The Ørnen was a hydrogen balloon built for S.A. Andrée’s Arctic balloon expedition of 1897, which aimed to be the first to visit the North Pole. Although balloon technology was already a hundred years old it was still largely experimental.
The three-layer silk balloon 20.5 meters in diameter was built by Henri Lachambre in Paris, then known as the ‘world capital of ballooning’. It was fitted with a sail which, combined with drag ropes, Andrée claimed would make the balloon steerable. This technique had never been proved in practice and, like the many questionable assumptions of the expedition, was only accepted by dint of Andrée’s copious enthusiasm and eloquence. The hope of the expedition was to restore Sweden’s reputation as a leading player in Arctic exploration, no matter what.
Support was abundant with money pouring in from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel. Andrée had sold the press rights to the Aftonbladet newspaper, and it was later said that the funding that Andrée had received made it harder for him to take a realistic stance towards the ill-conceived aspects of his expedition. The expedition’s balloon hangar and hydrogen production plant were installed on the island of Svalbard in 1896, but unfavorable winds prevented them from undertaking a first attempt that year. Nils Gustaf Ekholm, the only expedition member with any real Arctic experience, left the crew because he calculated that Ørnen would not stay airborne long enough to carry them to the North Pole and then on to ‘the safety of Canada, Alaska or Russia’. Andrée’s self-deception became clear when, on the boat back from Svalbard, Ekholm learned from the chief engineer of the hydrogen plant that Andrée had from time to time covertly topped up the hydrogen while they were testing the balloon for leakage.
The success or failure of Arctic exploration had always depended greatly on using proven survival methods of the indigenous peoples of the Polar regions. But Andrée, a devout believer in ‘scientific superiority’, would have none of this and set out with clothing and sledges of his own - untested - designs.
Nils Strindberg, Knut Frænkel and S.A. Andrée arrived on Svalbard in the summer of 1897 and proceeded to prepare their balloon, loading it with scientific equipment, advanced cameras for aerial photography, provisions for four months, and ballast bringing the total weight to about 3,000 kg. The sleeping berths for the crew were fitted to the floor of the basket. The highly flammable hydrogen meant that cooking could not be done in the basket itself; instead, a modified primus stove was dangled 8m below the basket and lit remotely with the aid of an angled mirror.
On July 11 1897, in a steady wind from the south-west, the roof of the plank-built hangar was dismantled and the three explorers climbed into the basket. Andrée dictated a last-minute telegram to King Oscar and another to Aftonbladet. The mooring ropes were cut and the balloon rose slowly from the hangar and out towards the sea. The drag ropes, several hundred meters long, once wet, pulled the balloon down with a risk of crashing into the sea. After an initial dip the ropes became detached leaving the balloon without its experimental steering provision. The crew had meanwhile thrown out some ballast which, together with the loss of the heavy ropes, reduced the balloon’s weight by about 740 kg. They now rose to a height of 700 m where the lesser air pressure only accelerated the leakage of hydrogen. But they were on their way, and the baffled ground crew and assembled press watched the Ørnen drift slowly out of sight.
Nothing more was heard of the expedition, and their fate remained a matter of speculation and legend until 33 years later when their remains were discovered on Kvitøya Island. The truth of what had happened emerged from their journals and from undeveloped photographs that were found. The balloon had crashed on the pack ice after only two days. The explorers were uninjured but faced a grueling homeward trek south across the drifting ice. They set out on their long, arduous march, only to realize weeks later that the ice had been moving so quickly in the opposite direction that they had in effect traveled backwards. Inadequately clothed and equipped, inexperienced, daunted by the difficulty of the terrain, and with the Arctic winter closing in on them, the group finally washed up on the deserted island of Kvitøya in October and perished there.
(source: wikipedia.org/... Andrée)
Image top: S. A. Andrée and Knut Frænkel with the crashed balloon on the pack ice, photographed by the third expedition member, Nils Strindberg. The exposed film for this photograph and others from the failed 1897 expedition was recovered in 1930.
(source: wikipedia.org/... Expedition_of_1897)
Image: Andrée's polar balloon was made in Henri Lachambre's balloon workshop in Paris. (source)
Image: The station at Spitsbergen, from a photochrom print at the end of the nineteenth century. (source)