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 fiveman 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.