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The Disastrous North Pole Balloon Mission of 1897

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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Instead of Lighting Fireworks, People in This Chinese Village Celebrate by Flinging Molten Iron
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Fireworks are a cultural symbol in China, but they weren't always easy to obtain. In a village in Yu County, China, people use a 500-year-old trick to achieve the same effect as fireworks with cheaper pyrotechnics.

This video from Great Big Story highlights the Chinese art of Da Shuhua, or splattering molten iron against walls to produce a fireworks-like shower of sparks. It started in the village of Nuanquan in the 16th century as a way for poor residents to imitate the expensive fireworks shows enjoyed by rich people in different parts of the country. Blacksmiths noticed that molten iron burst into dazzling sparks whenever it hit the ground and thought to recreate this phenomenon on a much larger scale. The townspeople loved it and began donating their scrap metal to create even grander displays.

Today, Da Shuhua is more than just a cheap alternative to regular fireworks: It's a cherished tradition to the people of Nuanquan. The village remains the only place in China to witness the art as it was done centuries ago—the people who practice it even wear the same traditional cotton and sheepskin garments to protect their skin from the 2900°F drops of metal flying through the air. As Wang De, who's been doing Da Shuhua for 30 years, says in the video below, "If you wear firefighter suits, it just doesn't feel right."

[h/t Great Big Story]

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
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10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. HER PARENTS WERE TEACHERS.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. SHE HAD TO SEEK OUT ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION FOR WOMEN.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. SHE'S THE ONLY PERSON TO WIN NOBEL PRIZES IN TWO SEPARATE SCIENCES.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. SHE ADDED TWO ELEMENTS TO THE PERIODIC TABLE.

The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING RUNS IN HER FAMILY.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. SHE DID HER MOST IMPORTANT WORK IN A SHED.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. HER NOTEBOOKS ARE STILL RADIOACTIVE.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. SHE OFFERED TO DONATE HER MEDALS TO THE WAR EFFORT.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. SHE DEVELOPED A PORTABLE X-RAY TO TREAT SOLDIERS.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. SHE FOUNDED CENTERS FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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