Will the Nautilus Freeze Under the North Pole? (Jun, 1931)

Will the Nautilus Freeze Under the North Pole?


Within a few weeks Sir Hubert Wilkins and his crew of 18 will set forth to burrow under the North Pole in a submarine. Have they any chance of success, or is the expedition foolhardy—are the daring adventurers doomed to die, frozen beneath Polar ice? Read the opinions of experts.

THE most astonishing scientific expedition the world has ever known will get under way early this summer when the submarine Nautilus, under command of Sir Hubert Wilkins and Commander Sloan Danenhower, sets forth to burrow under the frozen Arctic seas which surround the North Pole. A puny, man-made whale of steel and iron is issuing a daring challenge to the unexplored wastes of polar ice which already have a grim record for freezing out the lives of scores of fearless adventurers who sought to penetrate the forbidding fastnesses with ship and dog sled.

The purpose of the expedition is to take scientific observations of the Polar sea, to make weather studies, and to chart unknown territory.

Not even Jules Verne, whose seemingly fantastic prediction of the submarine in “20,-000 Leagues Under the Sea” has long since become a sober fact, envisioned so daring an underwater expedition as that of Sir Hubert Wilkins. After all, submarines and the men in them must breathe; they must be able to come to the surface now and then for air, and it is possible that the idea of a submarine imprisoned beneath impenetrable depths of ice at the top of the world, buried Alive with its crew gasping out their lives as chemically-created air is exhausted, was too fantastic for even Verne’s sturdy imagination.

Fantastic, at first glance, the Wilkins expedition certainly is. In fact, to the layman it is more than fantastic—it is suicidal. This opinion, incidentally, is concurred in by many submarine experts of the world’s navies, some of whom are quoted later on in this article. Even the sponsors of the trip have admitted the possibility of a great disas- ter which will snuff out the Nautilus and all aboard it. Yet every resource of science, every mechanical precaution which ingenuity can devise, is incorporated in the Nautilus to protect the submarine from anticipated dangers. The detailed drawing on page 48 shows the arrangement of the novel devices which make the Nautilus the most unique submarine in all history. Most of these devices—ice-cutting drills, sled runners, diving chambers, etc. —were designed by Simon Lake, veteran submarine inventor.

What are the dangers which will imperil the expedition? Some of the most obvious are these: The Nautilus may get caught beneath ice so thick that its 100-foot drills could not bore through it; consequently the submarine could not get air, without which the men would perish. Air is also essential to run the Diesel engines used to recharge the batteries which drive the sub under water. For eight hours out of the 24 the sub must lie on the surface recharging the batteries.

The bow of the Nautilus, reinforced with concrete though it is, may be damaged by collision with obstacles sufficient to spring a leak and flood the interior.

Batteries may be discharged more rapidly than calculated, leaving the submarine powerless.

Damaged propellers or control surfaces jammed with ice may not be amenable to repair by divers.

The layer of fresh water covering the polar sea, being lighter than the salt water in which the sub is designed to cruise, will not require full ballast tanks to start the ship submerging. If the ballast tanks are not full, the water in them can “slosh” to the forward or rear ends of the tanks, affecting stability and causing the sub to plunge abruptly toward the bottom. Before control can be re-established, in this event, the Nautilus will very probably collapse from excessive pressure, since it is designed for depths of not greater than 250 feet.

Shifting of the ice pack through which the submarine’s ice drills are boring for air may damage them beyond repair, exerting a “nut cracker” effect.

Areas of open water which the expedition hopes to encounter may not be found when needed.

If caught in an ice pack, the submarine would have no chance to escape.

Navigation, being dependent on observations of moon and stars, is impossible under the ice and the submarine may get “lost.”

Submarine may not be successful as an icebreaker, and may freeze solidly in the ice at the surface while lying there to recharge batteries.

These are a few of the dangers which have been pointed out by submarine experts from all over the world. Not all of them are admitted as actual dangers by the crew of the Nautilus; others they have themselves anticipated and taken steps to prevent.

The concrete reinforcement of the bow of the Nautilus is expected to protect the sub in case of collision with icebergs or underwater obstacles. Commander Danenhower expects to travel at a speed no greater than a walk when under water; consequently the force of a collision would be negligible under ordinary circumstances. In addition, a hydraulic bowsprit-bumper projects from the nose of the Nautilus, acting as a shock absorber.

Ice varying in thickness from two to twenty feet is the average depth expected to be encountered. Two ice drills, one to supply air for the Diesel engines and another for the crew, can drill through 100 feet of ice. A third ice drill, two feet in diameter, is hollow and permits a man to climb through it to the surface of the ice; this one can drill through a 13-foot thickness.

It is claimed that the Nautilus can cruise for 40 hours submerged, on one battery charge—a distance of 125 miles. On the other hand, submarine experts have declared that a one hour’s submerged cruise is about all that can be expected from a storage battery before recharging is necessary—and recharging must be done at the surface. If the experts are right, the dangers to the submarine will be multiplied many fold. A quartz window in the side of the sub, however, admits light by which the thickness of the ice can be judged, so that the instant the ship comes under a layer thin enough for its drills to pierce, the mechanism can be set in motion.

At the Third Naval Division headquarters in New York City, an exclusive analysis was made for Modern Mechanics and Inventions in which the findings were quite at variance with the specifications published by commanders of the Wilkins expedition. The statement follows: “The Wilkins expedition commanders are greatly in error regarding the length of the submerged run of which the Nautilus will be capable. They are claiming 125 miles for 40 hours. This is preposterous, the submerged run depends chiefly on the batteries for its propulsion and when the juice disappears, the batteries must be recharged with the use of air. The life of a battery is one hour for a complete charge, making a full speed of 11 knots submerged.

“It is the opinion of one of our chief officers who spent nine years in the submarine service that the Nautilus commanders are over-optimistic. If they attempt to do what they promise to do, it will be nothing more than outright suicide. Their apparatus cannot cope with the natural forces which will be encountered. It is a most interesting enterprise, but we old Navy hands cannot help but regard it as purely a stunt. Nothing will save them once they get stuck underneath an iceberg. But there are some very able men on the Nautilus and we are sure they will hesitate before deciding to penetrate beneath icebergs and bank their hopes on ice-boring drills. In all fairness, we give Sir Hubert Wilkins and his associates credit for undertaking one of the most spectacular and dramatic adventures of modern times.”

Commander G. W. Simpson, noted naval and submarine authority at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, says: “The wise men of the United States Navy are snickering up their sleeves when they read about the expectations of the Wilkins expedition. I am making these comments in a strictly impersonal but nevertheless scientific manner. The U. S. Navy would never think of sending a crew on such a foolhardy expedition. However, if some great emergency arose, the valiant Navy men would not hesitate to embark on any expedition which demands daring and fearlessness. But this particular voyage, to my mind, is nothing more than a stunt. It is based purely on guesswork. They are hoping to find pockets of water interspersing the Arctic ice at intervals so that their submarine might rise to the surface. If they once got caught in some ice, say beneath an iceberg over 150 feet in depth, all the drills in Heaven could not get them out of their predicament. I know I wouldn’t care to be going along.”

Vilhjalmur Stefannson, veteran Arctic explorer who is given credit as being the first to suggest the idea of submarine polar exploration, is not as optimistic over the Wilkins expedition as he might be expected to be. He says: “Sir Hubert Wilkins was second in command of my third expedition from 1913 to 1918. He told me that the first time that he heard me outline a plan for a submarine voyage of exploration in the Arctic was im- mediately after he joined in 1913. I never published anything about it until after I told Admiral Peary my ideas.

“Of course, it pleases me very much that Sir Hubert is adopting my plan, but I am also worried because it is a dangerous enterprise. Ten or twenty years from now a submarine voyage of this nature will be a commonplace thing and not dangerous, but at the present time it is a mighty dangerous undertaking. Wilkins is not foolhardy, but at the same time he always wants to be doing something and accomplishing things. Fear is absolutely foreign to his nature.

“It may be that Sir Hubert has hit on some new way of cutting through the ice. I think it is feasible to blast upward through the ice. A charge could be planted; then the submarine might withdraw half a mile or so and the charge could be exploded, after which the submarine could return. Of course, one could not blast the ice near the submarine because of the danger of wrecking the ship.

“The maximum thickness of the Arctic icepack is not more than 120 feet. The crushing and piling up of the ice accounts for this thickness. By actual freezing, however, the ice is never more than seventy feet thick. There are no icebergs in the Polar Sea. If a submarine navigated at a depth of 150 feet it would be quite safe and it would not strike any snags of ice.

“Sir Hubert might meet icebergs in the regions of Spitzbergen or in the region of Greenland, but in those regions he would be navigating on the surface and he would avoid icebergs in the same way as any other ship. In connection with the depths at which submarines operate, the Italians claim a record of 325 feet.

“As to the direction of the submarine voyage, it would be much safer to cross the Arctic from Alaska to Norway rather than from Norway to Alaska because the current is against you if you go from Norway to Alaska. If the machinery of the submarine broke down, the vessel would drift toward open water should the accident occur on the Norwegian side. He could send out S 0 S calls and be picked up. If such an accident occurred on the Alaska side, his only hope would be to leave the submarine and walk across the ice in the direction of Alaska.”

Commander Donald B. MacMillan, famous for his polar explorations, has described the Wilkins expedition as the most hazardous proposition ever undertaken by an Arctic explorer.

“The submarine can reach the North Pole only by chance,” he says, “because navigation is dependent on the moon and stars, and when submerged the ship’s captain can not get his navigation points. If caught in an ice pack, the submarine would have no chance to escape. I have seen polar ice 40 feet thick.”

Several British submarine officers have expressed the opinion that no submarine can act as an ice-breaker in the Arctic, and that . even if it were able to come to the surface, it would freeze in solid while recharging its batteries. To controvert these opinions, backers of the expedition point out that Simon Lake has carried out successful experiments with an ice-breaking submarine, and that the Nautilus cannot get frozen into the ice on the surface of the Arctic seas because, during the months of July and August when the expedition will be under way, there are no freezing temperatures of water or air.

In addition to the safety devices already described, the interior arrangements of the Nautilus are interesting for the measures that have been taken to increase the comfort of the crew. Naturally, there is no room for luxuries in the way of unnecessary equipment. A laboratory compartment is provided for the scientific members of the crew. Fuel oil for the Diesel engines and distilled water for the storage battery are stored in tanks along the keel of the sub. Likewise the 60-ton storage battery, of 120 cells, is mounted underfoot. The control room is not greatly changed from its arrangement when the submarine was a member of Uncle Sam’s Navy, bearing the title U. S. S. 0-12.

A galley is provided with an electric range, electric vacuum cooker, and electric icebox. The engine room houses two great Diesel engines of 500 horsepower each, and two 200 horsepower electric motors driven by the 5000-ampere battery.

-The insulation method used to keep the submarine comfortably warm is illustrated in the sectional drawing on page 48. A light sheet metal inner wall is installed inside the hull of the submarine. Vents at the top permit warm air to pass upward into the space between the walls. Any moisture in the air is condensed and drips down the wall into the bilges. This keeps the ship fairly warm and comfortably dry.

Air at a pressure of 2500 pounds per square inch is carried in flasks, for breathing and for blowing water out of the buoyancy tanks. When the vessel is on the surface, the air is renewed by running compressors which operate in much the same fashion as those used in tire stations. This air will keep the crew alive for about three days when submerged, and by the use of oxygen and chemicals to remove poisonous gases, the living time can be increased to about a week.

In case the Nautilus is disabled, the crew will not necessarily be left on the ice to meet a slow and painful death. The submarine carries a short-wave radio broadcasting set with which she will keep in touch with the outside world, and in case of an emergency an appeal for help can be sent over the ether and rescue crews can start out to help the stranded crew to safety. The supply of provisions carried aboard the ship is ample to take care of the crew for several months. Sleds and other equipment necessary for a journey across the ice are carried. The crew would be self-sustaining for an entire year in the matter of provisions, and in addition rifles are carried by which seals and polar bears can be shot down for fresh meat.

Despite the fact that the submarine will invade polar waters, an electric refrigerator for preserving food will be carried, since the sub’s interior will be fairly warm.

Since most of the navigation must be done by instruments or dead reckoning, in case the ice proves too thick for the navigator to emerge and get his bearings from the stars, the matter of compasses is important. Two types are carried on the Nautilus — one is magnetic, the other the gyro-compass. The magnetic compass is likely to prove undependable near the North Pole, and in any event such compasses are badly handicapped on board a submarine, where the masses of metal such as engines, and the electric currents from the batteries, are likely to throw it off.

Gyro-compasses do not depend on magnetism, pointing to the true North Pole rather than the magnetic pole. The gyro-compass will therefore prove of little value near the Pole, since when it is sitting on top of the pole, in effect, it has nothing to point to.

The special diving chambers on the Nautilus will permit divers to emerge under water, where they can work on damaged propeller blades or other parts of the sub which may need repair. A well-fitted machine shop is carried along so that the vitally important matter of making speedy repairs is provided for.

Naturally it will be difficult for divers to work efficiently in the cold waters of the Polar sea. But the submarine S-4, which sank off Provincetown, Mass., a few years ago, was salvaged in the dead of winter. Frank Crilley, who helped in the S-4 job, is head diver aboard the Nautilus, so he knows exactly what difficulties he will have to overcome.

A few specifications of the Nautilus will prove interesting. The sub is being used by special permission of the United States government, there being no privately owned submarines. The Wilkins expedition has leased the Nautilus for a period of five years, at the end of which it will be returned to the government for scrapping under the terms of international disarmament treaties. The Nautilus is 175 feet long, with a cross-section diameter of 15 feet 9 inches. It is capable of a maximum surface speed of 14 knots, or 10% knots submerged. Its maximum cruising radius is 7000 miles. Provisions carried will weigh over 20 tons, and scientific instruments 15 tons. The value of the submarine is estimated at $750,000. The name Nautilus was bestowed on the sub in honor of the famous ship of the same name piloted by Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

The periscope carried differs from those conventionally used in that it folds together like a jackknife. This is to protect it from damage by bumping against ice crags which would tear it off within a short time. The periscope will be used only in open water. A trolley pole “feeler” on top of the sub will run along under the surface of the ice as a sort of guide wheel, the submarine being so adjusted as to buoyancy that the slight contact of the wheel against the ice will be sufficient to keep the ship’s hull from colliding with projections. The guide arm will also serve to give information on the degree of the ship’s buoyancy through the reading of pressure indicators on the pneumatic piston which keeps the arm in contact with the ice.

Momsen “lungs”, which in appearance resemble gas masks, will be carried for each member of the crew. In case it is necessary to escape from the sub under water, these lungs can be donned by the men and the necessary oxygen will be supplied to them mechanically as they swim upward to the surface, eliminating the possibility of drowning. Of course it is hoped that it will not become necessary to resort to these lungs, but no precaution has been overlooked which might conceivably save human lives.

It becomes evident, on studying the preparations made by Sir Hubert Wilkins and his men, that if it is humanly possible to succeed in their daring journey, they will come through gloriously.

  1. Cristian Raicu says: August 26, 20102:04 am

    “After a second season flying his Lockheed Vega in Antarctica Wilkins planned his most ambitious expedition. To take a submarine under the Arctic ice to the North Pole. Constant delays prevented the submarine getting away on time to reach the polar ice cap before winter and the submarine constantly broke down. Still determined to prove that submarine travel under the ice was possible, Wilkins continued north to the edge of the ice pack to discover his submarine had malfunctioned again. Nevertheless, with his partly disabled submarine he was still able to sail under the ice to prove it could be achieved.”

  2. Scott Smith says: August 26, 20107:47 am

    Super cool! I’ve even been on this sub! It’s a museum in Groton, Connecticut now.

  3. rick s. says: August 26, 20109:02 am

    Scott, the sub you saw in Groton is the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine and was commissioned by the Navy in the mid 50s. However, the USS Nautilus did, indeed cross under the pole and was the first submarine to do so. It is, however, not the Nautilus described in this article. (As an aside, I used to live in Groton and know that sub and that museum very well).


  4. Firebrand38 says: August 26, 201011:22 am

    Scott: You would have found it difficult to tour the Nautilus from this article because it was sunk in a Norwegian fjord back in 1931 about six months after this article was published http://www.amphilsoc.or…

  5. Kosher Ham says: August 26, 201011:42 am

    Perhaps you are talking about Captain Nemo’s sub….

  6. Firebrand38 says: August 26, 201012:04 pm

    Kosher Ham: Nah, that was sunk at the end of Mysterious Island. http://www.youtube.com/…

  7. Alex F Wysocki says: October 5, 20107:12 am

    The sub Nautilus was scuttled off of the coast of Norway. It had to be scuttled due to the fact that it was so severly damaged when it was frozed in the ice, that it was uninsurable. One of the conditions of the rental of the sub–it had to be insured. I’m very familar with this Wilkins’ Expedition because my uncle, Ray Drakio (aka Drejka) was a crew member and its last surviver. A fellow Delawarean of the Wilkins Expedition was “Bus” Schnetter, who retired as the Executive Officer of the Delaware State Police. Here in Delaware we have a Professor Nelson of the University of Delaware who is a leading exponent of Antarctic expeditions. If you seek information on the Wilkins Expedition–he is your go to guy. Cordially, Alex F Wysocki

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