‘The inflation of, and ascent in a captive balloon is such an unusual circumstance in Polar regions, that perhaps our experience in that respect may be worth recording.’ (‘Hydrogen’, ‘Ballooning in the Antarctic’, The South Polar Times Vol. 3 (June, 1902), p. 2.)
On 3 February, 1902, Robert F. Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition was on its way back to McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea of Antarctica. The Discovery had reached its easternmost point of exploration on 1 February but, with the Antarctic summer coming to a close, the desire to find a safe harbour at McMurdo was strong. On the return journey, an inlet was spotted that ran twelve miles into the ice and Scott decided to take a chance landing there. Conscious of the need to keep moving, Scott imposed a twenty-four-hour limit to their stop.
The ship tied up soon after 4pm, Monday, 3 February, 1902. The men of the Discovery assembled and unloaded seventeen gas cylinders and the equipment needed for a balloon flight. The hydrogen gas cylinders brought to inflate the balloon were army cylinders. They were about ten feet long and ten inches in diameter and about sixty of these cylinders were loaded into the storage spaces of the Discovery. Two eight-thousand-cubic-feet balloons and one one-thousand-cubic-feet balloon were brought to Antarctica along with baskets, ropes, tools for repairing etc. It was breezy and cloudy on the evening of 3 February so all operations were halted for that day. Conditions were much better the next morning and work commenced at 9am. Another two hydrogen gas cylinders were needed for inflation due to the low temperatures but the balloon was ready for lift off by 11am. When ready, Scott made the first ascent in the balloon which the crew had named Eva. The fragility of the viewing basket and the rope tethered to the ground below was brought to mind when Scott initially threw out too much ballast from the basket and was lucky to survive the ensuing episode.
The balloon rose to a height of about 600 feet/ 180 metres. Despite being the first person to have such a view, there wasn’t much for Scott to observe—vast icy whiteness as far as the eye could see. He looked south towards the Great Ice Barrier, now called the Ross Ice Shelf. It is the largest ice shelf of Antarctica and was the barrier to the progress of Captain Sir James Clark Ross in 1841.
Ernest Shackleton, Third Lieutenant with Discovery, with childish glee, (‘the impetuous Shackleton’, wrote Michael Smith) ascended in the balloon next. He brought a camera with him and took the first photographs of the bleakness of the ice shelf in his vision.
Shackleton had a strong lifelong love of poetry and he contributed his own poem ‘To the Great Barrier’ to The South Polar Times, the magazine by and for the expedition members. Shackleton used the pseudonym ‘Nemo’ and the poem appeared in the August, 1902, issue, a few months after he had made the balloon ascent. The poem alludes to the still unknown nature of the Great Ice Barrier and the internal configuration of Antarctica:
Mother of mighty icebergs, these Kings of the Southern Sea,
Mystery yet unfathomed…
And above that rolling surface we have strained our eyes to see,
But league upon league of whiteness was all that there seemed to be.
William Lofthouse Heald, Able Seaman, went on a small ascent before the balloon was anchored for dinner time. The other members of the crew were looking forward to ascending in the basket but a breeze appeared and it was deemed unsafe to continue. Tears and holes developed in the balloon’s fabric and the hydrogen valve proved very dangerous. As Fiennes has written, ‘Eva was a death trap and further flights were abandoned.’ However, it was the first flight by men in Antarctica.
Despite Scott spending £1,300 on the balloon, not all were enthused by its inclusion. Edward Adrian Wilson, the expedition’s assistant surgeon and later member of the polar party, wrote that it was an ‘exceedingly dangerous amusement in the hands of such inexperienced novices’ and Louis Charles Bernacchi, physicist with the Discovery, thought it not worth the space it took up in the ship.
When Scott’s intention to use balloons in Antarctica was announced, it received much support. The idea had come from Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of the most respected scientists and explorers of his day and one of the most important botanists of the 19th century. Financial subscriptions were coming in for the Antarctic ballooning and the War Office was also supportive. In preparation for the expedition three men, William Lashly (Chief Stoker), Thomas Kennar (Quartermaster, Petty officer, 2nd class) and William Lofthouse Heald (Able Seaman) received a ten-day course of instruction in balloons from Colonel James Lethbridge Brooke Templer , the head of the Royal Engineers Balloon Factory at Aldershot. Two officers also attended a short course on ballooning in Aldershot, one of whom was Shackleton.
The balloon ascent by the crew of Discovery wasn’t a major success but the writer of ‘Ballooning in Antarctica in The South Polar Times thought that it could easily be only the beginning of a range of new technologies: ‘It would perhaps be rash to say anything about the future of ballooning in polar regions, for when we once more reach civilization, we may find flying machines en route for the Poles.’
Royal Geographical Society (http://images.rgs.org/index.aspx)
Scott Polar Research Institute (https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/picturelibrary/)
The South Polar Times Vol. 3, June, 1902. (Many thanks to Stephen Fawcett-Scott for sending my this material and allowing me to use it here for this post.)
Fiennes, Ranulph. Captain Scott. London, 2004.
Mayer, Jim. Shackleton: A Life in Poetry. Oxford, 2014.
Smith, Michael. An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean—Antarctic Survivor. Cork, 2013.
Smith, Michael. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.