The Mechanical Age

Whilst Antarctic exploration had slowed during the First World War, technological advances along with the lessons learnt during the Heroic Era led to more Antarctic expeditions in the 1920s, with many utilising new and existing technology to ‘conquer’ the Antarctic continent. Shackleton’s ‘Quest’ Expedition of 1921 had hoped to pioneer the use of an aircraft during the expedition, as well as a range of other technology. Whilst much of this was not used, it heralded the beginnings of the use of new technologies in Antarctica.

First flight to Antarctica

In 1928, the first successful flight took place in Antarctica, when Hubert Wilkins and Ben Eielson made a successful flight down the Antarctic Peninsula, sketching and exploring a thousand miles of previously unexplored Antarctic territory in a day. This was followed in 1929 by the first flight over the South Pole by Richard E Byrd. Whilst in these early years a lack of ground control meant aerial photography could often not be reconciled and used accurately for the purposes of mapping, the expansion of the use of aircraft in Antarctica was to change the face of exploration forever.

First flight across Antarctic continent

In 1935, the American Lincoln Ellsworth along with the Englishman Herbert Hollick-Kenyon became the first people to fly across the Antarctic continent, taking twenty-two days to complete the flight and discovering new topographical features along with fossil specimens, collected whilst waiting for the weather to improve.

Douglas Mawson

In 1929, a major expedition to Antarctica was undertaken led by Douglas Mawson. Using ships and aircraft including Scott’s Discovery, the two-year British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition undertook a huge amount of scientific research in geology, oceanography, meteorology, terrestrial magnetism, zoology and botany, as well as exploration and mapping. However its main purpose was to make proclamations of British sovereignty over Antarctic lands, on the understanding that the territory would be handed over to Australia at a later date.

Richard E Byrd

At the same time, American Richard E Byrd’s first expedition to Antarctica was taking place, with the establishment of a base, Little America, on the Ross Ice Shelf. As well as achieving the first flight over the South Pole, scientific expeditions with photographic and geological surveys were undertaken by dog-sledge, snowmobile and airplane, and this was the first expedition to maintain constant radio communication with the outside world. On his return to Antarctica in 1933-35, Byrd’s expedition became the first to be broadcast live from Antarctica in what became a weekly broadcast, as well as using motor-driven generating plants to provide Little America II with electrical power.

Longest Mechanised Expedition

Other achievements of note included the successful completion of the longest mechanised expedition, as well as the running of a single-manned winter meteorological station where Byrd took regular readings despite suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

1934 - 37
New standards

As whalers continued to explore Antarctica whilst carrying out their commercial activities, the next major expedition was led by the Australian, John Rymill. The British Graham Land Expedition (BGLE), running from 1934-37, set new standards with its meticulous planning of the expedition, the scope of its scientific programmes and the care with which its objective was achieved. With several of the expedition members having polar experience, the expedition’s objectives were to survey the west coast of Graham Land, explore the Steffansson Strait, a passage believed to lead to the Weddell Sea.

Aerial Surveying

Using an airplane extensively for reconnaissance, aerial surveying and depot laying, the expedition carried out several significant sledging journeys and established that Graham Land was not a group of islands but in fact a peninsula, with no channel connecting the west and east of the Peninsula. Considerable work in various scientific disciplines was also conducted and reported on extensively after the expedition.

BGLE Expedition

The BGLE expedition proved to be particularly successful, running for three years without injury or any serious deprivation for various reasons including their use of aircraft, knowledge and experience of dog-sledging and camping techniques, nutritional knowledge, the availability of limited radio communications and the expedition being made up of a multi-disciplinary experienced and competent team. This knowledge and experience, along with further research into polar exploration and its effects, paved the way for more professional expeditions and the beginnings of permanent occupation in Antarctica.  This expedition also established for the first time that the Antarctic Peninsula was part of a continental land mass and not an archipelago of islands.


Go back to our Antarctic history timeline here to learn more about Antarctica and its rich human history.

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