Skip to main content
No. 1022:
Greely and the Signal Corps

Today, a terrible story about bringing the data home. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

What are the great survival stories? Captain Bligh in his open boat? The Donner Party in the Sierras? Far more stories than we remember! Take the case of Adolphus Washington Greely:

Greely was born in 1844, joined the Union army as a private, was thrice wounded in the Civil War and promoted to major. After the war he was put in charge of a new unit of the Signal Corps -- one which would, some years later, become the U.S. Weather Bureau.

He spent five of those years stringing telegraph lines in the remote American West. Then, in 1881, a more dramatic mission: By now Greely's boss, General Albert Myer, had taken part in international meteorological congresses. Myer had committed America to international data gathering at stations encircling the polar ice cap. Greely set off with 24 men to a site on Lady Franklin Bay.

That's a spot far north of Baffin Island, north of the magnetic pole, north of any prior human settlement. It lay just south of the ninth circle of Dante's Hell. Greely's group arrived, erected a wooden building, and called it Fort Conger.

They settled in for the long task of measuring the weather. Greely had forseen cabin fever and had armed against it. He had spent $182 of government money for books. For that he came under congressional scrutiny. One congressman read this into the record for voters back home: "Is there anything in Innocents Abroad or Leather Stocking Tales that has anything to do with meteorology?"

That summer, supply boats couldn't get through. Greely had no communications, but he had plenty of provisions and he held the group together. Next summer, still no supply ship. They were in trouble. In August, 1883, they loaded their records and specimens into their steam launch and set out for a rendezvous point.

From there, the whole story grows too long, too complex, and too horrible to tell in full. Ice closed in on their launch. They had to ride ice floes, then an iceberg, until it ran aground. All the time they carried their records and specimens.

The 1883 rescue ship had been crushed by ice. Food caches along the way were only enough for a few days. They began starving. One man froze his hands and feet. They had to be amputated.

A naval vessel found them in June, 1884. In the end, 18 men had died of starvation and one had been shot for stealing food. Six, including the amputee, survived ten months after they'd set out. They had eaten lichens. They had eaten their companions' shoes.

But they also brought back the best set of Arctic data ever gathered. It cost a terrible price, no doubt. But knowing what they'd accomplished is just what sustained this heroic troop -- in facing death and also in coming to terms with their own survival.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Marshall, D.J., Adolphus Washington Greely. The Story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps (Max L. Marshall, ed.). New York: Franklin Watts Inc., 1965.

I am grateful to Thomas W. McConn, UH History Department, for suggesting the topic and providing the Marshall source.

See Wikipedia for more on Greely.