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The Disastrous North Pole Balloon Mission of 1897

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Reaching the North Pole was an international obsession during the late 19th century. Various countries devised plans for becoming the first to reach the pole, but no journey was as fascinating (or as doomed) as Sweden’s S.A. Andree’s mission to cross the Arctic in a hydrogen balloon.

To understand what went wrong with Andree’s mission, we first need to discuss early ballooning. The balloons of the day were certainly exciting for riders, but they had a fatal flaw as vehicles for exploration: nobody had figured out a good way to steer them yet. Once a balloon was up in the air, it was at the mercy of the wind and simply drifted. As Sweden’s most prominent balloonist, Andree had put quite a bit of thought into this conundrum.

Andree eventually sidestepped this problem.

He devised a scheme to steer the balloon by suspending ropes from the basket and dragging them on the ground. The weight of the rope and the friction it generated as it dragged across the ground would enable Andree to steer his balloon. After a series of test runs, Andree became convinced he could steer a hydrogen-filled balloon across the Arctic and over the North Pole.

Andree’s idea captured Sweden’s imagination, but building the balloon and buying the necessary equipment and provisions would be an expensive task. Luckily for Andree, some of Sweden’s biggest names opened their wallets; he received large contributions from King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel to build his balloon, the Eagle.

Andree found two additional crewmembers, engineer Knut Fraenkel and a young photographer named Nils Strindberg. The three set sail in their balloon on July 11, 1897, from Danskøya, an island in the Svalbard archipelago.

Astute readers have probably realized that they’ve never seen a balloon that is steered via drag ropes. There’s a good reason why you haven’t; the method is wildly ineffective. The three drag ropes on the Eagle didn’t even work long enough for the balloon to fully clear its launch area. The balloon drifted into a downward draft almost immediately after taking off and nearly dipped into the icy water. Andree and the crew had to dump sand overboard just to keep the balloon afloat.

The loss of the needed ballast was problematic, but there was even worse news for the Eagle. In just the few moments the balloon had been afloat, all three drag ropes had managed to twist and fall off. In other words, Andree no longer had any way of steering the balloon.

The lost drag ropes would have offered at least some modicum of steering ability, but they were also needed as ballast. After losing more than 1000 pounds of rope and several hundred pounds of sand in the botched takeoff, the balloon developed a tendency to rise too high above the ground. These high altitudes sped up the leakage of hydrogen from the balloon, and after just 10 hours the balloon had lost so much gas that it was frequently bumping and skidding across the Arctic ice. The balloon finally crashed 65 hours into the trip.

That final crash was fairly gentle, and all three crewmembers and their equipment were unharmed. The balloon had been equipped with provisions, guns, tents, sleds, and even a portable boat in case of an emergency landing. Andree had also arranged for two extra depots of emergency supplies to be left for the men on the ice. The crew piled hundreds of pounds of provisions and equipment on the sleds and began the arduous trek to one of the depots. Strindberg used his camera to snap photos of the crash and the team’s progress.

The same lack of foresight that plagued the aerial part of the mission continued into the journey across the ice. None of the men were exactly what you’d call rugged arctic explorers; they were scientists and engineers who had planned on drifting across the North Pole while seated in a basket. Their clothing wasn’t warm enough for the hike. Their supplies were woefully inadequate, although they were able to feed themselves by shooting polar bears and seals. Their sleds, which Andree had designed, were so rigid that they made traversing the ice needlessly difficult.

Worse still, the ice was drifting away from the depot rather than towards it; much of the group’s forward progress evaporated in the face of the backward drift. They eventually decided to reverse course and head for the second depot, but shifting winds made that destination similarly hopeless. After nearly two months of futile hiking, the crew decided to set up a winter camp complete with a makeshift igloo on an ice floe.

This plan worked reasonably well for thee weeks, but in early October the floe began to break up. The crew moved its supplies to Kvitøya, a nearby island, and hoped to winter there. The move to the island is the last reliable record left by the crew. Their cause of death isn’t clear – historians have speculated that the men fell from eating tainted polar bear meat, exhaustion, or hypothermia – but the three crewmembers didn’t survive for more than a few days after moving to the island.

Meanwhile, nobody back home knew what had become of the three men. They obviously hadn’t made it back across the pole, but their fate was a great mystery. It took over three decades for other Arctic dwellers to find the crew of the Eagle. In 1930 the crew of the sealing ship Bratvaag discovered a dilapidated campsite, the remains of the three explorers, their journals, and Strindberg’s undeveloped film.

The seal hunters carried the remains of the three men back to Sweden, where the crew of the Eagle were celebrated as heroes. Amazingly, 93 of Strindberg’s 240 photographs were salvageable, and combined with the crew’s diaries and journals they make an eerie record of the men’s demise and the dangers of unprepared travel through the Arctic Circle.

See more photos of the expedition here. We came across this story while perusing Reddit's Today I Learned section.

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This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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Getty Images/Hulton Archive
10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.


Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collectors’ legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.


Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.


A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.


Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.


Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.


A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep

Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.


Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.


An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
Getty Images/Rischgitz

Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.


The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.


An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their body to medical science.


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