The golden age of polar exploration in the early 20th century did not just require an almost superhuman level of courage, determination and physical exertion from the men on Arctic and Antarctic expeditions: it also made use of pioneering new technologies and innovations in order to make these journeys not only possible, but viable of achieving some degree of success.
From food and clothing to maritime technology, here are 4 ways in which polar exploration benefited from and helped generate innovation and change.
At the start of the 20th century, British explorers primarily used wool clothing on their polar expeditions, often topped by what was known as a gabardine suit. This was cutting edge for the time: made from extremely tightly woven cotton treated with waterproof materials, it was somewhat breathable but could still let water in, soaking the wool below which could then take days to dry out – if it wasn’t drenched again before.
The Norwegian expedition teams used animal skins and hides as waterproof outer layers, but these lacked breathability and were extremely hot and sweaty for those trapped inside them. Once wet, they also proved to be extremely heavy.
Ultimately, none of these natural fibres were really up to the job. Down suits – which had been laughed at when they were first created – proved to be essential kit by the mid-20th century, and the quest for the best materials in which to perform acts of physical exertion in extreme temperatures also helped lead to the development of Goretex in the 1970s.
Goretex was a manmade material which was both waterproof and breathable – features that would have made the earliest polar expeditions infinitely easier. Today, it is a must-have for mountaineers, hikers and those who explore more hostile terrains, including the Arctic and Antarctic.
Voyages to the polar regions needed to take huge quantities of food with them: firstly because expeditions could last years, but also because the extreme cold and intense physical exertion meant that the men on them needed to consume huge amounts of food to provide them with sufficient energy. Many believe 19th and 20th-century polar explorers seriously underestimated the number of calories needed in their diets.
By the early 20th century, sailors were aware of the dangers of scurvy and were able to take steps to mitigate the disease, but finding calorie-dense food which also provided an appropriate level of nutrients was extremely difficult. On some of the earliest Antarctic expeditions, men ate a lot of fat (in the form of butter, cheese and chocolate), biscuits and pemmican (ground meat mixed with fat), along with occasional meat from penguins, seals or horses.
After Scott’s disastrous expedition to the South Pole, where part of the issue was insufficient calories, dieticians began to think more seriously about calorie-rich foods. Chocolate, cheese and ‘Polar Pate’ (very similar to pemmican) are still all popular foods today, but the dawn of processed food and vitamin and mineral supplements proved to change the game for polar explorers.
Edmund Hillary famously took Kendal Mint Cake (basically made from sugar, glucose, water and peppermint oil) to the summit of Mount Everest with him in 1953.
3. Ice-breaking ships
The idea of ice-breaking ships was not a new one: many consider that the first icebreakers had been pioneered by Russians in the 11th century who lived on the north coast, which was frozen for large parts of the year. However, it was only in the 19th century that the idea became more widespread.
The first real modern icebreaker was a Russian navy ship, the Yermak, which was built in England. The ship was able to run over and crush pack ice, making serious polar exploration viable in a way it had previously not been. Icebreakers could still be crushed in the ice of course, but they had a much higher chance of success than anything that had gone before.
Icebreakers continue to be used today: although powered differently from the first icebreakers, they serve a similar function. Ultimately, ships going to the polar regions face similar chances of finding themselves stuck in ice as their predecessors.
At the start of the 20th century, Antarctica was barely mapped: it took until the 1980s for an accurate map of the continent to be produced. The Arctic, on the other hand, was relatively well understood and the first successful journey through the Northwest Passage further cemented existing knowledge.
Those travelling across Antarctica, therefore, were using relatively rudimentary navigating techniques such as navigating using the sun and stars, as well as with compasses. In blizzards and on uncharted terrain, these could be difficult and provide inaccurate readings, particularly when the men were exhausted or ill.
The more expeditions made to Antarctica, the better the mapping of the continent became and the easier navigation was: explorers were no longer pioneers, but were able to track their positions on maps. The advent of GPS (Global Positioning System) in the 1970s and 1980s also changed the game forever: exact locations could be pinpointed and precise routes followed, reducing some of the risk associated with glaciers and crevasses in the ice.