Monday, November 12, 2012

The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson

Alec Wilkinson’s The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration is a highly entertaining history of S.A. Andreé, a Swedish aeronaut who made an unsuccessful attempt to fly a hydrogen balloon to the North Pole in 1897. Andrée had solid reasons for trying to get to the pole via balloon, though many of his fellow explorers thought he was crazy. Andrée believed that even though his method of travel would not be able to collect data the way travelling to the pole by sledge would, a balloon was a better and much quicker method for getting there, mainly because it did not have to cross the frozen, rugged terrain. Andrée took only two other men with him, a much smaller number than most expeditions, and used a specially designed balloon steered by guide ropes and sails and funded in part by Alfred Nobel.

Wilkinson also discusses the history of arctic exploration and explorers such as Henry Hudson, Sir John Franklin, and Adolphus Greely. These other attempts to reach the pole are interspersed with Andrée’s failed voyage. I suspect the author did this in part because there is not enough known about Andrée’s journey, particularly what happened at the end of it, to fill an entire book. This leads to the main story in The Ice Balloon starting and stopping before it’s finally finished off in the last few chapters. This is only a minor complaint. The Ice Balloon paints a vivid portrait of a time when not all of the world could be scrolled through on Google Maps.


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