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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 845-846

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Book Review

By Airship to the North Pole: An Archaeology of Human Exploration

By Airship to the North Pole: An Archaeology of Human Exploration. By P. J. Capelotti. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999. Pp. xix+209; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $26.

For reasons that seem to defy explanation, the North Pole has been a lure for men (never women) for at least four centuries. When it was established that the world is round, the Pole came to be seen as a possible waymark along a passage to the Orient from Europe. (It had yet to be determined that the Pole sits in the middle of a giant frozen ocean without any geographical landmarks to show precisely where it is.) P. J. Capelotti, an archeologist, became intensely interested in what might remain as remnants of two early attempts to reach the pole by air from Danes Island in the Spitsbergen archipelago. The first of these was by Salomon Andree, a Swede, one of hundreds of early aeronauts who sought fame and fortune by inflating cloth bags with inflammable hydrogen and trying to fly farthest. Andree had gone aloft as early as 1893, and he made many flights before succumbing to the lure of the pole in 1897. The basic deficiency of free balloons is that they are at the mercy of the breezes and of the variability of air pressure, which can cast them in unforeseen directions at unplanned altitudes. The latter problem can be managed somewhat by valving gas and shucking ballast. As to direction, Andree thought he had a solution: guide ropes that would drag along the ground to stop or slow down and sails to catch the wind when it flowed in the desired direction. Andree went to Danes Island in 1896 but did not find a favorable wind. He returned the next year and launched Eagle with two companions. None was ever seen alive again, and their bodies were not found for more than thirty-three years. The only artifacts retrieved were messages sent by carrier pigeons, undeveloped film, and diaries that showed they had been aloft for three days and had traveled less than 300 miles.

The other lighter-than-air enthusiast that Capelotti considers was Walter Wellman, star reporter for the Chicago Record-Herald, whose boss told him to "build an airship and with it go find the North Pole" (p. 47). With this carte blanche, Wellman brought the first powered airship to Danes Island in 1906. Engine problems prevented a launch, but the next year, with a new engine, he made a short flight of about 15 miles. He returned in 1909 and made a final short, unsuccessful flight. He never tried [End Page 845] again after he heard that Dr. Frederick Cook claimed he had reached the pole on foot. Though a master at dramatizing his own exploits, Wellman was no scientist or engineer and certainly not a perfectionist. In a time when newspapers depended on sensational stories, true or not, to gain advertisers, he had been able to persuade his publisher to continue financing his expeditions. Written contemporaneously and often hurriedly, the stories he radioed to his paper were sometimes contradictory. "But if we turn to the archeological record," Capelotti states, "we can use it as a screen through which to filter the texts and reach a closer approximation of what actually happened" (pp. 128-29).

Capelotti's main interest was in the artifacts left at Danes Island, artifacts he thought would provide that filter between fact and fiction, a bridge between technology and the culture of former times. He found Andree's hangar ruins to be like a twentieth-century Stonehenge, "a sort of shrine to the new religion of technology" (p. 170). In two cases where he was able to match Wellman's descriptions of his airship cars and hydrogen generation to the residue left there, "Wellman came out badly on the former, just fine on the latter" (p. 161). Capelotti has provided thoughtful...


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