Geographical Society of Philadelphia

Drift Cask Project

Melville-Bryant Drift Cask Project

Background excerpt from “History of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia 1891 – 1960,” by Marie Peary Stafford:

The year 1895 also marked the inauguration of the society’s second great Arctic venture, the experiment which became world famous under the name of the Melville-Bryant Drift Cask Project. Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer, is given credit for being indirectly responsible for the original idea, but it was George Melville, the hero of the Jeannette expedition, who put it into action. The truth is probably that the idea was latent in the minds of both men and was born when they met at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in the autumn of 1897.* Both men had been on ships imprisoned for years in the drifting polar pack, Melville on the Jeannette and Nansen on the Fram, and both had had excellent opportunity to observe the consistent direction of the drift, not only on shipboard but also on subsequent sledge journeys over the sea ice.

Melville’s theory was that data relating to the circumpolar currents could be obtained by placing specially constructed casks, each one numbered, on the floe ice north of Bering Strait. He had many reasons to back his theory. East Spitzbergen is covered with driftwood, and it seemed certain that this was brought by the great Siberian rivers discharging into the Arctic Ocean. While on board the Jeannette, Melville had charted every known ocean current and was convinced that if the ship had held together and the provisions had lasted it would have drifted out either by way of Franz Joseph Land and Nova Zembla or between Spitzbergen and the east coast of Greenland. Nansen put his ship into the ice at almost the same place the Jeannette sank, he continued the same drift pattern in the Fram, and all his observations coincided with Melville’s theory.

The imagination of the society was fired by this interesting experiment by which valuable results might be obtained without endangering human life. It was moved that the society take the initiative, and the president communicated with Admiral Melville, requesting details. This was Melville’s pet scheme, and he responded voluminously with drawings and specifications for the building of the casks and the exact locations where they were to be placed on the ice. His article on the subject makes bewildering reading to a non-technical mind and is still preserved in the Bulletin, to be read by those informed enough to be interested.

It was thought originally that the casks would cost five dollars apiece, and contributions were to be solicited from members of the society. Later it was found that they would cost $15.50 each, and Mr. Bryant (Henry Grier Bryant) offered to pay for the first fifteen of the 50 casks. Still later he decided to finance the entire project himself; its name to be the Melville-Bryant Drift Cask Experiment.

There was much correspondence with the Government, asking permission to send some of the casks north on the revenue cutter, Bear. Some whaling companies requested the same honor, and eventually the last casks were shipped on May 5, 1899. That Admiral Melville was right in his theory has been proved. Eight of the casks have been recovered. Two of them made little progress, about 380 miles, probably caught in local currents near Bering Strait. One was picked up on the northern coast of Iceland and another on Soro Island near Hammerfest, Norway, on November 3, 1908.

This latter cask, No. 26, was sent as a gift to the society by the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, discoverer of the South Pole.

*Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia Vol. xxxvi, No. 156 “The Drift of the Jeannette” by Commodore George W. Melville, Engineer-in-Chief, U. S. N.

Also republished by permission in the Bulletin of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia Vol. II, No. 3 April 1898.

Drift cask

BULLETIN

OF THE

Geographical Society

OF PHILADELPHIA

VOL. II           APRIL, 1898           NO. 3

A Proposed System of Drift Casks

TO

Determine the Direction of the Circumpolar Currents,

BY

COMMODORE GEO. W. MELVILLE,

Engineer-in-Chief, U. S. N.

 

The Board of Directors of the Society is pleased to announce that arrangements are being made to carry out the plan of drift casks as described in the following paper by Commodore Melville. It is hoped that efficient aid in the distribution of the casks will be furnished by the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service, and the co-operation of a number of captains engaged in the whale fisheries of the northern Pacific has been secured through the good offices of Prof. George Davidson and Messrs. Blum & Co., of San Francisco, Cal. To supplement and illustrate the communication, a circumpolar map, showing the probable track of the casks, is appended; and the paper read by Commodore Melville at the “Nansen” meeting of the American Philosophical Society on October 29, 1897, narrating the drift of the Jeannette, is reproduced with the sanction of that society.

It is at least a disputed question in my mind whether any genuine relics of the Jeannette were ever found on the west coast of Greenland. This uncertainty can be attributed to several causes: namely, that the newspaper accounts published at the time were full of errors or misstatements : that no favorable reply was vouchsafed to my repeated requests to have the so-called relics sent to me for identification — which might readily have been done at little or no cost : and that these relics have now entirely disappeared — a condition to be deplored and a circumstance at variance with preconceived ideas of the value of such articles had they fallen into the hands of the geographical societies of Europe, particularly those of Denmark, Norway or Sweden— countries that are so intently interested in Polar research.

Let it be understood that I believe that such a drift as the so-called Jeannette relics are said to have made is quite possible; but, the question in my mind is, why were not these relics identified when it could have been so easily done?

From the two accompanying drawings of proposed casks it can be readily seen that, although differing in construction, they are both adapted by strength of material and shape to withstand heavy pressures and to readily escape the grasp of the ice.

It will be observed that they have about the shape of parabolic spindles, or spindles of a revolution, of about twenty gallons capacity, made of heavy oak staves one and one-quarter (1-1/4) inches thick, firmly encircled with heavy iron hoops three-sixteenths (3/16) of an inch thick and two (2) inches wide. This great thickness is to allow for corrosion in a long drift of four or five years, in case the coating of “half stuff” (pitch and resin mixed) should be worn off by attrition in the ice. The conical ends are designed to avoid an end nip that might crush in the heads of an ordinary cask.

It will be observed that cask No. I is made after the ordinary manner, with solid wooden ends fitted to bear on the ends of the staves (not on the heads), held in place by a brass rod, with conical brass nuts to hold the cone ends in place — the rods and nuts being made of brass to avoid corrosion, and the diameter of the rod being 5/8 inch. It will also be observed that the cone ends are shouldered to fit inside the chime ends of the staves to avoid slipping, and that an elastic india-rubber washer is compressed between the cone and the head of the cask, and compressed around the brass rod, to make it water tight where the rod passes through the head. The rubber grommet is indicated in the sectional drawing in heavy black. The hoops are to be held in place from slipping by hook clips screwed into the cask.

Cask No. 2 is of similar oak stave construction, with this difference, that the staves are of one piece from end to end, so tapered as to form the spindle, hooped in the same manner as No. 1, but capped on the ends with light cast brass caps to secure the ends and keep them water tight. As above stated, the casks should be painted with a heavy coating of black half stuff, to preserve them from corrosion and decay, and to help keep them water tight — black that they may readily be seen. They should be placed, if possible, on the heavy floe pieces, that they may drift with the ice. Being black, under the action of the summer sun they will sink down into the body of the ice and be preserved from harm by possible crushing. If thrown into the open water, they are apt to be drifted with the winds. The deep ice, being affected by under currents, will probably carry the casks on a more correct drift. The customary bung-hole and bung are fitted, the intention being to place within each cask a bottle, tightly corked, to preserve — in case the cask should leak — such records as the Society may see proper to place therein. I would suggest that a number of records be placed in each bottle, printed in the languages of the principal seafaring nations, requesting the finder of the cask to preserve it and send the records to the Hydrographic Office of the nationality of the finder, such office, in turn, to send to the other nationalities the other records found within the cask, stating the latitude and longitude where found. A money prize might be offered to induce the finder to comply with the request, or to defray the expense of forwarding the cask or records. It would be well in all cases to request that the cask be preserved intact.

The casks being properly prepared — and numbered from one to one hundred, if the Society can afford that number — I would recommend that they be carried on a government vessel through Bering Strait, and set adrift in sets of five, numbered consecutively; commencing with the first five, at or near Herald Island, then proceeding to the northward, along the eastern edge of the ice pack, until the highest safe latitude is obtained — say latitude 75° N., longitude 170° W. from Greenwich. I suggest this latitude and longitude, because the polar pack in the above latitude commences to crowd well over to the eastward and toward the North American Archipelago, where other currents are known to exist. At this point final sets of casks are to be set adrift, to demonstrate if possible the currents to the eastward or northward and eastward, if any there prevail. If one hundred casks cannot be supplied, send fifty. The smaller number will only lessen the probability of the finds. There is no doubt but that they will come out somewhere. Siberian drift wood has been found on the northeastern shores of Bennett Island, on the northeast point of Nova Zembla, on the eastern coast of Franz Josef land, on the eastern shores of Spitzbergen and, possibly, in the drift of the eastern side of Greenland. A strong current is known to exist at certain seasons of the year to the southward and westward, between the northern end of Nova Zembla and the southern side of Franz Josef land, and between the southern side of Spitzbergen and Bear Island — dropping the stones from the polar pack which form the shoal of 300 fathoms between the above islands.

We may look for the casks on any of the above shores or in the above-mentioned drifts, and also for the possibility of demonstrating a drift to the eastward or to the northward and eastward, finally coming out by way of Smith’s Sound and Kennedy Channel and Baffin’s Bay, as well as by the slow drift through the North American Archipelago to the coast of – Labrador.

In case the casks are entrusted to whalemen, due discrimination must be exercised in the selection of these men; as many whaling captains are not disposed to risk their ships nor to devote their time to anything pertaining to scientific research, though it is an undeniable fact that much valuable information is gained and given to the world by these enterprising rovers of the northern seas.

If a government vessel cannot be obtained, then a representative of the Geographical Society might accompany a whale- man, and direct — as nearly as possible — where the casks should be set afloat (or, if inexpedient, that none be set afloat); for, if they are not deposited in the proper places, and an exact record made of latitude, longitude, number of casks, etc., there would be but little use in setting them adrift at all.

I would respectfully suggest that the Society apply to the Honorable Secretary of the Navy, and request the aid of the U. S. Naval Hydrographic Office in this undertaking. Also that application be made to the Secretary of the Treasury, who controls the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service, and who sends one or more of their cutters into the Arctic Ocean yearly to look after the welfare of our whalemen. These vessels generally go too far to the eastward toward Point Barrow to fill all the requirements of the experiment; but they could with safety make the necessary detour to the northward and westward, along the eastern edge of the great Northern pack.

Drift casks designed by Commodore Melville to show the Arctic drift

Drift Casks to Determine Arctic Currents.

BY

HENRY G. BRYANT

(Read at the VII International Geographical Congress at Berlin, 1899.)

 

There is no subdivision of modern geography which offers a more promising field to one interested in original research than those studies and phenomena grouped under the term oceanography. We have only to note the prominent position assigned to this branch in the present gathering, and the eminent names associated with the discussions in this department, to understand the importance of the subject.

As a slight contribution I venture to present to the Congress some details of the inauguration of an experiment to obtain data relating to Arctic currents, by means of drift casks, set adrift in the Arctic sea north of Alaska. This project was planned by Rear Admiral George W. Melville, U. S. N., and has recently been carried into effect by the Geographical Society of Philadelphia. Owing to the recent war, and other causes, the execution of the project was somewhat delayed; and it was only during the past spring that the final arrangements were completed and the casks sent to the far North.

When Dr. Fritjof Nansen visited Philadelphia in March, 1898, he delivered an address before one of our learned societies on “Some of the Scientific Results of the Voyage of the Fram.” Admiral Melville, whose connection with the Jeannette expedition is well known, contributed a paper at the same meeting on “The Drift of the Jeannette,” in which, after eulogizing the intrepid Norwegian, to whose heroic devotion was mainly due the successful outcome of the Fram expedition, he drew attention to the correlation between the drift of Captain DeLong’s vessel and that of the Fram — pointing out that the latter took up and continued the drift of the Jeannette, from a point comparatively near where that vessel was crushed in the ice on June 13th, 1881. After recommending that any future expedition, wishing to emulate the achievements of the Fram should approach the circumpolar area by way of Bering Sea, Admiral Melville suggested that much valuable data relating to Arctic currents could be secured by setting adrift in the sea north of Alaska a series of specially constructed casks, containing proper records. These casks might be confidently expected to put in an appearance in due time, on the other side of the unexplored area, in waters frequented by human kind. In this connection he remarked: “I do believe, however, from the information we have gained from the drift of the Jeannette and of the Fram, that vessels of any kind, such as casks or drift wood, will come out by way of Spitzbergen — though not necessarily across the Pole. The only reason for sending men in ships is that they may be observers to make a daily record of events, . . . recording all the phenomena proper on such an expedition. But for this, I say, a hundred oaken casks, properly numbered, made after the manner of a beer keg of twenty gallons capacity, properly hooped, and the ends extended out to complete a parabolic spindle, would demonstrate the drift. At the end of four or five years we might begin to look for the beer kegs between Spitzbergen and Greenland.”1

This proposed method of studying Arctic currents without endangering human life, having been brought to the notice of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, that body determined to undertake the project. In view of the exigencies of a long voyage on the floe ice, special attention was given, in the construction of the casks, to shape and strength of materials. Thus, to more readily escape crushing by the ice, as intimated above, their shape conformed to that of a parabolic spindle, while they were made of heavy oak staves one and one-quarter inches thick, encompassed by iron hoops three-sixteenths of an inch thick and two inches wide. A coating of black “half stuff” (pitch and resin mixed) was then applied. In addition to the preservative qualities of this coating, the thickness of the wood and metal used is believed to be sufficient to resist the attrition of the ice and the effects of corrosion, during the long drift. The staves, so tapered as to form the spindle, were covered on the ends by light galvanized cast-iron caps, held in place by an iron rod, five-eighths of an inch in diameter, extending the length of the cask and secured by conical nuts at each end. As above stated, a heavy coating of black waterproofing material was applied to the casks to guard against corrosion and decay. From the color used, they will be more easily seen and will also the more readily sink — under the action of the summer sun — into the body of the ice and be preserved from destruction by crushing. The number of each cask was etched into the wood as well as painted on the outside. In accordance with the instructions of the originator of the plan, the vessels must be placed on the heavy floe ice. If set adrift in open water, they would be too much at the mercy of winds and waves, whereas, by being deposited on heavy ice which is more affected by under currents, they will probably be carried on a more correct drift. A reinforced bung-hole with bung was provided, and through this the message bottle was inserted– a quantity of shavings having first been placed inside to prevent the jostling about of the bottle. This latter consisted of a narrow cylindrical tube made of flint glass and technically known as an “ignition tube,” accompanying which were suitable corks and sealing wax. As an additional precaution, these tubes were in turn enclosed in cases made of maple wood provided with screw tops.

The message paper enclosed in this way was printed on linoleum paper, by a permanent blue-print process which renders it practically impervious to salt water. The enclosed message was printed in the English, Norwegian, German and French languages and embodied the following particulars :

  1. Space for name of vessel and master assisting in distribution, date, number of cask and latitude and longitude of point where it was set adrift.
  2. Directions as to filling in record and sealing up tube.
  3. Blank space for insertion of name of finder, date and locality where cask was picked up.
  4. Clause requesting finder to forward message paper to the nearest United States Consul at his home port, or to send it direct to the Geographical Society of Philadelphia.

Accompanying each consignment of casks, was a set of printed instructions to masters of vessels engaged in their distribution. These directions embodied in the main Admiral Melville’s ideas on the subject. In a paper prepared for the Geographical Society of Philadelphia he gives his views on this question as follows:

“The casks being properly prepared and numbered . . . I would recommend that they be carried on a government vessel through Bering Strait, and set adrift in sets of five, numbered consecutively; commencing with the first five, at or near Herald Island, then proceeding to the northward, along the eastern edge of the ice pack, until the highest safe latitude is obtained — say latitude 75° N. longitude 170° W. from Greenwich. . . . At this point final sets of casks are to be set adrift, to demonstrate if possible the currents to the eastward or northward and eastward, if any there prevail.”

Captains of vessels were requested, if opportunity presented, to distribute a few casks as far to the eastward as Banks Land; but were enjoined not to place any adrift on the ice adjacent to the Point Barrow district in Alaska, where purely local currents running east and west are known to exist, as was illustrated by the extraordinary drift of the steam whaler Narvarch during the winter of 1897-1898.

In the important work of distributing the casks, the promoters of the enterprise profited by the valued co-operation of the U. S. Revenue Cutter Bear, which makes an annual cruise as far north as Point Barrow in the interest of the American whalemen. Twenty casks were carried north on the Bear, and the others were distributed among the vessels of the Pacific Steam Whaling Company’s fleet and those owned by Messrs. Liebes & Co., of San Francisco. It was understood that a majority of the casks would be put adrift during the months of August and September of the present year, although the time when this would take place would depend on the ice conditions, which vary from year to year.

What the ultimate fate of these silent, inanimate messengers will be, when once entrusted to the elemental forces of the vast, unknown north, no one can predict with assurance. We trust a certain percentage will eventually make their way across the unexplored area and be picked up and reported. In the event of a fair percentage coming through, the resulting tabulated data, showing the time consumed by the casks in their drift between known termini, will undoubtedly be of value in determining the speed of circumpolar currents.

If this experiment can be repeated on a like scale next year by the Society, as it is hoped can be done, the possibility of definite results will be greatly enhanced. Admiral Melville firmly believes the fugitive casks will justify our hopes in them, remarking: “There is no doubt but that they will come out somewhere. Siberian driftwood has been found on the northeastern shores of Bennett Island, on the northeast point of Nova Zembla, on the eastern coast of Franz Josef land, on the eastern shores of Spitzbergen and, possibly, in the drift of the eastern side of Greenland. A strong current is known to exist at certain seasons of the year to the southward and westward, between the northern end of Nova Zembla and the southern side of Franz Josef land, and between the southern side of Spitzbergen and Bear Island — dropping the stones from the polar pack which form the shoal of 300 fathoms between the above islands.

“We may look for the casks on any of the above shores or in the above mentioned drifts, and also for the possibility of demonstrating a drift to the eastward or to the northward and eastward, finally coming out by way of Smith’s Sound and Kennedy Channel and Baffin’s Bay, as well as by the slow drift through the North American Archipelago to the coast of Labrador.”

It is not at all improbable, as intimated by Admiral Melville in the last clause, that some representatives may be carried by the northeastern or North American drift along the devious route taken by McClure forty-seven years ago in achieving the Northwest Passage. If a considerable number survive the dangers of the northwestern or Siberian drift, and are picked up in the East Greenland ice, the fact may be taken as helping to prove the permanence of the drift current which carried the Fram so far on her course across the Polar Sea.

The reports from the gallant officers of the Bear and the captains of the whaling fleet will be received within a year, and will show what success has attended the distribution of the casks in northern waters. From the marked interest in the success of the experiment manifested by all concerned in the work, it is believed the reports will show that the first part of the enterprise has been inaugurated in an intelligent and trustworthy manner.

In venturing to submit to the Congress these details of a method of investigating Arctic currents, I respectfully solicit the co-operation of the members — especially those representing the seafaring peoples of northern Europe — to the extent that they will assist in the dissemination of knowledge concerning the experiment among the merchant marine of their respective countries.

Let me indulge in the hope, then, that when, the full measure of time having passed, the survivors of this miniature flotilla shall appear in waters frequented by man, they may be recognized and rescued after their long journey through the mysterious unknown.

 

1. Vide “A Proposed System of Drift Casks to Determine the Direction of the Circumpolar Currants,” and “The Drift of the Jeannette,” by Com. Geo. W. Melville, U. S. N., Bulletin, Vol II , No. 8, April, 1898.