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No. 2650:
RRS Discovery

Today, the RRS Discovery. 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.

The Royal Research Ship, Discovery, was launched in Dundee Scotland in 1901. Ernest Shackleton was third officer on her first voyage -- his first Antarctic voyage. Shackleton's name lives on in our hall of heroes, largely for the voyage of the ship Endurance. Endurance was trapped, and eventually crushed, in pack ice in 1915. Shackleton miraculously managed to get his entire crew out safely.

But our interest is not Shackleton, it's the ship Discovery. In fact the Captain, Robert Scott, finally sent Shackleton home on a relief ship. Whether it was his health, or dissension between the two, it was not an auspicious beginning for Shackleton.

Robert Falcon ScottCaptain Scott's ship Discovery had been designed to explore the Antarctic. Seventeen hundred tons, 170 feet long -- a barque with three masts as well as fore and aft sails. She also had steam engines, but she carried only enough coal for occasional use. 

She had a massive wooden hull to withstand pressure if she became frozen into ice. In fact her hull was designed more for the ice than open sea. She tended to roll in high seas. 

On that first voyage, Discovery left the Isle of Wight for Antarctica in August and reached McMurdo Bay by January. There, ice closed in. She was locked in for two years while the expedition studied Antarctica. They confirmed that it was a continent; they relocated the south magnetic pole. Scott, Shackleton, and Wilson went inland -- further south than anyone had been.

Scott finally used explosives to cut Discovery loose from the ice, and brought her home after three years. Next, the Hudson's Bay Company bought her to carry Hudson's Bay cargo. While Endurance was dying in the ice, Discovery was well into a long career in very cold waters. 

Then, WW-I: In 1916 the Admiralty commissioned her to ship supplies to Russian allies. That service was interrupted when she was sent to rescue Shackleton and the Endurancecrew. (But another ship got there first.) 

Discovery underwent a major refitting in 1923 and went back to research exploration -- now with Australia and New Zealand. This old sailing ship was back in the Antarctic the year I was born. Then she was made a stationary training vessel for sea scouts. During WW-II her old engines were removed as scrap metal. After the war, the Royal Navy used her for training. Finally, one more restoration in 1985 -- then back to her birthplace, Dundee, Scotland, where we can visit her today. 

The RRS Discovery today

A museum next to her tells her wonderfully varied adventures down through the 20th Century. Arthur C. Clark used to eat lunch on her deck. That's why the spaceship in 2001 is named Discovery One. But reality also honors her legacy. As I write, NASA's Shuttle Discovery is just about to make her last journey into near space. And, one day, 22nd-century children will visit her in a museum telling the long saga of her 39 voyages. 

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

(Theme music)

See the Wikipedia entries on the RRS DiscoveryErnest ShackletonRobert Falcon ScottEndurance (1912 ship), and Space Shuttle Discovery.

See also Episode 2693 by Dr. Michael Barratt, recorded aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery during its final flight.

Images: Captain Scott and the present day RRS Discovery above courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. The imaginary Discovery below is clipart.