Before NSF

Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr., USN (October 25, 1888 – March 11, 1957)


Byrd, Antarctica and the Private Funding Model

Sheldon Bart

President, Wilderness Research Foundation

Most of the people who come to Antarctica today are scientists, and most of them get there through government funding.  In the United States, the principal agency of funding for science is the National Science Foundation (NSF).  NSF came into existence after the Second World War; its creation was prompted by the cold war.  Prior to the advent of NSF, the U.S. Government funded scientific exploration only sporadically.  Nevertheless, Americans enjoyed a significant participation in the scientific exploration of Antarctica.  They did so because another model of scientific funding functioned in the absence of government subsidies.

The alternate model was supremely successful.  It centered around a larger-than-life figure who galvanized the interest of the public and the media in exploration, and who was consequently able to raise funds in the private sector.  These heroic individuals were often not scientists themselves but recruited teams of scientists whose work justified the staggering costs of an expedition.

In the first half of the twentieth century, a substantial amount of science in a multitude of disciplines was catalyzed by heroic individuals.  The paleontological investigation of Central Asia was spurred by Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History.  Oceanographic research and underwater exploration was advanced by William Beebe of the New York Zoological Society.  Arctic studies were driven by the annual voyages north of Donald B. MacMillan and Robert A. Bartlett.

Sir Hubert Wilkins and Lincoln Ellsworth mounted modest expeditions that were financed privately and contributed solidly to geographical knowledge of the Antarctic.  But the principal exponent of the private-funding model in Antarctica was Admiral Richard E. Byrd (1888 – 1957).  Byrd was a naval officer and beyond classes in mechanical engineering at the Naval Academy, he  did not have a science background.  A handsome man of slight stature, he was married and the father of four children.  He believed in meticulous study and preparation.  “In the polar regions,” he would say, “it’s always the things that are not supposed to happen that cause the most problems.”  No one worked on the scale that he did.  He organized the largest private expeditions in history and never lost a man on the ice.

Byrd wintered over in Antarctica in 1929-30 and 1934-35.  In the first instance, he raised a million dollars in the private sector from wealthy donors, corporate contributions and media contracts to outfit an expedition that consisted of 2 ships, 4 airplanes, 100 dogs, a snowmobile (a Model-A Ford customized with skis), 100 men and 800 tons of supplies.  Byrd’s ships landed on the Ross Ice Shelf in January of 1929 and carried everything necessary to erect a compound on the ice—including prefabricated buildings, generators and three short-wave radio antennas standing 70 feet tall.

The buildings were buried under the surface to take advantage of the insulating properties of snow.  Byrd’s compound—Little America—was a series of basements and connecting tunnels.  Forty-one of the men who helped build the base from scratch wintered over with the commander.  Two were millionaires, others didn’t have a dime to their name.  They served as laborers, dog  drivers, mechanics and cooks.  There was also a physician, a journalist and a clerk-typist.  And, most prominently, a team of scientists.

Laurence M. Gould, a geologist at the University of Michigan, was appointed chief scientist of the expedition.  A future college president and a future president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Gould studied the glaciology of the Ross Ice Shelf and the geology of  newly discovered Antarctic mountain ranges.

Frank Davies, a Canadian physicist, investigated magnetic phenomena at Little America with instruments provided by the Carnegie Institution.  He also studied aurora manifestations.  Two meteorologists detailed by the U.S. Weather Bureau—William Haines and Henry Harrison—compiled a day-by-day data base of basic weather indicators.  Haines and Harrison also sent up weather balloons equipped with primitive instrumentation.

Paul Siple, a college student destined to become America’s leading Antarctic scientist, studied the biology of penguins and seals.  While at Little America, Siple communicated via short-wave radio with naturalists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who guided him in his field studies.

Short-wave radio was the cutting-edge technology of the 1920s, and some of the most interesting studies of the first Byrd Antarctic expedition were conducted by a cadre of radio engineers led by Malcolm Hanson and Howard Mason.  It was understood in the 20s that short-wave radio signals are propagated across a layer of charged particles in the upper atmosphere discovered independently by Arthur Kennelly and Oliver Heaviside.  Called the Kennelly-Heaviside Layer in the Byrd era, that strata is nowadays known as the ionosphere.  Rockets were used to probe the ionosphere when missile technology was developed in the 1950s.  In the absence of rockets, radio signals were bounced off the ionosphere at different times of day and night and at different parts of the world just to ascertain its properties.  Hanson and Mason participated in this exercise in Antarctica.

Through the darkness of the Antarctic winter of 1929, the Byrd science team attended to their studies and also conducted classes at Little America for their fellow expedition members.  Larry Gould gave his college geology course, complete with quizzes.  The “Antarctic University” of 1929 inaugurated a tradition continued by future expeditions.

Aerial Exploration and Bedrock Geology

When the sun dawned on the ice in late 1929, Byrd managed to combine hard science with geographical exploration.  The centerpiece of his expedition—the “hook” that inspired individual donors and big corporations to contribute a million dollars—was a first flight to the South Pole, a hazardous undertaking for aircraft of the 1920s.

The pole is located on the dome of ice covering the interior of Antarctica.  Standing between it and the Ross Ice Shelf are the Transantarctic Mountains.  To reach the pole, a plane had to ascend to some 10,000 to 12,000 feet to surmount both the mountains and the polar dome.  Since the aircraft was necessarily overloaded with fuel and emergency provisions, it would be stressed to the very margins of its capability.  If the plane went down on the polar plateau, the surviving aviators would have to walk hundreds of miles back to base.  The aircraft could not carry enough food and fuel for such a marathon hike, and of course there was no game to hunt in the heart of the barren continent.

To give himself a margin of safety, however, Byrd devised a cunning plan.  Months before the takeoff, he dispatched Larry Gould on a sledge journey to study the Transantarctic Mountains.  Gould and his team put down caches of food and provisions at various intervals along the way.  If the plane went down, Byrd and his flight crew at least had a fighting chance to reach those caches.

In addition, the South Pole flight accomplished the first modern aerial mapping survey conducted in the Antarctic.  The four-man flight crew included Ashley McKinley, a pioneer aerial photographer. McKinley was the author of the first textbook on the subject, Applied Aerial Photography.  In fact, he wrote the last two chapters at sea en route to the Antarctic with the Byrd expedition.

McKinley used a 50-pound aerial mapping camera to shoot a series of photographs, taken at oblique angles from the windows of the aircraft, every 2 minutes during the South Pole flight.  The result was a mosaic of hundreds of overlapping images of the surface below.  After the expedition, the photographs were given to Byrd’s friend and fellow naval officer, Commander Harold Saunders, a mathematical genius who had graduated at the head of the Naval Academy’s class of 1912.  (Byrd had graduated in the middle of the same class.)  Saunders was also furnished with the flight log of the polar hop (containing altitude and airspeed computations), the navigation record, and concomitant weather observations at Little America.

Using this data, he devised a series of scales which he plotted on celluloid templates.  One scale measured elevation, another measured distance, etc.  Superimposing the templates on McKinley’s photos, he was able to ascertain the relative size and positions of the surface features depicted.  The  result was the first detailed map of a section of Antarctica.  The McKinley-Saunders map was published by the National Geographic Society in 1932.

Motor Vehicles and Cosmic Rays

Byrd returned to Antarctica in 1933 with twice as many scientists and a new idea.  Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Douglas Mawson had all attempted—unsuccessfully—to use motor vehicles to traverse the ice.  Between the coast of Antarctica, where Little America was situated, and the mountains to the south was a 400-mile ice sheet, riddled with virtually bottomless crevasses.  Some were the size of city blocks, and many were camouflaged with a thin roof of snow.  Byrd reasoned, correctly, that tractors would be able to negotiate this environment if the weight of the vehicles could be reduced and the width of the treads were widened.  Byrd’s tractors plowed deep into the interior of Antarctica, hauling fuel for aircraft and provisions for sledge teams to enable field parties to extend their operations.

Dogs, planes, tractors.  Byrd had now created the model for the Antarctic exploration of the next half-century.  His tractor teams, in turn, were equally creative.  During the winter of 1934, the tractor men built wooden enclosures over the rear wheels of their machines.  These enclosures were stocked with primus stoves and bunks.  The drivers proceeded in relative comfort while towing sled-loads of supplies behind them.

The chief scientist of the second Byrd Antarctic Expedition was Dr. Thomas C. Poulter, chairman of the Department of Physics of Iowa Wesleyan University.  Poulter aligned the Byrd expedition with the most significant trend in modern physics.  He had studied under Dr. Arthur H. Compton of the University of Chicago, a leading researcher of a phenomenon first discovered in 1912: cosmic rays.  Compton had called for a worldwide effort to study the nature and intensity of the mysterious radiation that apparently originated in outer space and constantly bombarded the earth.  He suspected that cosmic rays consisted of subatomic particles, a supposition that would eventually be confirmed.  The new field of particle physics might be considered one of the ramifications of this discovery.

Compton had written to Byrd in 1931, suggesting that experiments undertaken in Antarctica on the detection and measurement of cosmic rays would be a valuable component of a global survey.  In addition to furthering this inquiry, Poulter was also interested in using seismic echoes to determine the thickness of the Ross Ice Shelf and resolve the mystery of its relationship to land and sea, and in studying magnetic phenomena, meteors showers and the aurora.  Assisting him in carrying out this agenda was Dr. Ervin H. Bramhall of MIT, a cosmic-ray researcher and future space scientist.

Other members of the science staff built upon the work of the first Byrd Antarctic expedition. William Haines of the Weather Bureau compiled more meteorological data, and a team of radio engineers continued to probe the ionosphere.  Dr. Earle B. Perkins, a zoologist at Rutgers University, directed the biological studies of the 1934 outing.  Paul Siple, now a PhD candidate, led a geological investigation of Marie Byrd Land—territory Byrd had discovered on a flight to the east late in 1929—and found lichens.  Another PhD candidate, Quin A. Blackburn, led a sledge journey to the Transantarctic Mountains, picking up the geological and geographical research where Larry Gould left off in 1929.

Enter James Van Allen

Tom Poulter may be credited with two ancillary contributions to polar science.  The success of tractor operations on the second Byrd Antarctic Expedition inspired the chief scientist to devise the perfect motorized vehicle for Antarctic exploration.  Backed by the Armour Institute of Technology Poulter designed and built a 55 foot long, 15 foot wide, 27 ton “snowcruiser,” a futuristic bus of such gargantuan proportions that the diameter of the tires (10 feet) were lengthier than the tallest humans.

The snowcruiser was supposed to carry a team of researchers straight to the South Pole.  It was unloaded on the Bay of Whales at the outset of Byrd’s third Antarctic expedition in 1939—promptly sunk through the ice and was never seen again.*

Poulter’s second extracurricula contribution was James Van Allen.  Van Allen was a promising science student at Iowa Wesleyan when the second Byrd expedition was being organized.  Poulter wanted to take him to Antarctica, but Van Allen’s parents refused to let him go.  Visions of ice shelves remained on the young man’s mind.  Seventeen years later, Van Allen, now a professor of nuclear physics at the University of Iowa, held a number of discussions with other scientists—including Lloyd Berkner, a radio engineer with the first Byrd Antarctic Expedition—about the International Polar Year.

The first IPY occurred in 1882 – 1883, the second, 50 years later, in 1932 – 33.  Van Allen, Berkner and their colleagues said: “Why wait?”  The result was the Third International Polar Year, which expanded to become the International Geophysical Year of 1957 – 58.  Van Allen’s curiosity about cosmic phenomena, kindled by Thomas Poulter, remained fresh.  During the IGY, he launched a series of rocket-propelled balloons from ships in Arctic and Antarctic waters to probe the upper atmosphere, and wound up discovering the Van Allen Radiation Belts.

Numerous compelling research projects were carried out in the Arctic, the Antarctic and around the world as the IGY proceeded.  From the point of view of the present narrative, the work of Charles Bentley, George Doumani and their associates deserves special notice.  These geologists and geophysicists traversed Marie Byrd Land in advanced motor vehicles—Sno-Cats—picking up the geological and geographical research where Byrd’s people left off in 1935 and 1939.

Multigenerational Saga

Scientific exploration in Antarctica is a multigenerational saga, a continuing narrative in which each new phase enlarges upon the previous chapter.  The heroic generation of field researchers sought answers to a very basic question: What is Antarctica? What does it look like?  Is it one continent or two, or an archipelago?  By the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century, expeditions had landed at various points around the perimeter of Antarctica.  Geographers supposed that the dots could be connected.  The result, said Sir Douglas Mawson, Australia’s leading polar explorer, was an “assumed continent.”  Byrd and Lincoln Ellsworth combined to demonstrate that the assumptions corresponded with reality.

Other bedrock questions addressed by the early expeditions were:  How did Antarctica’s mountain ranges form, and how do they relate to ranges on other continent?  Is there organic life  in the interior?  What is the Ross Ice Shelf?  Does it float freely on water or is it anchored to land?  How cold and windy does it get?

Contemporary researchers are asking a different set of questions:  What is happening to Antarctica? How is global climate change affecting Antarctica, and how does a changing Antarctica affect the rest of the world?

Modern science stations are better furnished, roomier and more comfortable than the early stations, and the researchers housed there no longer have to double as construction workers and erect their own quarters.  Nor do they have to sail from their home countries to Antarctica or remain through the winter, unless they choose to.  LAN Airlines and Hercules C-130 military transports cut travel time to the minimum.

Funding, however, remains the scientist’s gravest challenge.  Fewer than 20% of the scientists applying to the National Science Foundation actually receive grants.  The private funding model clearly offers a viable corrective.  Wilderness Research Foundation has revived the model of privately funded, multidisciplinary expeditions to create more opportunities for scientific exploration beyond the limited regime of government funding.

Like the scientists we serve, we can trace our heritage to the greatest exemplar of the private model: Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Bellingshausen Summer Workshop, King George Island, Antarctica, January 19, 2010.

* In contrast with the privately financed first and second Byrd expeditions, the 1939 installment—formerly known as the U.S. Antarctic Service Expedition—was subsidized by the U.S. Government.  America, it might be said, was provoked by the Nazis into allocating money for a polar expedition.  Hitler’s Germany had dispatched an exploring party in 1938-39 to muscle in on Antarctic territory south of South Africa that had formerly been claimed by Norway.  The Third Reich boasted of its ambitions to colonize a large swath of Antarctica, and the U.S. countered by publicly financing another Byrd expedition.