I’ve been rummaging through the Science Museum’s collections looking for objects related to terrestrial magnetism and scientific expeditions.
I smiled when I came across the musical scores for “Northward Ho! or Baffled not Beaten” in a popular song catalogue from 1875 – it really brought home just how much Arctic exploration captured people’s imaginations in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Commander John P. Cheyne of the Royal Navy, who penned the words for this dashing tune, was himself an Arctic officer. He took part in several voyages to the north, including Sir James Clark Ross’s 1848-9 search for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition of 1845.
Franklin had been searching for the North-West Passage, when he and his crew suddenly vanished. Over the next fifteen years or so several expeditions were launched to find the missing hero, but only a few ominous clues about the men’s fate were ever found.
The cover print of the song shows three hot-air balloons, Enterprise, Resolute, and Discovery, preparing for flight in the Arctic. Balloons had been proposed as a method of reaching the North Pole as early as the 1870s as they could avoid some of the hardships and dangers of a journey by sledge or on foot, and could also provide useful platforms for making scientific measurements at higher altitudes.
Expeditions may have been a question of sport and glory, but they were also intended to gather accurate scientific data on a large number of natural phenomena, including the Earth’s magnetic field. Investigating terrestrial magnetism made a lot of sense in the nineteenth century, since the required equipment could improve the efficiency of navigation across the oceans.
Some brave explorers, like Franklin, didn’t make it back from the unchartered northern territories. But the lucky ones returned with the magnetic instruments that had made their voyages possible. Many of them are now in the Museum’s store rooms. More about these soon…
*[Edited on 15/09/10]