Snippets 119. Exactly 186 years ago today, on 1st June 1831, the first European set foot on the north magnetic pole. Sir James Clark Ross (1800-1862) was a British naval officer who accompanied his uncle Sir John Ross on an exploration of the Arctic between 1829 and 1833. This was Sir John second Arctic voyage, and Sir James’s sixth. In 1835 Sir John wrote about his nephew’s achievement in Narrative of a Second Voyage in Search of the North-West Passage. Although this was an amazing moment for Ross and for Britain, he was far from being the first human to set foot there. In fact, he found that, not so long before, people had been living there…
We were now within fourteen miles of the calculated position of the magnetic pole ; and my anxiety, therefore, did not permit me to do or endure any thing which might delay my arrival at the long wished-for spot. I resolved, in consequence, to leave behind the greater part of our baggage and provisions, and to take onwards nothing more than was strictly necessary, lest bad weather or other accidents should be added to delay, or lest unforeseen circumstances, still more untoward, should deprive me entirely of the high gratification which I could not but look to in accomplishing this most desired object.
We commenced, therefore, a rapid march, comparatively disencumbered as we now were; and, persevering with all our might, we reached the calculated place at eight in the morning of the first of June. I believe I must leave it to others to imagine the elation of mind with which we found ourselves now at length arrived at this great object of our ambition : it almost seemed as if we had accomplished every thing that we had come so far to see and to do ; as if our voyage and all its labours were at an end, and that nothing now remained for us but to return home and be happy for the rest of our days. They were after-thoughts which told us that we had much yet to endure and much to perform, and they were thoughts which did not then intrude ; could they have done so, we should have cast them aside, under our present excitement : we were happy, and desired to remain so as long as we could.
The land at this place is very low near the coast, but it rises into ridges of fifty or sixty feet high about a mile inland. We could have wished that a place so important had possessed more of mark or note. It was scarcely censurable to regret that there was not a mountain to indicate a spot to which so much of interest must ever be attached ; and I could even have pardoned any one among us who had been so romantic or absurd as to expect that the magnetic pole was an object as conspicuous and mysterious as the fabled mountain of Sinbad, that it even was a mountain of iron, or a magnet as large as Mont Blanc. But Nature had here erected no monument to denote the spot which she had chosen as the centre of one of her great and dark powers; and where we could do little ourselves towards this end, it was our business to submit, and to be content in noting, by mathematical numbers and signs, as with things of far more importance in the terrestrial system, what we could but ill distinguish in any other manner.
We were, however, fortunate in here finding some huts of Esquimaux, that had not long been abandoned. Unconscious of the value which not only we, but all the civilized world, attached to this place, it would have been a vain attempt on our part to account to them for our delight, had they been present. It was better for us that they were not ; since we thus took possession of their works, and were thence enabled to establish our observations with the greater ease ; encamping at six in the evening on a point of land about half a mile to the westward of those abandoned snow houses.
The necessary observations were immediately commenced, and they were continued throughout this and the greater part of the following day. Of these, the details for the purposes of science have been since communicated to the Royal Society ; as a paper containing all that philosophers require on the subject has now also been printed in their Transactions…
But it will gratify general curiosity to state the most conspicuous results in a simple and popular manner. The place of the observatory was as near to the magnetic pole as the limited means which I possessed enabled me to determine. The amount of the dip, as indicated by my dipping needle, was 89° 59′, being thus within one minute of the vertical ; while the proximity at least of this pole, if not its actual existence where we stood, was further confirmed by the action, or rather by the total inaction of the several horizontal needles then in my possession. These were suspended in the most delicate manner possible, but there was not one which showed the slightest effort to move from the position in which it was placed : a fact, which even the most moderately informed of readers must now know to be one which proves that the centre of attraction lies at a very small horizontal distance, if at any.
As soon as I had satisfied my own mind on this subject, I made known to the party this gratifying result of all our joint labours; and it was then, that amidst mutual congratulations, we fixed the British flag on the spot, and took possession of the North Magnetic Pole and its adjoining territory, in the name of Great Britain and King William the Fourth. We had abundance of materials for building, in the fragments of limestone that covered the beach ; and we therefore erected a cairn of some magnitude, under which we buried a canister, containing a record of the interesting fact : only regretting that we had not the means of constructing a pyramid of more importance, and of strength sufficient to withstand the assaults of time and of the Esquimaux. Had it been a pyramid as large as that of Cheops, I am not quite sure that it would have done more than satisfy our ambition, under the feelings of that exciting day.
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