Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic Snow Cruiser

This article is about one of the more crazy vehicles from our exploring past. (By our I mean we Earthlings) I love the way in the 1920s,30s and 40s if you needed something larger, bigger or more powerful you just made a scaled up version of something that already worked.
Both admiral Byrd and George Pullman owner of the Pullman  Company are both worth a revisit later because of their colourful histories.

Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic Snow Cruiser was built in 1939 to support his third Antarctic expedition. It was a huge, one-of-a-kind invention designed to house scientists while they traveled to the South Pole and back over a 12-month period. It sported four, independently-steered, pneumatic tires 10 feet tall, and carried an aeroplane on its roof in support of the expedition.
This Jules Verne-like vehicle also slept four comfortably, boasted a galley, machine shop, darkroom, and radio room, and carried a year’s supply of food. Byrd’s Snow Cruiser was designed by Dr. Thomas C. Poulter, Director of the Armour Institute in Chicago, and built by the Pullman Company of sleeping car fame at a cost of $150,000.
The vehicle was so large the only way to get it from Chicago to Boston, its port of departure, was to drive it across country very, very slowly.
The trip attracted huge crowds and newspaper headlines along the way especially when a series of mishaps spurred speculation that Byrd’s Snow Cruiser was a white elephant in disguise. While in eastern Ohio a hydraulic line which controlled the steering broke in an accident, the Cruiser limped into the Borough of Albion on November 01, 1939 using only the right-side motors. In need of repairs the cruiser continued on, for the next three days, slowly crawling to the City of Erie, arriving on November 04, around six o’clock in the evening. Lumbering through the city it finally arrived at the General Electric Plant in Lawrence Park to receive much needed repairs.
Work was begun, under the supervision of Dr. Thomas C. Poulter, at 8:15 p.m. While at the plant the left side motors were repaired and the hydraulics brakes were replaced with a new electrical braking system. New modifications, that were originally planned to be made to cruiser when it arrived in Boston, were completed at the Lawrence Park plant. Afterwards, the cruiser repaired and modified, left General Electric and continued on to Framington, Massachusetts, 20 miles from Boston, where the worst traffic jam was caused when 72,000 vehicles were unable to move on the highways.

The Cruiser finally arrived in Boston on November 12, 1939, and drove to the wharf only to find that about five feet of the rear of the machine had to be cut off before loading it on the ship, the “North Star.” With the Cruiser lashed to the main deck, the ship headed for the Antarctic by the way of the Panama Canal and New Zealand. By January 1940 (summertime in the Antarctic), the “North Star” was lashed to the ice about a mile from the base camp of the expedition. The problem of unloading the 75,000-pound Cruiser from the deck of the ship to the floating ice was thought to be solved by Dr. Poulter who had an 80-foot long ramp built to serve as a bridge. As the machine moved slowly down the long ramp, sudden creaking and popping sounds were heard as the front wheels broke through the cross timbers, the vehicle coming to a dead stop. Dr. Poulter, in the driver’s seat, abandoned caution and gunned the motors as the Cruiser pulled itself free, then inched down the ramp to the solid ice, while all the while Admiral Byrd was hanging on to a length of rope on the very top of the vehicle. The Cruiser moved slowly along on the ice for about three miles, where it was halted by a slight grade which proved to be too steep. The huge wheels stopped turning and the $150,000 machine never moved again. Engineers figured that power had been sacrificed for speed in the gear-reduction unit, and that the machine was too heavy for the four tires. The texture of the Antarctic snow was found to be different from that of the sand at the Indiana Dunes.
 The big Cruiser was used only as living quarters for several of the members of the expedition, who continued their pioneering in the ice and snow of the Antarctic until 1942 when, because of World War II, concern led the explorers to return back home.
 Unfortunately the Snow Cruiser proved much slower in the field then her specified cruising speed of 10-13 miles per hour. Though she may have been adept at fording crevasses, she was unable to climb the 35 percent grade she was designed for, a serious problem given her 30-ton weight caused her to sink in the snow more times than anyone cared to remember.
In the late 1940s, an expedition team found the vehicle and discovered it needed only air in the tires and some servicing to make it operational.

In 1958, an international expedition uncovered the snow cruiser using a bulldozer. It was covered by several feet of snow but a long bamboo pole marked its position. They were able to dig down to the location of the bottom of the wheels and accurately measure the amount of snowfall since it was abandoned. Inside, the vehicle was exactly as the crew had left it, with papers, magazines, and cigarettes scattered all around. Later expeditions reported no trace of the vehicle. Although there was some unsubstantiated speculation that the (traction-less) Snow Cruiser was taken by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the vehicle most likely is either at the bottom of the Southern Ocean or buried deep under snow and ice. Antarctic ice is in constant motion and the ice shelf is constantly moving out to sea. In the mid-1960s, a large chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf broke off and drifted away; the break occurred right through Little America. It is not known on which side of the ice shelf the Snow Cruiser was located. Byrd’s Snow Cruiser proved so problematic that it only managed to cover 96 miles in 12 months of activity, most of it in transit to Boston, and much of that in reverse! As a result, when the expedition ended the vehicle was abandoned.

Nevertheless, the Institute has a warm place in its heart for Byrd’s impractical Snow Cruiser even though sled dogs would have performed better.

Sources: Wikipedia and www.historyandmemorabilia.org

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