People have always been fascinated by great explorers – by those who venture where nobody has gone before. And any such explorer is guaranteed a place in the history books. The first man on the moon? Sure, that was Neil Armstrong. The first to reach the summit of Mount Everest? Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. We also know who got to the South Pole first: Roald Amundsen and his party. But the first person to reach the North Pole? This question isn’t as easy to answer as the others. There were two men who staked a claim to this honour, almost at the very same time – and they fought bitterly over it. In this article and the next, we’ll be presenting books written by these two claimants to the title ‘first man at the North Pole’. But there’s another question we need to clear up first: what’s so exciting about the North Pole, anyway?
The Race to the North Pole
What awaits you at the geographic North Pole? Well, nothing at all, actually. It’s a little dot in a desolate sea of ice – you can’t even tell you’re there without taking measurements first. And yet: time and again, expeditions ventured into the polar region to reach it – this magical, northernmost point in the world at 90 degrees latitude, from which the only way is south.
Of course, this exploration was about advancing scientific research, but it was also motivated – at least to an equal extent – by the glory and fame that came with it. And it wasn’t just a question of who would be the first to reach the North Pole, but also of what their nationality would be and what flag they would fly at the pole. From the 19th century onwards, these things were clearly a matter of national prestige. At a time when empires were vying for the last few white spots on the globe, a great deal of importance was attached to them. For that reason, all the major powers – including the German Empire, Italy and Austria – provided support to their home-grown explorers and researchers, financing the expensive equipment for their Arctic expeditions. And the global public watched eagerly as the race unfolded.
Reaching the North Pole itself was initially a distant goal. This world of eternal ice, with its freezing temperatures and lack of all things required for life, claimed the lives of many who dared to venture into it. At first, the focus of this competition was on getting to a point further north than anyone had ever reached before. Each expedition increased the world’s understanding of the polar region and, step by step, the ultimate goal of reaching the North Pole drew closer.
Nearest the Pole
Our book “Dem Nordpol am nächsten“ (original English title: Nearest the Pole), published in 1907, bears witness to the fascination held by these advances ever closer to the pole. It is a German translation of a book written by Robert Peary (1856-1920). Peary was actually a naval officer and was an old hand at exploring, having already set multiple records for reaching a northernmost point. He was very well connected among New York’s elite, and he used this to his advantage. His Peary Arctic Club raised funds for him to finance his expeditions, and very successfully at that. Most of this money went towards the construction of a specially designed expedition ship that was tailored to Peary’s needs: the SS Roosevelt. It was on this ship that Peary embarked on the expedition described in this book, in the years 1905 to 1906. His goal wasn’t to reach he North Pole, but rather to set another ‘North record’, which he did actually achieve on this expedition. He and his party reached 87°6’ (that is: 87 degrees, 6 minutes) north latitude.
The book is a typical, rather plainly written expedition report, documenting the party’s journey and everything they experienced along the way. In his brief foreword, Peary himself admits that his preparations for a new expedition prevented him from completing the book in a way that would have met his own expectations or those of the publisher. Nevertheless, the book is rather impressive. The report is accompanied by 96 illustrations based on expedition photographs, which present the reader with icy landscapes and portray the members of the expedition party as bold adventurers. And as evidenced by our German edition, there was enough international interest in the advance towards the North Pole for publishers to invest in a translated edition.
Good Old Money
Books like this were extremely important for their authors: after all, explorers like Peary made their living from their great image and financed their expeditions through donations and book sales, as well as other strategies to commercialise their names. This book contains a prime example of these kinds of strategies: Peary reports that he has discovered a previously unknown landmass, which he called Crocker Land – after his main sponsor, the banker George Crocker. However, later expeditions in the same region and a comparison with Peary’s log revealed that he had merely invented this land sighting – probably so that Crocker would think he was getting something for his money and, as a result, continue to support Peary. After all, Peary had big plans.
Achievement Unlocked – Or Was It?
No sooner had Peary returned from the expedition described in this book than he started preparing for his next one. On it, he intended to finally accomplish that great feat – reaching the North Pole itself. Just one year after this book was published, he embarked on his next expedition. And indeed, after his return, he was able to announce that he had reached the North Pole on 6 April 1909. On his way back, however, he learned that there was another explorer claiming to have reached the North Pole, and a whole year before him at that, in April 1908. We’ll reveal who this rival was, and who reached the North Pole first, in our next article – to be continued!
Other Things You Might Be Interested in:
You can browse the English edition of Peary's book on the Harvard Library site.
The fascination of foreign cultures and unreached places was also the subject of our exhibition Our Journey Into the Unknown: How we came to discover the secrets of our world.