Exploring the polar regions

Robert Peary outfitted for Arctic exploration (306-NT-542-1)
Robert Peary outfitted for Arctic exploration (306-NT-542-1)

As frigid temperatures cover much of the country, and many areas are still dealing with record amounts of snow, my thoughts turn to the polar explorers of the early 20th century. They didn’t have Goretex jackets with superwarm linings, satellite communications, or portable computers. Our “Pieces of History” blog takes its name from a regular feature on the last page of the print version of Prologue, and today I’m sharing a vintage print “Piece” about an unusual artifact found in the polar archives collection at the National Archives.

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“The Pole at last!!!” With these words Robert E. Peary began his diary entry for April 6, 1909. His team, he believed, had become the first to reach the top of the world, a dream he had pursued for 20 years. In those years, Peary made eight expeditions to the Arctic region, three specifically to reach the Pole. As Peary’s papers make clear, supplying such expeditions was a tremendous task. Clothing, tents, food, cooking utensils—everything needed to survive Arctic temperatures for months—had to be packed in on foot and by dog sledge. The explorers also required scientific instruments so they could make observations, determine their locations, and gather data to record their progress.

Robert Peary's theodolite, which he carried on his Polar expeditions. (Peary Family Collection (401-1) Donated Materials in the National Archives)
Robert Peary's theodolite, which he carried on his polar expeditions. (Peary Family Collection (401-1) Donated Materials in the National Archives)

Along with a sextant, telescope, and artificial horizon, the Peary Family Collection in the National Archives includes the explorer’s theodolite. A theodolite is a calibrated optical instrument used to determine latitudinal and longitudinal positions. Peary’s brass “traveller’s theodolite,” manufactured by Keuffel & Esser Co. of New York, is less than a foot tall and sits on a wooden base.

This instrument is one of the more than half-million artifacts in the holdings of the National Archives of the United States. The vast majority of these objects are part of the Presidential libraries, but about 1,500 are among the records in the Washington, DC, area and the regional archives. A large number of records relating to polar explorations were accessioned as donated materials from the explorers and their families. The Peary Family Collection became part of the National Archives by way of a deed of gift signed by Peary’s son and daughter on April 6, 1964.

The Public Vaults exhibition in Washington, DC, features a gallery devoted to polar exploration, revealing explorers’ contributions, the dangers they faced, and the triumphs they experienced.

[Originally published in Prologue magazine, Winter 2005]

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