Saturday, 12 October 2013

To Build a Fire

One particular group of Franklin relics in the National Maritime Museum nicely illuminates the story of one of the humblest but also one of the most profound technological advances of the mid-Victorian period.

Prior to the 1840s, every household would have considered a tinderbox, with flint, steel, and brimstone matches, to be essential equipment for domestic existence. Flint and steel created the spark to set the tinder glowing then a brimstone match turned that ember into a flame. The damper was used to exclude air from the smouldering tinder in order to preserve it for use another day.

Friction matches were invented in the 1820s and were variously referred to lucifers, congeves, or vestas. By the time of the 1845 expedition they were on the brink of the mass production which would drastically reduce their cost and consign the tinderbox and its accoutrements to the museum. The vesta cases in the NMM indicate a time when matches were considered sufficiently valuable to warrant a fine container. A tin cylinder in the collection may also be a vesta case. The 'J. HYNAM' matchbox shown above is a particular puzzle. The information that when found it "was sewn up in cloth & that within was a paper" inspires a pang of grief that it may once have contained a critical piece of information from the lost expedition.

Click the image to read the whole magazine on Google Books.

In the third issue of his magazine Household Words, dated April 13, 1850, Charles Dickens wrote an article dealing with the subject of the old way of making fire as a memory of a bygone age.

By coincidence, the preceding article in that paper contains an interesting snippet relevant to the issue of lead poisoning on the Franklin expedition:

"It is a wise provision of Nature, that waters should contain a greater or less quantity of foreign ingredients; for without these water is dangerous to drink. It never fails to take up from the atmosphere a certain proportion of carbonic acid gas, and when passing through lead pipes it imbibes enough carbonate of lead to constitute poison."

Friday, 17 May 2013

Shining a light on a new era

In my previous post I invited readers to suggest why I found fault with a scene portraying an episode on board one of Franklin's ships. My answers all concern lighting. Firstly, the oil lamp: If Franklin and Fitzjames can see each other at all it will only be dimly, their eyes being dazzled by the brightness of the lamp between them at face level. From the Art Director's point of view it makes for a great image but in real life it would be extremely annoying for those seated at the table. The next thing to mention is that we can see portholes in the far bulkhead. Erebus and Terror didn't have any portholes, instead they had Preston's Patent Illuminators in the deck. The Captain's cabin also had (double glazed) rectangular windows in the stern of the ship. Both the Captain's cabin and the wardroom also had a skylight as does the location this scene was shot, the officers' saloon on the Cutty Sark. This begs another question - if there is light coming in through the portholes, why isn't the cabin flooded with light from the skylight? If it's daylight then why do they need the lamp?

These are fairly trivial details of set dressing but there is one detail which is anachronistic for a ship fitted out in 1845 - the oil lamp. Except that it's not an oil lamp, it's a kerosene lamp (like this one). If you try looking for an antique oil lamp on eBay about 99.5% of the results returned will be kerosene lamps. Kerosene, also known as paraffin, is thin enough to be drawn up the wick by capilliary action from a reservoir a considerable distance below the burner. On the other hand, the whale oil and vegetable oils used for lighting in Franklin's day were more viscous so the reservoir has to be almost  level with the flame. The first commercial refinery for kerosene was opened in Bathgate, Scotland, by James 'Paraffin' Young in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, so it is not credible that Franklin's ships would be lit by kerosene lamps. The raw materials for Young's refinery were varieties of coal now regarded as oil shale.

Click for full-size image
The above sketch depicts the wardroom of the steam-tender Pioneer, by her commander (from 1851), Sherard Osborn. At first glance the hanging lamp is not greatly different from the one in the documentary. This type is known as a sinubra lamp (like this one). The oil is held at the level of the burner in an annular reservoir supporting the shade and designed to minimise the shadow it casts - hence the name from Latin meaning without shadow.

The mid Victorian period in which the Franklin saga occurred is particularly fascinating for the relentless cascade of technological advances which wrought profound changes in peoples lives in a few short years. Historians frequently use 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, as a convenient boundary marker between an earlier agrarian age and the later industrial epoch. The advent of fossil energy in liquid form being just one of many technological advances which fuelled the Victorian revolution.

As a footnote, in 1821 Franklin missed an opportunity to see an early experiment with street lighting using fossil fuel, as he was engaged on his Coppermine river expedition. The demonstration was superintended by the brother of the inventor, Sir Thomas Cochrane, who was, at the time, commanding the Chilean Navy in that country's war of independence.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Chiaroscuro on the Cutty Sark

This frame from Louise Osmond's superb ITN/C4/Nova documentary "The Search for the North West Passage" brings to mind an artistic technique beloved of renaissance masters such as Caravaggio. Chiaroscuro, or in its most developed form Tenebrism, enhances the drama of an image through extreme contrasts of light and darkness. The dramatised scenes in this documentary are a tour de force. In this scene, shot in the officers saloon of the Cutty Sark, Anthony Gardner makes a very convincing Sir John Franklin. I have however noticed three minor mistakes. If anyone would like to suggest what they are then please go ahead. I'll add my answers in a couple of days. 

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The trouble with maps.

Some musings on the changing shape of King William Island and an opinion on who really discovered the Northwest Passage.

The above map, taken from Cyriax's 1939 book, and apparently based on the pre 1848 version of the Hydrographic Office's Arctic America Sheet II,  supposedly shows the state of knowledge of King William Island region at the time Franklin sailed. What we now know to be King William Island is shown connected to Boothia by an isthmus indicated by dotted lines. The dotted lines which "did for Franklin" as some would have it - the suggestion being that had Franklin suspected that KWI was indeed an island then he would have chosen a route via the less ice-choked waters to its East - the route successfully taken by Amundsen in 1903 - and he would have achived his goal instead of dying on board the ice-bound Erebus.

The belief that King William Island was connected to Boothia stems from the above map printed in Volume 1 of John Ross' account of his 1829-34 Victory expedition. This map shows 'Poctes Bay' as the southern end of a gulf between King William Island and Boothia. The information, obtained from the Inuit, that this was a gulf instead of an open strait turned out to be faulty. The track taken by James Ross' on his return to the Victory is shown as a dotted line about twenty miles north of the disputed coastline.

Even before Ross' narrative was printed, information arrived casting doubt on the existence of Poctes Bay. George Back had returned from his journey down the Great Fish River with the information that the estuary of that river opening into a wide bay seemingly due South of Ross' Poctes Bay. This caused speculation in the press that James Ross' Victory Point was actually on an island. In an appendix to his narrative, Sir John remarked of Back's information:
The result of this enterprise has proved that the line of coast to the southward of the Isthmus of Boothia had not been completely examined, and that the information received by Commander Ross from the Esquimaux, making into a bay the land between the isthmus and Matty island, was incorrect; and thus opening a new field for conjecture; but, although it is very probable that the land to the westward of that inlet is an island, I am not of the opinion that the western sea joins with Prince Regent's inlet.
We now know that Ross was correct on both counts.

The next visitors to the region were Dease and Simpson in 1839. Dease and Simpson descended the Coppermine,  then sailed an astounding 500 mile Eastwards charting the Northern coast of the continent before charting the Southern coast of King William Island on their return. The map shown above is constructed from their written report alone. Their narrative mentions that they named the river marking their farthest East after their boats and it is duly marked on the map as Boat River. The engraver clearly didn't know that the boats were named Castor and Pollux. The Gulf of Boothia is from John Ross' narrative and noted "from Esquimaux report" - remarkably accurate in this case.

The words 'Reindeer & Musk Oxen' inscribed within the outline of King William Island are indicative of the abundence of game Dease and Simpson reported. This information may have weighed in Crozier's decision to desert the ships. 

Considerable disagreements in the longitude of various features can be noted when Dease and Simpson's survey is compared with George Back's. Generally Dease and Simpson's values are better. Notably Back has the mouth of his eponymous river on the 95th meridian of longitude while in reality it is closer to the 96th. This presented subsequent cartographers with the problem of how to reconcile the conflicting surveys.

The above map is from Sir John Barrow's 1846 'Voyages of discovery and research within the Arctic regions' (opposite page 528). Barrow was friendly towards James Clark Ross but had a deep animosity towards Sir John Ross. A non-existent passage is shown through the Boothia Peninsula with the legend "From Commander Ross who thinks the land runs thus". A point named for Sir John by Dease and Simpson is renamed Commander James Ross Point. For years Barrow had anonymously assassinated Sir John in the pages of the Quarterly Review. The fact that Barrow had at last put his signature to his vitriol at last gave Ross the opportunity to write a lengthy rebuttal.

Franklin's last letter from the Whalefish Islands, dated 7 July 1845, to Dr (later Sir) John Richardson seems to suggest that Franklin accepted that the likelihood of a passage between Prince Regent's Inlet and previously explored regions of the North American coast.

I admit with you that Regent's Inlet seems to be the most certain way of attaining that point, but the more I reflect upon the voyages hitherto made into that inlet the more convinced I am that James Ross and Parry are right in supposing that ships of our size if they even once got down among the islets and strong tides at the bottom of that Inlet, they would never be got out again. The coast in that part must be surveyed with boats.

The comment that "The coast in that part must be surveyed with boats" might plausibly be taken to reinforce the suggestion that Franklin would be reluctant to take his ships to the East of KWI. In any case, Franklin wanted to go West not East. It is also possible that Franklin may have sailed down the Western side of Peel Strait then became trapped while attempting to cross over to James Ross Strait.

Franklin and Crozier certainly knew how worthless the dotted lines on any printed map were. They did not need to rely on the guesswork of cartographers as the authors of the original surveys were their close associates.

The above map from the end papers of Volume 1 of Belcher's "The Last of the Arctic Voyages" shows the coastline known immediately prior to McClintock's 1858 voyage of the Fox.

McClintock's discovery of what is now known as Franklin Strait, linking Peel Sound to James Ross Strait, was the final component of the route which would, four decades later, be navigated by Roald Amundsen's Gjøa. It also completed the coastline of North America.

Even if Dr John Rae's Inuit contacts had provided him with the Victory Point record, which notes the location where Franklin's ships were beset, the route taken from Beechey Island to that point remains conjectural to this day so can not be relied on as the penultimate link in the passage to be completed by the discovery of Rae Strait.

So if the question "Who discovered the Northwest Passage" is taken to mean who first completed the discovery of a passage navigable by the ships of the time, in other words Amundsen's route, then the answer must surely be Francis Leopold McClintock.