Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/August 1882/Sketch of Baron Adolf Eric Nordenskiöld

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 21 August 1882  (1882) 
Sketch of Baron Adolf Eric Nordenskiöld
PSM V21 D446 Adolf Eric Nordenskiold.jpg


BARON NORDENSKIÖLD has been styled by Germans the Vasco de Gama of our century. His work is solid and original enough to stand by itself, and need not be compared or contrasted with that of any other. The careful, systematic pursuit of a well-formed purpose, with the full benefit of the experience of past navigators, with a well-defined idea of what was expected to be accomplished, and of how it was to be done, with scientific foresight displayed at every step, can not with justice to either be weighed in the same scale with the bold achievements of the hardy adventurers of former centuries who, starting without the aid of any of the knowledge which has now been accumulated, and without definite notions of where they should go or what they would find, discovered what the fortunes of the wind and the waves brought in their way. The character of Nordenskiöld's work and the manner in which it was performed mark, however, the difference in the methods of research which were available in the past and those which we enjoy and employ at present. In this sense only can a just comparison be made between Nordenskiöld and the explorers of other centuries.

Baron Nordenskiöld is not only a most successful Arctic explorer and navigator, as he is best known: he has done excellent work in other branches of science, and has contributed to knowledge from many directions; and the pages of his narratives of voyages bear evidence to the fact of his versatility, that no event or thing that may add to knowledge is unobserved or unemployed by him; that he knows how to lay all under contribution for the advancement of knowledge. What is most attractive about him, says Dr. Karl Müller, of Halle, "is not the splendid achievement of his polar journeys, but the irrepressible perseverance with which he exerted himself through years at a time to pass from small beginnings to ever bolder and more practical problems. While the navigation of the northeast passage may always be regarded as the brightest among his discoveries, Nordenskiöld was, through all his previous history, a whole man."

Baron Nordenskiöld enjoyed the advantage of an ancestry distinguished through several generations for scientific attainments. "Nature" says, in its biography of the explorer: "The race from which Nordenskiöld sprang had been known for centuries for the possession of remarkable qualities, among which an ardent love of nature and of scientific research was predominant. Its founder is said to have been a Lieutenant Nordberg, who was settled in Upland about the beginning of the seventeenth century. His son, Johan Eric, born in 1660, changed the name to Nordenberg. He died in 1740, leaving two sons, Anders Johan and Carl Frederik, both of whom, though the latter was only lieutenant, were elected members of the Swedish Academy of Sciences when it was founded in 1739. Carl Frederik is the common ancestor of the families bearing the name of Nordenskiöld now living in Sweden and Finland. One of his many remarkable sons, the third in order, Colonel Adolf Gustaf Nordenskiöld, became owner of Frugord, in Finland. This property, situated in a forest-crowned valley in the department of Nyland, is still in the possession of the Nordenskiölds. Here Colonel Adolf Gustaf Nordenskiöld built a peculiar residence, the middle of which is taken up with a hall two stories high, round the upper part of which runs a broad gallery, in which collections in natural history are arranged. His youngest son, Nils Gustaf, was born in 1792. After passing his examination in mining at the University of Upsala, he was for several years the pupil of Berzelius, with whom he formed the warmest friendship, which was only broken off by death. Nils Gustaf, early known as a distinguished mineralogist, was appointed a government inspector of mines in his native country, and, by means of liberal grants of public money, was enabled to undertake extensive foreign tours, which brought him into communication with most of the eminent mineralogists and chemists of the day in England, France, and Germany. After three years of foreign travel he returned to Finland, and was promoted in 1824 to be chief of the mining department, and devoted thirty years of restless activity to the improvement of that important branch of the industry of his native land. He traveled through Finland in all directions, in the prosecution of his untiring mineralogical and geological researches. His travels extended as far as the Ural. He published his views, discoveries, and experiments in many scientific periodicals and in several independent works, and a large number of minerals discovered by him afford evidence of his keen research. He was made Councilor of State, and obtained many distinctions for his scientific services from the sovereign and from learned bodies. On February 21, 1866, he ended his active life."

Adolf Eric Nordenskiöld, the son of this Nils Gustaf, chief of the mining department of Finland, and of his wife Margaretta Sofia von Haartman, was born at Helsingfors, Finland, November 18, 1832, the third in order of seven children. In his boyhood he was an industrious collector of insects and minerals, and was permitted to accompany his father in mineralogical excursions. Under the guidance of his father, who, a pupil of Gahn and Berzelius, was an expert in those matters, he acquired a skill in recognizing and collecting minerals which proved of great service to him in the path of life he afterward followed, and in the use of the blowpipe. He subsequently undertook the charge of the rich mineral collection of Frugord, and made vacation tours, which were of great benefit to him. He studied for some time with a private tutor, and was then sent to the gymnasium at Borgo, where, according to his own accounts, he enjoyed an almost unlimited freedom, the teachers showing no inclination to meddle much with the occupations of their pupils. He entered the University of Helsingfors in 1849, and devoted himself chiefly to the study of chemistry, natural history, mathematics, physics, and particularly mineralogy and geology. Having passed his candidate examination in 1853, he accompanied his father on a mineralogical tour to the Ural. In this expedition, according to Professor Fries, of Upsala, was unconsciously laid in him the beginning out of which his later expeditions grew. "It was an instance of the old eagle teaching the young one to fly." After his return from this excursion, Nordenskiöld continued to prosecute his chemical and mineralogical studies with zeal. The subject of his dissertation for the licentiate, "On the Crystalline Forms of Graphite and Chondrodite," which was delivered on the 28th of February, 1855, bore relation to them. During the following summer he was engaged upon a description of minerals found in Finland, which was published in the fall. Various short papers on mineralogy and molecular chemistry were published in the "Transactions of the Finnish Scientific Society," and a paper on "The Mollusca of Finland" was published by Nordenskiöld, along with Dr. E. Nylander, in 1856, in response to a prize question proposed by one of the faculty of the university. While these studies were being prosecuted, young Nordenskiöld had been appointed salaried curator of the mathematico- physical faculty, and had obtained a post at the mining office as mining engineer extraordinary, with inconsiderable pay, and an express understanding that no service would be required from him in return. He lost these positions in consequence of having been present at a festival where too much freedom was given to the expression of political feelings, and spent a few months abroad, working a part of the time at Rore's laboratory in Berlin at researches in mineral analysis. Returning to Finland, he secured a stipend for a line of study through Europe in 1857; but at the "Promotion Festival" in that year, where he was to take his master's and doctor's degrees, more liberal views were aired, which Yon Berg, the governor of the Duchy, considered treasonable, and Nordenskiöld left Finland again, this time not to return as a fixed resident. The displeasure of the Government against him was not, however, of long continuance, for he has been welcome in Finland since 1862, and he might have been appointed Professor of Mineralogy in the University of Helsingfors, had he been willing to agree to give up politics. He became naturalized in Sweden, and soon rose to eminence in public life and in science.

The Arctic voyages of Baron Nordenskiöld began in 1858, when he took part in the Swedish expedition to Spitzbergen under Torell, the chief of the Swedish Geological Survey. On his return, he was appointed successor to Mosander in the Riks Museum at Stockholm, where he immediately went to work, partly at the arrangement of the museum, partly at the scientific researches which formed the subjects of several papers that were published in the "Transactions" of the Academy of Sciences and of the Geological Society. He made constant endeavors to enlarge the collections, with the result that by the aid of the Swedish mineralogists and of the students, who co-operated with him, and in consequence of the extraordinary richness of the Scandinavian Peninsula in rare and valuable minerals, the cabinet has become one of the most considerable in Europe.

In 1861 he took part in the second expedition of Torell to Spitzbergen, expecting with that to end his excursions toward the pole, and with that view married, in 1863, a Finnish lady, Anna Mannesheim, daughter of ex-President Count Carl Mannesheim. He had, however, already, in December, 1862, crossed on the ice from Sweden to Finland, in order to make some investigations on the formation of sea-ice; and in 1864 he went with the third Swedish expedition to Finland, the business of which was connected with the measurement of the arc of the meridian. His destiny to become an Arctic explorer seems to have been settled with this enterprise, and from it may be dated the beginning of a purpose to conduct explorations on his own account and after his own plans. The next year found him engaged in mineral investigations in Sweden and Finland. In 1867 he went to Paris as a member of the International Metric Commission, attended the Exposition, and made the acquaintance of the men of science of the south.

In 1868 Nordenskiöld went out as the head of the fourth Swedish Arctic expedition, to which Mr. Oscar Dickson, the patron of his later voyages, first gave his generous aid. In this voyage he sought to get as near to the pole as possible, and the sensational achievement of it was that the Sophia reached a higher latitude (81° 42') than had been attained by any vessel in the old hemisphere. Far more scientific importance is attached to the fact that the expedition brought home a rich collection of the fossil plants of the Arctic regions, concerning which but little had previously been known. Another expedition, in which Nordenskiöld was accompanied by Dr. Berggren, was dispatched to Greenland in 1870, having for its principal object to ascertain whether the Esquimau dogs could be relied upon for long sledge-journeys. This question was decided in the negative, but the expedition brought forth scientific fruit second in value to that of no other single one, in that it gave an opportunity to the brave student who led it- to examine the remarkable ice-formation of the interior of Greenland, and that it led to the discovery of the celebrated large blocks of meteoric iron of Ovifak, concerning the origin of which a lively scientific controversy has arisen, and which, the explorer himself suggests, may at some future time "form the starting-point for quite a new theory of the method of formation of the heavenly body we inhabit."

Concerning the ice-formation, Baron Nordenskiöld has written: "An excursion of some length was made into the wilderness of ice, everywhere full of bottomless clefts, which occupies the interior of Greenland, and which, if I except unimportant wanderings along the edge, and an inconsiderable attempt in the same direction in the year 1728, by the Dane Dalager, was now, for the first time, trodden by human foot. I had here an opportunity of clearing up the nature of a formation which, during one of the latest geological ages, covered a great part of the civilized countries of Europe, and which, though it has given occasion to an exceedingly comprehensive literature in all cultivated languages, had never before been examined by any geologist."

Another expedition, of two vessels, was fitted up in 1872, with the design of attempting to reach the pole with reindeers, to which Lieutenant Palander, the companion of his last voyage, was for the first time attached. The ice was unusually unfavorable, and the winter was spent in Mussel Bay, on the north of West Spitzbergen. Here attention was first called to the presence of dust of cosmic origin containing nickel-iron, the agency of which as a possible factor in building up the earth's crust is discussed with considerable fullness in the "Voyage of the Vega"; more complete researches on the aurora and its spectrum were carried on; investigations were made on the development of algae during the winter night of four months; numerous new contributions to a knowledge of polar countries during former geological epochs were discovered; and a complete series of meteorological and magnetic observations was made in the most northerly latitude where such observations had up to this time been carried on. With this expedition Nordenskiöld's efforts to reach the pole ceased. He had become convinced by his repeated voyages that there was no open sea at the pole; and he had his attention drawn to the "more practical problem, which had interested the foremost commercial states and the most daring navigators for three hundred years, and geographers for thousands of years" — that of forcing a northeast passage to China and Japan, and the circumnavigation of the Old World.

In 1875 he succeeded, with the walrus-hunting sloop Proeven, in sailing over the Kara Sea as far as to the mouth of the Yenisei, whence he put himself in communication with the river-steamers to Yeniseisk; and whence he returned by land, while his companions came back by sea to Europe. By this voyage, he says, "I was the first person who succeeded in penetrating from the Atlantic Ocean in a vessel to the mouths of the great Siberian rivers. One of the objects which the old northeast voyagers had aimed at was at last accomplished, and that in a way that promised to be of immense practical importance for the whole of Siberia. The voyage was also regarded in that light by leading men of the great empire of the East, and our return journey from Yeniseisk by Krasnojarsk, Tomsk, Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Nizhnee-Novgorod, Moscow, and St. Petersburg became, therefore, a journey from fête to fête. But a number of voices were simultaneously raised, which asserted that the success of the Proeven depended on an accidental combination of fortunate circumstances which would not soon occur again. In order to show that this was not the case, and that I might myself bring the first goods by sea to Siberia, I undertook my second voyage to the Yenisei in 1876, in which I penetrated with the steamer Ymer, not only to the mouth of the river, but also up the river to Yakovieva in 71° north latitude. Hence I returned the same year by sea to Europe."

Between these two voyages, Baron Nordenskiöld found time to visit our International Exhibition at Philadelphia, in connection with which his name is recorded as one of the judges in the group of pottery, glass, artificial stone, etc., and as an exhibitor of maps. "And it may deserve to be mentioned," he says, "that, leaving New York on the 1st of July by one of the ordinary steamers, and going on board my own vessel in Norway, I reached the mouth of the Yenisei on the 15th of August — that is to say, in forty-six days."

The voyages of the Proeven and the Ymer led to several purely commercial voyages to the Yenisei and the Obi. After his return from the second voyage, he became fully satisfied, in the light of his own experience and of the old explorations of the north coast of Asia, that the open navigable water, which for two years in succession had carried him across the Kara Sea, formerly of so bad repute, to the mouth of the Yenisei, extended in all probability as far as Behring Strait, and that a circumnavigation of the Old World was thus within the bounds of possibility.

He conceived the idea of a new voyage, the purpose of which was to pass through the whole extent of the Arctic Ocean to Behring Strait, and thence around the continent back to Stockholm. He solicited an audience with the king, the scientific men, and Arctic voyagers of the country. It was given him on the 27th of January, 1877, and he came to it fully prepared with a statement of his purposes and his reasons for considering them feasible. Besides "the world-historical navigation problem," which would be solved by the success of the enterprise, he suggested that "extensive contributions of immense importance ought also to be obtainable regarding the geography, hydrography, zoology, and botany of the Siberian polar sea; and beyond Behring Strait the expedition will meet with other countries having a more luxuriant and varied nature, where other questions which perhaps concern us less, but on that account are not of less importance for science as a whole, will claim the attention of the observer and yield him a rich reward for his labor and pains."

He received the encouragement and aid he asked for, and was able to sail in July, 1878, on a new expedition, the complete success of which is a matter of history, and the ultimate results of which, in the opening of new branches and lines of trade, and the bringing to possible productiveness of an immense region hitherto supposed to be consigned to the dominion of ice, can not as yet be adequately estimated.

The value of his work was appreciated by the people with whom he came in contact during the course of the voyage. On the arrival of the expedition of 1875 at the Lena, the Dolgans at that remote spot on the border of the tundra, "when they understood clearly that we had come to them not as brandy-sellers or fish-buyers from the south, but from the north, from the ocean, went into complete ecstasies .... At Dudino, also, the priests living there held a thanksgiving service for our happy arrival thither." The voyage home, around the Pacific coast and by the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal, was marked by a series of festivities given at every point where the Vega touched. At Yeddo the navigators were greeted with deputations, bearing addresses of welcome and invitations, and were given a lunch with the Mikado, and a special audience with his Majesty. Similar scenes were repeated, with such variations as circumstances made appropriate, at Hong-Kong, Cairo, Naples, Lisbon, Paris, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. At Naples, the expedition was welcomed back to Europe by the representative of King Oscar of Sweden, who also conferred Swedish decorations on Baron Nordenskiöld and Lieutenant Palander; an Italian officer came down from Turin commissioned by the Government, and bearing the welcomes of several municipalities and scientific societies, with Italian orders for the men of the Vega. At Lisbon, in addition to the usual audiences and receptions, the Portuguese Chamber of Deputies voted a welcome and a congratulatory address. Circumstances prevented the public demonstrations which had been arranged for in England from being held, but the visit of Nordenskiöld and Palander to London was made pleasant by the hospitality of the most distinguished scientific men of the kingdom. At Paris a public reception was given by the Geographical Society; the commanders' and officers' insignia of the Legion of Honor were conferred by the Minister of Education, at a meeting of the delegates of twenty-eight learned societies held in the Sorbonne; a welcome was given by the Institute followed by a festive reception by the Municipal Council; numerous dinners were eaten, and medals were liberally distributed. Invitations to Holland and Belgium had to be declined "from want of time and strength to take part in more festivities." The entrance to Stockholm was made through a thick fleet of excursion-steamers gayly decorated, and under a brilliant illumination of the city; and, after the first enthusiastic welcomes, "fête followed fête for several weeks." Writing of this expedition, Dr. Karl Müller says, in "Die Natur," that "among the most recent voyages none has been so splendidly planned, none undertaken with such noble means and pursued with such eminent scientific success as the circumnavigation of Europe and Asia by Nordenskiöld and his companions." Of the series of voyages to Spitzbergen, "Nature" says: "These expeditions were not undertaken for the mere purpose of creating a sensation by the foolhardy feat of attempting to reach the pole at all hazards. Geographical discovery certainly formed a part of the programme of all the expeditions in which Nordenskiöld has been engaged;" and it contrasts the results — of the first importance, and obtained with a modest expenditure — strongly with those of "the expensive and elaborately equipped expedition in the Alert and Discovery." Speaking in 1879, while the last expedition was still in progress, "Nature" said, "Comparatively young as Professor Nordenskiöld is, he has done an amount of work rarely accomplished even in a long life-time." And in February of this year, reviewing his whole work, it said: "Thus no one man has done half so much as Baron Nordenskiöld for a scientific exploration of the Arctic regions. The most striking characteristics of his various expeditions have been the small expense at which they were conducted, their modest but carefully considered equipment, the clear and scientific methods on which they were planned, and the wealth and high value of the results obtained." Baron Nordenskiöld is now preparing for another expedition.

Baron Nordenskiöld represented the capital of Sweden in the Diet from 1869 to 1871, and was instrumental in bringing about some important legislative measures for the promotion of science.

Personally, Baron Nordenskiöld is a genial man. His modesty and aversion to public display, which are well known and recognized, are quite remarkable in his "Voyage of the Vega," where he shuts his personality wholly out of sight, and devotes his attention, with an exclusiveness which is rare among travelers, to the account of what he observed and learned. Yet he loses no occasion to introduce his companions and their labors, and to give them full credit. So complete is his sinking of himself that it has been impossible to find anything in that work with which to illustrate his personality for the purposes of this sketch.