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By Giulia Delprato on

5 Objects That Helped Humans Understand Antarctica

To celebrate the opening of our free dance and science festival Antarctica Live, we look at five objects from our collection that helped humanity study and understand the icy continent.

First aid kit

First aid kit used by Rear-Admiral R.E. Byrd on his Antarctic expedition in 1928-1930
First aid kit used by Rear-Admiral R.E. Byrd on his Antarctic expedition in 1928-1930

This first aid kit was used by Rear-Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd (1888-1957) on his expedition to Antarctica in 1928-1930. Some of the bandages and equipment are labelled with the words ‘From Little America Antarctica Byrd Antarctica Expedition II Medical Officer’ – Little America was the base camp used for his expeditions. The kit has  hardly been used.

During the Heroic Age of Antarctic Expedition, ‘Tabloid’ brand first aid kits made by Burroughs Wellcome & Co were given to explorers and influential people packed with the company’s products in a shrewd attempt to promote the product.

Tucker Sno-cat ®

Tucker Sno-cat ®, type 743, by Tucker Sno-Cat ® Corporation used in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctica Expedition.
Tucker Sno-cat ®, type 743, by Tucker Sno-Cat ® Corporation used in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctica Expedition.

Not your average feline, Sno-cat was one of four to be used in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctica Expedition from 1955-8, the first motorised crossing of the continent. It aimed to carry out a complete physical and scientific survey along the route.

The Sno-cat had been originally developed to negotiate very soft snow in North America, so needed a few alterations to survive Antarctica, with its highs of -40°F and powerful snow drifts. This included a special anti-freeze engine lubricant, sealing every hole or crevice and lagging the cabin with inch-thick cellular plastics.

Prestwich cinematographic camera

Prestwich cinematographic camera, used by Mr H.G. Ponting in Scott's Antarctic Expedition, 1910.
Prestwich cinematographic camera, used by Mr H.G. Ponting in Scott’s Antarctic Expedition, 1910.

This Prestwich 35mm cine camera was used by Herbert Ponting for Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to the Ross Sea and South Pole – he was one of the first people to use a portable movie camera in Antarctica. Called a cinematograph, this camera could take short video sequences, helping record the behaviour of large Antarctic animals, like killer whales, seals and penguins. In fact, Ponting’s dedication to his work nearly cost him his life – he narrowly escaped death on one occasion when, attempting to get as close as possible to the action, a pod of killer whales broke the ice on which he was standing. Ponting also took some autochrome plates with him to the expedition and took some of the first known colour still photographs of Antarctica.

A popular choice at the time, the same model of camera was later used by cinematographer Frank Hurley on the Shackleton Antarctic Expedition – this camera, alas, did not survive the trip.

‘Nimrod’

Whole barquentine rigged model of the single-screw converted whaler the 'Nimrod' used by Ernest Shackleton during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909
Whole barquentine rigged model of the single-screw converted whaler the ‘Nimrod’ used by Ernest Shackleton during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909

Ernest Shackleton led his first expedition to Antarctica on the Nimrod, with the goal of reaching the South Pole.

The Nimrod was quite a small ship compared to ‘Discovery’ used by Robert Scott, a choice dictated by budget constraints. Despite this, the Nimrod successfully reached Antarctica. Shackleton and his crew were able to carry out a great deal of scientific research, extensively map the area and ascend nearby volcano Mount Erebus (4023m), but eventually failed in their goal of reaching the South Pole. 97 miles away from it, the party of four had to head back, defeated by frostbite, lack of food and the extreme weather conditions.

Shackleton would then go on to lead two more Antarctic Expeditions, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) being perhaps the better known one, a feat of heroism and stoicism we still look up to today.

Electron capture detector

Electron capture detector for gas chromatograph by J. Lovelock
Electron capture detector for gas chromatograph by J. Lovelock

This Electron capture detector, a highly sensitive detector for measuring air pollution, was constructed by James Lovelock in 1960.

In the summer of 1967, he measured the air blowing off the Atlantic onto the West Coast of Ireland and and found that it contained chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), now known to cause ozone depletion.
In a partially self-funded research expedition in 1972, went on to measure the concentration of CFC-11 from the northern hemisphere to the Antarctic aboard the research vessel RRS Shackleton. These findings helped him elaborate his popular Gaia hypothesis in 1972, in which he proposes that all life on Earth interact with the physical environment and form a complex system which can be thought of as a single self-regulating organism.

(Header image: British Antarctic Survey)


Antarctica Live is taking place at the Science Museum 11.00-16.00 every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday between 14-30 August 2018. Find out more.