Editor’s note: On January 20, 2013, an expedition called the Shackleton Epic will begin an attempt to be the first team to authentically re-create Sir Ernest Shackleton’s voyage of survival crossing 800 nautical miles of the treacherous southern ocean, from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and the climb over it. You can follow the group’s exploits online.

You can get a sense of the danger involved to the first explorers to the poles a century ago from the Scientific American Classics special digital edition, Tragedy and Triumph: The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration (July 2012). The following, originally published with the title “To the Ends of the Earth,” is the introduction to the edition, which compiles articles from our archive. See other special digital editions on our Classics page.


An era of breathless anticipation came to an end on March 7, 1912, when Roald Amundsen landed in Tasmania and sent telegrams announcing that he and his team of Antarctic explorers had reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Just weeks after that historic announcement—on or about March 29, 1912—Amundsen’s one-time rival for this feat of geographic primacy, Robert Falcon Scott, and the last surviving members of his five-man team perished on the windswept snow of the Ross Ice Shelf, although news of Scott’s death did not reach the outside world until months later.

Robert E. Peary and Frederick Cook had already reported success in reaching the North Pole a few years earlier, although Cook’s report was later discredited. The poles had been conquered at long last, after decades of exploration during which humans repeatedly tried, failed and finally succeeded in reaching each of these most remote corners of our world. In this special volume commemorating the passage of a century since the world learned that the South Pole had been attained, Scientific American takes a look back at its coverage of that remarkable era and the events leading up to it.

The age of polar exploration provided a wealth of information for science to sift, while at the same time fulfilling the aspirations of nations to compete with others and even to stake potential territorial claims, with all the attendant allure of financial gain. It is easy to see why the pursuit of science was a goal to be cherished and emphasized in this mix of motivations: there were many reasons to be skittish of the potential for conflict and colonialism, but little could be more noble than knowledge.

At the turn of the 20th century, all eyes turned to the poles as it became clear that these two grand prizes of exploration lay within human grasp. Polar expeditions enjoyed the interest and support of the public, governments and academies of science alike. Today’s polar scientist frequently marvels as she or he looks back at what these early scientist-explorers accomplished, as they laid the foundations that remain firm to this day in fields ranging across geology, meteorology, biology, glaciology, and more.

It was a time dubbed the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration—who could not be moved to admire the men who set out to explore these desolate, frigid and forbidding lands? It was also an era when the simple act of going to places never before trod on by human feet would inevitably lead to scientific as well as geographic insights. The articles contained in this collection remind us of an epoch when experts debated whether the North Pole was surrounded by an inland sea that could be sailed; a thick, smooth ice sheet that could be easily traversed by a sleigh; or—as proved to be the case, to the dismay of explorers and the fascination of scientists—devastatingly unstable stretches of open water within fields of shifting sea ice. This volume takes us back to a time when educated people wondered whether the Arctic was colder than the Antarctic and whether the southern continent would be inhabited. The news columns and articles of Scientific American from that time are replete with the rich rewards that exploration brought back to the scientific world by answering these and a host of other questions.

These pages offer a window into the worlds of Amundsen, Scott, Cook, Peary and other explorers at a time when readers were also following the progress in developing flying machines and the question of whether it would cost a nickel or a dime to ride the New York subway. This was also an era of technological advance and innovation in the tools of exploration, including ships to brave the Arctic ice, early attempts to build motorized sledges, and photography capable of withstanding the extreme cold and capturing polar vistas that were sure to inspire and motivate any scientifically- minded American reader. As you read the original accounts of this extraordinary age of polar exploration, written a century or more ago, you may be reminded of the common character of exploration, science and technology, each of which celebrate the opening of new frontiers, the discovery of unknown facts and the advancement of human endeavors.


A Century after Scott and Amundsen, the Antarctic Still Beckons

By John Horgan


The North Pole and Its Seekers
October 28, 1868

New Expeditions to the Arctic Regions
June 24, 1871

The Latest Arctic Explorations—The Remarkable Escape of the Polaris Party
June 7, 1873

Rescue of the Remaining Survivors of the Polaris
October 4, 1873

The Latest Polar Expedition
December 26, 1874

Work for Arctic Explorers
July 17, 1875

The British Arctic Expedition

The Coming Arctic Expeditions
May 22, 1875

The British Arctic Expedition
August 28, 1975

July 3, 1876
The Search for the Pole

The British Arctic Expedition
December 23 and 30, 1876

The Recent Arctic Expedition
January 20, 1877

Another Approach: Balloons and Airships

Some Suggestions for Future Polar Expeditions
February 13, 1877

Proposed New British Polar Expedition
September 20, 1879

To the North Pole by Balloon
July 13, 1895

Wellman’s Airship for His North Polar Expedition
By the Paris Correspondent of the Scientific American
July 7, 1906

The Wellman Polar Airship Expedition
By the Paris Correspondent of the Scientific American
June 22, 1907

Farther North

The American Arctic Expedition
September 14, 1878

The Peary Arctic Expedition
July 15, 1893

Nansen’s Polar Expedition
March 14, 1896

The Recent Failures of Arctic Expeditions
August 29, 1896

The Return of Lieut. Peary
September 27, 1902

The Polar Regions
June 11, 1904

Peary’s New Ship for Work in Arctic Seas
October 8, 1904

Peary and the North Pole
July 15, 1905

Peary’s Arctic Ship, The “Roosevelt”
July 15, 1905

Peary’s “Farthest North”
November 17, 1906

Race to the Finish: Peary and Cook

Peary’s Quest of the North Pole
July 18, 1908

Peary and  the North Pole
August 21, 1909

Dr. Cook and the North Pole
September 11, 1909

Dr. Cook’s Discovery of the North Pole
September 11, 1909

Honor to Whom Honor is Due
September 18, 1909

Commander Peary’s Discovery of the North Pole
September 18, 1909

Retrospect of the Year 1909: Exploration
January 1, 1910

“Investigating” Peary
April 22, 1911


Exploring Antarctica

Antarctic Exploration
January 23, 1897

To South Polar Lands
February 13, 1897

The Voyage of the “Discovery”
February 3, 1906

Antarctic Expeditions, Past and Present
Some Heroes of Exploration
November 11, 1911

Dr. Charcot’s Antarctic Expedition
November 30, 1907

Motoring Toward the Pole

By Motor Car to the South Pole
By J. S. Dunnet
October 19, 1907

The Shackleton Antarctic Expedition
By John Plummer
August 29, 1908

Lieut. Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition
April 3, 1909

Lieut. Shackleton
April 9, 1910

Two Novel Motor Sleds
By Walter Langford
May 14, 1910

Race to the Finish: Amundsen and Scott

The Antarctic Expeditions
January 13, 1912

The Discovery of the South Pole
March 16, 1912

Amundsen’s Attainment of the South Pole
Progress of Antarctic Exploration
By G. W. Littlehales, Hydrographic Office, United States Navy
March 23, 1912

Capt. Scott at the South Pole
April 13, 1912

Shadows at the South Pole
June 15, 1912

The Scott Expedition and its Tragic End
A Sacrifice Made for Scientific Ideals
February 22, 1913

Achievements and Lessons of the Scott Expedition
March 1, 1913

To the South Pole with the Cinematograph
Film Records of Scott’s Ill-Fated Expedition
June 21, 1913

Science in the Heroic Age

The Height of the Antarctic Continent
By Walter Langford
June 4, 1910

The Renewed Siege of the Antarctic
January 17, 1914

Shackleton’s South Polar Expedition
The Value of His Scientific Observations
By Henryk Arctowski
June 17, 1916

Thawing Scott’s Legacy
A pioneer in atmosphere ozone studies, Susan Solomon rewrites the history of a fatal polar expedition
By Sarah Simpson
December 2001

Greater Glory
In the race to the South Pole, explorer Robert F. Scott refused to sacrifice his ambitious science agenda
By Edward J. Larson
June 2011