“Isn’t it all perhaps the expression of an extremely strong sense of individuality which cannot bear the thought of living and dying like a man of the ranks, forgotten by coming generations? Is this ambition?” - Solomon August Andrée
The Andrée Expedition was the brain child of Solomon Augustus Andrée, who swept away by the adventure and excitement of polar exploration was determined to find the North Pole and was certain that using a hot air balloon would be the way to get there. During the height of Arctic exploration, over 1000 men would attempt to reach the North Pole and of that over 700 died. Why did he think he would be successful? Or did he? There are hints in his writing and in the will he left behind that he grew to understand that the journey would fail. By then he had raised money from luminaries all over Sweden including the King himself, pride would not allow him to back out.
Andrée was 43 years old when the balloon The Eagle disappeared from the sky. He was born in Grenna, Sweden and was introduced to balloon travel while visiting the United States for the World’s Fair. He returned to Sweden where he studied air electricity with a group scientists, including Nils Eckholm, who would later loudly criticize his plans for the Arctic journey. He was unmarried and deeply devoted to his mother. Beyond his passion for balloons, he worked at the patent office until the expedition in 1897.
At 27, Nils Strindberg he was the youngest of the explorers. He was a respected young scientist and a passionate photographer. He was also newly in love and engaged to be married to Anna Charlier to whom he wrote love letters throughout the journey. We know that he was the first explorer to die in October 1897 because he was the only one who was buried. When the remains of the expedition were found in 1930, 5 rolls of undeveloped film were found and of that 85 photos were developed giving us a remarkable window in to the journey. His love letters and journals finally made their way home to Anna in 1930. For her part, Anna never fully recovered from his untimely death.
Knut Fraenkel was a last minute replacement for Nils Ekholm, who backed out of the expedition after a disastrous launch attempt in 1896 and went on to loudly discredit Andrée and his plans for the journey. Little was known of Fraenkel, who was 28 years old. He was not a scientist, but had worked on the railroads and was recruited presumably for his physical strength. He took measurements and plotted the stars, but he did not keep a journal as did Strindberg and Andrée. In Argento’s The Andrée Expedition, he is the a narrator bringing the story together.
Much has been made of Andrée's character and of how ill prepared his team was for the rigors of Arctic exploration. The men brought tuxedos to wear to meet dignitaries when they landed successfully in San Francisco, but they were physically unprepared for the rigors of travel over polar ice. It has been said that Andrée knew that the journey was doomed from the start and that he manipulated his younger compatriots into carrying on. No one will ever know for sure what happened or why they went. But as Fraekel sings at the end of The Andrée Expedition:
“It is clear to me now that Andrée knew from the start that our journey was doomed. And I think I understand what made him persevere to the end: in the years to come, when our frozen bodies have been found and returned to home to Sweden, the bright elusive glory he sought will be his after all.”
There are several fascinating books on The Andrée Expedition.
You can also visit the Wikipedia page for a quick but thorough overview.