good fellowship, and the practical value of shared body heat. There were also marker buoys, thirty carrier pigeons, and numerous luxury items including champagne and Belgian chocolates.

  The second section was the circular observation deck. This was effectively formed by the flat roof of the basket. Again, it was the equivalent of a yacht’s cockpit, encircled by an adjustable canvas windshield or ‘dodger’, and protected by a chest-high wooden railing. The railing was an Andrée invention, known as the ‘instrument ring’, upon which a variety of observational instruments – cameras, barometers, ground-speed calculators – could be quickly bolted or unbolted as required. Such a deck, combined with the enclosed basket, meant that separate ‘watches’ could be kept, and the crew could take turns to go below to sleep or eat or write their journals, a vital consideration for m
orale on a long journey. Although of course the journey out was only intended to last fifty hours.

  The third section was mounted, in another design innovation, above the balloon hoop, and accessed through the hoop by a rope ladder. It consisted of carefully selected packs of back-up supplies, stored in a system of canvas pockets and sealed compartments. Most of them were only intended for use if the balloon came down. Apart from further stores and ammunition, notable additions were a tent, a surprisingly large collapsible boat with paddles, and three self-assembly wooden sledges. These were Andrée’s solution to any enforced landing on the ice.

  Andrée’s greatest ingenuity had been reserved for his special guidance system. This consisted of three sails, in combination with the series of heavy guide and ballast ropes. The sails were mounted on a horizontal bamboo boom slung from the balloon hoop, like the topsails of a square-rigged ship. The three main hemp guide ropes, each over a thousand feet long, were slung from a hand-cranked winch that could pay them out or haul them back in again. When fully extended along the ice, they would drag and act as a kind of counterweight against the pull of the wind. In case they jammed in a crevasse or ice snag, Andrée had ingeniously fitted each section with exploding break points, and also with unscrewable metal disconnectors.

  By slightly slowing the balloon down, the guide ropes radically changed its aerodynamics, making it behave like a kite held by someone running along the ground, or a sailing boat with its keel running through water. Thus Andrée believed that he had found a way of giving balloon sails a vital purchase on the airflow.

  Additionally, in a brilliantly simple device, the angle of the trailing ropes relative to the balloon could be altered by running them through a heavy wooden swivelling block. Again, this was a design taken from sailing ships. The effect was to twist the balloon relative to the airflow, thereby automatically turning and altering the setting of the sails. Thus, by simply adjusting the angle at which the guide ropes left the balloon through the swivelling block, the sails could be turned to act like an airborne rudder. So Andrée believed he could redirect the course of his great balloon.

  With this method, convincingly illustrated by fine engineering drawings, Andrée informed the Swedish Royal Academy that he could steer his balloon off the line of the wind by as much as twenty-seven, or even forty, degrees.25 If his projected ‘light Arctic breeze’ deviated to the east or the west, he could bring the balloon back on a true northerly course with a simple adjustment of his swivelling block. Thus Salomon Andrée claimed at last to have solved a problem that had haunted aeronautics for almost exactly a hundred years. He had designed a self-sufficient, long-distance, dirigible free-flight balloon.

  The North Pole was different from all previous free-flight balloons in one other crucial respect: it had a very narrow altitude band. In order to be dirigible, it always had to remain close to the ground, so its ballast and guide ropes would work. Andrée stressed: ‘The weight of the balloon must be so balanced that when free it will stay at an average height of about eight hundred feet above the surface of the earth: viz. below the lowest region of clouds, but above the mists close to the ground.’26 Accordingly, unlike conventional hydrogen balloons, the balloon envelope was fully inflated to keep it within this critical altitude band. It had little space for expansion. It would immediately vent gas through its automatic Giffard valve if it rose much beyond a thousand feet. So if, for any reason, it did rise higher, then gas would be lost and very large amounts of ballast would have to be abandoned to re-establish its equilibrium or balance. As ballast equalled flying time, it was a design innovation with unknown implications.

  Of course, apart from some early prototype journeys in the little Svea, Andrée had hardly flight-tested any of these innovations. Most of them remained brilliant drawing-board ideas. Yet the whole project was modestly presented to the Swedish Academy as a logical exercise in practical engineering. Some critics wondered if this was not after all merely a version of techniques tried out many times before, and many years ago. Hadn’t Charles Green tried guide ropes? And even before that, hadn’t Blanchard tried sails? Was it an old fantasy, rather than a new technology?

  Yet Andrée’s calm authority, his ‘scientific data’, and perhaps his commanding moustache, quietly carried the day. Moreover, in his peroration he emphasised patriotic destiny, and gently mocked the attempts of the Norwegians, led by Nansen, who was still missing in the Fram: ‘Who, I ask, is better qualified to make such an attempt than we Swedes? … Is it not more probable that we shall succeed in sailing to the Pole with a good balloon, than that we shall reach it with sledges for transport … or with boats that are carried like erratic blocks, frozen fast to some wandering masses of ice?’27

  Accordingly the North Pole was funded, and swiftly built. Amid immense publicity, Andrée and his crew sailed to Spitsbergen aboard the Virgo in June 1896, accompanied by a small fleet of well-wishers, scientists and press. A crowd of forty thousand people saw him off from Stockholm docks. His mass of equipment, all of it proudly engraved or marked in red paint with ‘Andrées Pol. Exp. 1896’, was unloaded in a shingle cove on the north-western tip of Dane’s Island. A huge wooden balloon hangar and a hydrogen-generating shed were swiftly constructed. Within four weeks the immense balloon was successfully inflated, and all the equipment prepared. The weather was fine and mild, perfect for a launch. But the wind blew steadily and provokingly from the north, not towards it.

  They settled down to wait for Andrée’s predicted light southerly cyclone breeze. It never came. Andrée gave endless press briefings, several tourist steamers came and went, the great balloon stirred uneasily in its wooden cage, and the Arctic air was suspiciously perfumed with escaping hydrogen. At the end of August, after two frustrating months, the whole expedition had to return to Sweden. Just before they left Spitsbergen, Nansen’s ship Fram sailed quietly into the bay.

  4

  It was a strange and bitter anticlimax. Andrée stoically hid his disappointment, but was secretly devastated when Nansen himself triumphantly returned to Norway in September, having twice overwintered on the ice. In the first year the Fram had reached above 84 degrees north; and in the second, Nansen had set out with dog sledges from the Fram and had reached 86 degrees 14 minutes north, a formidable achievement, within a hundred miles of the Pole. Afterwards, Nansen and his colleague Hjalmar Johansen had succeeded in walking home together through the terrible pack ice, on the way surviving a second winter in a tiny ice-hut built on Franz Josef Island. It was a masterly demonstration of courage, comradeship and polar skills. Nansen recounted the trek in a superbly written travelogue, Farthest North (1897), which is still a bestseller.

  Inevitably, Nansen stole much of Andrée’s thunder with the Swedish public. Worse, he had inadvertently raised the bar for any future polar expedition, which would inevitably be regarded as a failure unless it penetrated well beyond 86 degrees north. Andrée briskly announced that he would try again in summer 1897, but support for the renewed expedition naturally wavered. Alfred Nobel continued his subsidy, and so did King Oscar, but there was growing criticism in the press. Was Andrée really a fantasist, a dreamer? Was his huge balloon a ludicrous anachronism?

  Dr Nils Ekholm, Andrée’s senior partner, now privately questioned him over the durability of the balloon fabric. He calculated that the balloon canopy, even while tethered in Spitsbergen, had been losing about 120 pounds of lift per day. In his view, this reduced the balloon’s endurance in the air from thirty days (by the end of which time he projected it would have lost more than its entire lifting capacity of six thousand pounds) to an absolute maximum of seventeen days, and probably much less. Andrée agreed to increase the size of the balloon by sewing in new gores, but at Christmas 1896 Ekholm officially resigned from the 1897 expedition. He had lost faith in Andrée’s dream.

  Ekholm later published further reasons for resigning. They were revealing. He believed that Andrée had also lost confidence in the balloon’s endurance, and its
capacity to complete the whole expedition in the air. The vague talk of flying on over the polar ice cap to Greenland, Alaska or Siberia (depending on the wind direction) was a chimera. The balloon flight was a one-way ticket. He thought Andrée was secretly resigned to coming back the hard way, by sledge and boat. There was no ‘engineering solution’ to this. It would be a brutal, slogging, potentially suicidal journey of up to six hundred miles. Even the experienced and hardened Nansen had taken two years to accomplish it, and had been forced to winter on the ice. Ekholm, who was now forty-eight, did not think he was physically capable of such a trek, and he doubted if Andrée was either. He especially feared for young Strindberg. He summed up Andrée’s dilemma as simply as possible. The balloon must have the scientifically proven capacity ‘not merely to carry the expedition safely into the Polar area; but also safely out of it’.28 fn44

  As for Nils Strindberg, his position was also altered. In October 1896 he had become engaged to his childhood sweetheart, a beautiful young woman called Anna Charlier. Both Strindberg’s father and the Charlier family begged him to resign from the second expedition, as did his mentor Dr Ekholm. But Anna, deeply in love, understood Nils’s desire to make his mark in science before he settled down to family life. So she supported his decision, though with deep secret misgivings.

 
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