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On Science, History, and Exploration

Greely’s Pendulum, Part 2 of 2

House at Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island, 1881. Photo credit: NOAA

House at Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island, 1881. Credit: NOAA

Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island, November 1881

            Only after Adolphus Greely had directed his men to build their long bunk house at Fort Conger, when the long night of winter had descended on Lady Franklin Bay, did he direct the party to begin preparations for using the Peirce No. 1. Greely was a man who, much like Israel, was comfortable with data collection and precision instruments. He had overseen the creation of a vast telegraph network in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, becoming the Army’s top meteorologist. Perhaps this was a reason for the close bond that grew up between the two men. Greely identified a site on the north side of the house, a space sheltered under a canvas lean-to, where the pendulum could be placed.  A party began digging the holes and pouring the Portland cement piers that would anchor the instrument. Digging frozen ground in the dark at -30°F wasn’t pleasant work and even Greely, not inclined to complain about conditions, described the process as “tedious and trying.” The men built an ice house around the pendulum frame to protect it from the elements and to stabilize its temperature. They placed a glass window with the wall in order for Israel to record measurements without entering the ice house. Only then did they remove the pendulum from its tin shroud and long wooden case. There, they hung it to swing in its dark, frigid chamber.[1]

Adolphus Greely

Adolphus Greely

            The delay in setting up the pendulum was deliberate. Peirce had recognized that the Arctic winter offered special advantages for pendulum use.  The frozen ground firmed up the support of the concrete piers, reducing the flexure of the frame that might change the duration of the pendulum’s swing. In winter, the frigid Arctic air was very dry, reducing humidity that would deposit moisture on the pendulum, skewing its weight. Finally, the depth of winter would also bring greater consistency of temperature, important to limit any expansion or contraction of the metal itself.[2]

            Yet for Israel, the difficult work was only beginning. The relative simplicity of the Peirce No. 1 belied the complexity of Peirce’s instructions. The Superintendent had given Israel a daunting list of requirements for the pendulum’s proper use. Israel needed to swing the pendulum within a very specific range of motion: not larger than 25/1000ths and not smaller than 5/1000ths of the arc radius. The pendulum had to be swung for ninety minutes, reversed, and swung again for thirty. This series needed to be repeated multiple times, so that the total time of pendulum measurements reached six hours a day.[3]

            In addition to marking each swing over time, Israel had to record temperatures as well. Since the thermometer couldn’t touch the pendulum, Peirce directed Israel to set up thermometers near the top and the bottom of the instrument, making sure that each did not vary perceptibly from one another or over the time of the swing. Finally, Israel had to measure the flexure of the frame itself, which Peirce instructed, could not vary more than 1/200th of a millimeter. Although the glass window allowed Israel to measure each swing from the comfortable distance of the house, he still had to swing the pendulum, measure temperature, and look for microscopic flexures of the frame. In the end, Greely records that “for sixteen days in January 1882 he diligently swung Peirce Pendulum No. 1 in a specially constructed ice shelter.” After the sixteen-day series was complete, the pendulum was placed within its slender wood box and sealed once again in tin, to wait for its transport home with the party in the summer of 1882. The entire sequence of the pendulum experiment, from Peirce’s training to Israel’s execution had been meticulously planned and executed. For Greely and his party it represented a triumph of science over sensationalism, one that would contrast sharply and tragically with the catastrophe that followed.[4]

Cape Sabine, Ellesmere Island, 1884

            The expedition that came to relieve the Greely Party at Fort Conger in 1882 was turned back by ice. Greely and his men, despondent at the lack of relief, overwintered for a second year and waited for the arrival of a second relief expedition in 1883. Yet this expedition, too, failed to reach Fort Conger, crushed by pack ice in the southern reaches of Smith Sound. As it became clear that the second expedition was not going to arrive in 1883, Greely made preparations to evacuate Fort Conger and travel south in small boats.[5]

The Greely Party Leaves Fort Conger, 1883. Credit: NOAA

The Greely Party Leaves Fort Conger, 1883. Credit: NOAA

            The forced retreat created a dilemma for Greely and his men. It was crucial to return the pendulum to Washington so that it could be inspected and swung again by Peirce, confirming the measurements taken at Fort Conger. Yet the pendulum in its tin case and wooden crate added over forty kilograms of dead weight to an increasingly desperate escape effort.

            Greely hoped to find stores near Cape Sabine left by the relief expeditions. Yet arriving at the southern reaches of Smith Sound, the party found few provisions. With little hope of finding more food, the party would now have to carry the pendulum as they dragged their boats over the pack ice. Greely took the issue to his men:

I informed the men that I was unwilling, much as I wanted to save that instrument, to lessen their chances of life by hauling it longer, unless all concurred, and that it would be dropped whenever they wished. Not only was there no objection to keeping it, but several of the party were outspoken in considering it unmanly to abandon it. Such a spirit is certainly most credible.’[6]

          The men continued to carry the pendulum, stripping off the tin shroud to reduce weight. Eventually, they cached the Peirce No. 1 on Stalknecht Island, just off the shore of Cape Sabine. While it had functioned as a precision instrument in Washington and Fort Conger, the Peirce No. 1 now became a rescue beacon for relief ships entering Smith Sound, its long box anchored as a tower to the rock cairn to make it more visible, a note tucked within the rocks giving the party’s location on Cape Sabine.

Rescue Beacon. The Peirce Pendulum Rock Cairn on Stalknecht Island. Credit: NOAA

Rescue Beacon. The Peirce Pendulum rock cairn on Stalknecht Island, 1884. Credit: NOAA

During the winter and spring of 1884, the members of the Greely party slowly succumbed to starvation. On 27 May 1884, Israel began speaking quietly of home, his mother’s cooking. He became delirious and died. Greely, who shared a sleeping bag with Israel during their final desperate months, wrote that he “learned to love him like a brother.” When Greely conducted Israel’s burial, he edited the Christian service to make it consistent with the astronomer’s Jewish faith.  Twenty four days after Israel died, a rescue party under the command of Winfield Schley arrived at Cape Sabine where they found Greely and six men close to death, the last survivors of the twenty-five men crew. Schley had expected to find Greely further north at Fort Conger, but his men saw the cairn on Stalknecht Island and went to investigate. There, they found the tall pendulum in its box, still projecting upwards from the rocks.

Washington D C., August, 1884

            Thousands of well-wishers turned out in Portsmouth New Hampshire to welcome Greely and his men home.  The day was filled with speeches and a parade of over two thousand. Speaking of the value of the expedition, Senator Eugene Hale of Maine told the crowds, “Nothing dims its record. There was no insubordination, no blundering, no losing of the head.” Hale’s remarks were premature. As he spoke, evidence was emerging that some members of the party had resorted to cannibalism in their final months at Cape Sabine. The press also discovered that the Greely party was riven by conflicts, especially during the long retreat from Fort Conger when Greely’s officers had almost relieved Greely of his command. As these discoveries swirled in the pages of the popular press, Greely defended himself, the bravery of the party, and the expedition’s commitment to science.[7]

            Key to this defense was the party’s unanimous decision to carry the Peirce No. 1 out of the Arctic despite its weight. Greely chronicled this event in his final report, and it also appeared in the Coast Survey report as well as popular press accounts. As a result, the pendulum gained symbolic importance. It was at this moment, ironically, that Peirce began to question the instrument’s scientific value. He had measured the pendulum at the Coast Survey Building in late 1884 and observed that its length and mass had changed significantly since 1881. As a benchmark of Israel’s Arctic measurements, then, the pendulum seemed useless. Greely was furious, defending himself and Israel in a letter that he attached to Peirce’s report. Yet the long brass bar yielded results of a different kind. While it may have failed to measure the contours of the earth, in the eyes of many nineteenth-century Americans, it offered something more valuable in return:  a measure of scientific spirit and manly character, one that protected Greely and the reputation of the expedition party in the decades to come.[8]

[This essay was published by the journal Endeavour in December 2012: 36(4):187-90]


[1] Greely quoted from Three Years of Arctic Service: An Account of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, 1881-1884 (New York, 1894) 1:119.

[2] C.S. Peirce, “General Instructions for Observing Oscillating Pendulums,” (1881) from The Peirce Edition Project, http://www.iupui.edu/~peirce/writings/v6/W6ann/W6ann30.htm

[3] Ibid.

[4] Introduction, Writings of Charles S. Peirce: 1886-1890 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 6: xxx.

[5] Guttridge, Ghosts, 151-199.

[6] Greely,  Arctic Service, “Arctic Journal” dated 17 Sept 1883. 1:509-10

[7] Eugene Hale quoted in William McGinley, Reception of Lieut. A. W. Greely, U. S. A., and His Comrades, and of the Arctic Relief Expedition, at Portsmouth, N. H., on August 1 and 4, 1884 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884), 35.

[8] Rebecca Herzig writes about the value of hardship in the Greely Expedition in Suffering for Science (Rutgers University Press, 2005), 64-84. Also see “The Magnetic and Tidal Work of the Greely Arctic Expedition,” Science 9 (4 March 1887): 215-217; Editorial, Science 4 (1 August 1884): 94; Daniel Gilman, “Reception of the Greely Arctic Explorer, Lieutenant Greely, U. S. A.,” Johns Hopkins University Circulars 4 (March 1885): 54.

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