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Great Adventures: Over the Arctic by Balloon

Pat Kinsella recounts the tale of Sweden’s first balloonist Salomon August Andrée, who made an ill-fated, and ill-advised, attempt to float across the top of the world…
HIGH HOPES Andrée’s balloon is as filled with hydrogen as the Swedish explorer’s head is with hopes. It’s as ready as it will ever be for its first, and last, voyage
ALAMY X1, GRENNA MUSEUM - POLARCENTER X1

A mid the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration, at the end of the 19th century, more and more of the Earth’s extreme secrets were unlocked by great bearded adventurers. But the proud northern nation of Sweden was lagging behind. This was unacceptable, especially as its smaller neighbour Norway was producing such pioneers as explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

The Swedes found their hero in the shape of engineer, physicist and explorer of the skies Salomon August Andrée. An enthusiastic balloonist, Andrée convinced himself, and then a group of influential supporters – including Sweden’s King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel, dynamite inventor and founder of the Nobel Prize – that a prevailing wind and a big bag of hydrogen would allow him to stage a fly-by photoshoot of the as-yet-unseen North Pole.

Like a plot from a Jules Verne novel, Andrée's plan was intoxicatingly daring. With two companions, he would pilot a tailor-made hydrogen balloon from Svalbard across the Arctic Sea to the Bering Strait, skimming over the North Pole en route, before landing in Alaska. Or Canada. Or maybe Russia – wherever serendipity should bring him down to Earth.

“From Spitsbergen, you can almost count on a northerly wind of two weeks’ duration. It will carry a balloon across the roof of the world…”Salomon August Andrée

POLAR PREPARATIONS Andrée’ balloon is heaved onto Spitsbergen island in the Svalbard archipelago;
AKG X1, TEKNISKA MUSEET/ STOCKHOLM X1, GETTY X4
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The June 2016 issue of History Revealed