Interview with Historian Michael Robinson

Michael Robinson is an associate professor of history at Hillyer College at the University of Hartford. In this video he discusses the ramifications of Adolphus Greely's Lady Franklin Bay Expedition on today's culture of science. He has published biographical and historiographical books on exploration subjects, and he manages a website, Time to Eat the Dogs, about "exploration and its place within the cultural imagination."

 

Video transcript

By the 19th century you have a movement towards a more holistic sense of science. That is, people begin to wonder, "How do all of these parts fit together?"

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You would think that as this the century progresses Arctic science, understanding of the Arctic, would be growing by leaps and bounds. And to some degree it does it does. There are-- there is the discovery of dozens of new species and an understanding of currents. But at the same time because this is such a difficult region to get to, there's also broad dispute about what you'd actually find up in the Arctic sea. Some people believe that the polar sea would be warm water, free of ice, filled with species and pods of whales. Other people believed, a small minority, but other people believed that there were holes up at the polar and down in the Antarctic regions of the globe. So there was a lot of mystery that still was connected to the Polar Regions. And so even in the late 19th century, interest in the Polar Regions is very, very high. People don't know what they're going to find there.

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For most Americans in the 19th century, science is held in high regard. It was seen as a sign of civilization. And for Americans who were always a little sensitive about their relationship to Europe and always viewed themselves in a sense as you the younger brother of Europe, science was something that most people held great respect for. At the same time, Americans also felt that they did not want to repeat the kind of elitist attitudes that they saw in Europe. And so the American version of science would play out a little differently.

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In the late 19th century, it was very difficult to get funding for projects like Greely's project to the Arctic. And the reason for that was that after the Civil War there was great interest in science but the Arctic was seen increasingly as an area that, while it might have been symbolically impressive to get to the North Pole, it wasn't clear how this kind of discovery would help Americans back home.

And so there was a lot of money being put into the exploration and survey of the West. And so in order for the United States to fund, to use taxpayer dollars to fund Arctic exploration, there really had to be a payoff -- either a symbolic payoff that was big enough to send them north, or some kind of scientific payoff. And it was because the international community had already established the International Polar Year that the United States congress eventually comes around to sending Americans to help that project.

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The on the surface the mission of the International Polar Year was to collect data cooperatively. But the American expedition had a secret agenda, which was to try to reach as far as they could, to at least beat the British record set by the Nars expedition some years earlier. And on the surface this was a mission that had no practical purpose. At the same time there was a symbolic significance to it. It was very important for Americans and continues to be important into the 20th century. Today we would call this exploration to set a new goal creating soft power, a kind of symbolic or prestige mission rather than a practical one. And it was something that was taken very seriously.

There was much more excitement about Greely coming back and having claimed to reach the further north than there was for him to have gathered thousands and thousands of data points about barometric pressure.

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The kinds of data that Greely and his men were collecting were of many types. They were looking at wind speed, they were looking at barometric pressure in particular because they were interested in storm fronts and how the weather moved, they were interested in magnetism. And if you think about these different things-- and also they were interested in species collection. If you think about these different types of fields of study, they may seem very esoteric but in fact they were very practical because, how do ships at sea navigate? They navigate with compasses. The compasses depend upon the magnetic field of the earth. And the magnetic field of the earth changes, it's not static. So people were interested in knowing how this magnetic field changed, and did it change predictably? So within this search for how the Earth functions there are also very practical concerns as well as storms. The Arctic regions were seen as regions that were critical to the functioning of the non-Arctic regions.

For example, there was an awareness among all scientists in the 19th century that the equatorial regions received a tremendous amount of energy from the sun. And yet the equatorial regions did not fry off, the water does not boil at the equator like Aristotle thought it might. How then does the earth dissipate that heat? There had to be some relationship between the equatorial regions and the Polar regions. And so, in a sense people begin to envision the Earth almost like an organism with a set of circulation systems. And the key to understanding this system was going to the Polar regions and figuring out, how do the Polar regions cool the equatorial region, and how does the equator gives its heat back to the Arctic?

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In a way it has taken decades for the scientific work of this expedition to finally reemerge. And what's also ironic is the data of the International Polar Year, the first International Polar Year, is of interest today but not because it offers the key to an understanding of nature, but because it offers a key to how human beings have changed nature. We are now using the data for the International Polar Year of 1882, '83, to understand how global warming happens, to understand how the climate has changed over the last hundred years.

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