Ballooning in the Arctic? Two overtures to Elisha Kent Kane, 1852-53

02 March 2018

Empire and Globalism | History

Polar explorers throughout history have attempted to harness new technological developments. Among the more famous examples are Sir John Franklin’s expedition of 1845, which utilised ships propelled by repurposed locomotive engines, and Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910-12 expedition to the South Pole, which utilised motorised sledges and even installed a telephone line at the expedition’s base. Perhaps even more unusual was S. A. Andrée's 1897 doomed attempt to pass over the North Pole in a hot air balloon.

However, Andrée was not the first to suggest that balloons might be used in the Arctic. The personal papers of Dr Elisha Kent Kane, held by the American Philosophical Society and digitised as part of Adam Matthew Digital's forthcoming Age of Exploration, reveal two balloon-related overtures made during preparations for the Second Grinnell Expedition of 1853-55, one of the numerous expeditions inspired by the search for the lost Franklin expedition.

In the first, addressed to Secretary of the Navy Kennedy and dated 20 December 1852, Robert Mills (the architect responsible for the Washington Monument) suggests that while Kane and his men searched for Franklin, they might also seek a viable Northwest Passage, and that a balloon would be a useful surveying tool.

© American Philosophical Society.

Remarkably, Mills was not alone in thinking that a balloon might prove to be a useful Arctic surveying tool. A letter from an R.F. Lewis to Kane, dated 28 March 1853, suggests that the ‘simple contrivance of balloons’ would create a vantage point over ‘barriers of ice…. which extend for miles and miles… without any inlet or accessability [sic] whatever’. It would be, Lewis continued, ‘at least a satisfaction to all mankind to know, that all has been done… to discover the fate of the unfortunate navigators, and also to add to discovery.’

© American Philosophical Society.

Lewis concluded his letter with an appeal to Kane’s experience in the Arctic, wondering whether his idea might be practical;

© American Philosophical Society.

Although it found no traces of Franklin’s expedition, the Second Grinnell Expedition succeeded in exploring and surveying a vast area of the Arctic north, and without the aid of a hot air balloon, instead utilising dog-drawn sledges. Their eventual escape from the iced-in ship Advance to the settlement of Upernavik, Greenland - a distance of over a thousand miles - was by completed by sledge and open boat. Even in the twenty-first century, Arctic exploration by balloon remains a difficult proposition, as Jean-Louis Etienne’s experiences attest.

Age of Exploration publishes in May 2018. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Matt Brand

Matt Brand

I joined Adam Matthew Digital in the autumn of 2016. My main academic interests are British politics and diplomacy during the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in relation to refugees and asylum.