• An artist's depiction of the U.S.S. Jeannette as it was crushed by ice in the Arctic.
    Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Best-selling Author to Highlight Disastrous North Pole Expedition in Caltech Lecture

Hampton Sides will chronicle the 1879 journey of the USS Jeannette, which ended with the majority of its crew dead, but which yielded valuable scientific discoveries.

On July 8, 1879, the 33-man crew of the USS Jeannette, amid much fanfare and optimism, set sail from San Francisco heading north. They hoped to be the first explorers to reach the North Pole, but fortune would not be on their side. The next thousand days would see their expedition beset by arctic storms, crushing sea ice, and starvation. Only 13 men would return to the United States alive.

On April 10, historian and best-selling author Hampton Sides will visit Caltech to discuss the journey of the USS Jeannette, the booming national pride that propelled it, and the pseudoscientific thinking that doomed it. His free public lecture is part of the James Michelin Distinguished Visitors Program.

The Jeannette's expedition came at a time when the United States was emerging as a player on the world stage, and there was a public longing for the nation to prove itself. Unsound scientific thinking about the nature of the North Pole was also rampant, with many believing that a ring of ice surrounded a polar sea of warmer water. Many mapmakers and explorers believed that if a ship could find a passage through that ring of ice, perhaps by following a northward-moving current of warm water like the Gulf Stream, the remainder of its journey to the pole would be easy. That belief was wrong and lured more than one expedition into a deadly trap.

Dangerously misled by unfounded theories, U.S. Navy Captain George De Long, commander of the expedition, which was financed by a New York City newspaper magnate, ventured into the great unknown and never returned. The scientific discoveries of the expedition did survive, however, and provided insights about the arctic region that were invaluable to later explorers.

Sides' lecture, "America in the Age of Polar Fever," will be held at 7 p.m. in Caltech's Donald E. Baxter, M.D., Hall of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Tickets are not required. It is sponsored by the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences. Sides will sign copies of his book, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, after the lecture. Copies of his book will be available for purchase at the event.

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Written by Emily Velasco