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No. 2023:
George Hubert Wilkins

Today, we risk our lives. 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.

George Hubert Wilkins was born in southern Australia in 1888, one of thirteenth children in a sheep herding family. Wilkins obviously hungered for experiences. He studied music for a while at the University of Adelaide; then he studied some mining engineering. He also learned photography, and how to use the new moving-picture cameras. 

When he was twenty, the restless Wilkins stowed away on a merchant ship. He was kicked off in Algiers, caught up by a gang of gunrunners, and finally escaped to England. 

There, in 1910, he learned to fly balloons. Two years later, he was to be found working with the Turks as an aerial photographer during the Turko-Bulgarian War. The Bulgarians captured him and he somehow escaped their firing squad. A year later he was doing photography on an Arctic expedition. That was a jolt since he'd always ridden something. Now he had to walk vast distances -- a new experience that caught him off guard.

In WW-I, he joined Australian forces as a photographer, and became a major chronicler of their role in the war. He crossed enemy lines in a balloon, rescued wounded soldiers, and he was gassed. Yet, bedecked with medals, he was somehow still alive at thirty. 

Wilkins continued doing aerial reconnaissance work after the war -- now in airplanes, not balloons. He flew in Turkey, then was scheduled to travel with Shackleton on his next Arctic voyage, but, Shackleton never returned from the one he was on. In 1923 Wilkins headed an expedition doing a two-year study of remote parts of Australia. He was, by now, also a know expert in flora and fauna.

In 1926, he mounted his own aerial exploration of the Arctic. He made the first trans-Arctic flight from Point Barrow to Spitzbergen. He mounted another aerial expedition in the Antarctic. He joined the Graf Zeppelin's experimental round-the-world flight.

Wilkins managed to buy the US WW-I-vintage submarine Nautilus for one dollar, in 1931. He used it in the first journey under the Arctic ice cap. He continued his Arctic and Antarctic explorations until WW-II. Then, when the Australian military deemed him too old for service, he went to work for the US Navy as a consultant. 

In 1958, the first nuclear submarine, also named Nautilus, completed Wilkin's journey and crossed all the way under the ice cap. Wilkins died a year later, and another US submarine, the Skate, carried his ashes on its historic mission: It sailed under ice, then punctured it and surfaced at the North Pole. The sailors held a memorial service for Wilkins, and they scattered his ashes there. 

I only became aware of Wilkins until after the in-orbit memorial service for lost astronauts. Andy Thomas recited an elegy written for Wilkins, and one line stays with me: It says, "The soul's possession is eternal youth." For there, in a nutshell is the explanation for Wilkins, or for the astronauts -- or for anyone who sustains life by risking life. 

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

(Theme music)

This website gives a great deal of biographical information about Wilkins:

I am grateful to astronaut Andrew Thomas for suggesting Wilkins as a topic. When Wilkins was knighted, he dropped the name George and became Sir Hubert Wilkins.

G. H. Wilkins, Flying the Arctic. (New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1928). The pictures below are both from this source.

G. H.Wilkins
George Hubert Wilkins in Arctic gear by an airplane 

Sled dogs pulling an airplane