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By Airship to the North Pole: An Archaeology of Human Exploration Hardcover – April 1, 1999

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 236 pages
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press; First Edition edition (April 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813526337
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813526331
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,529,619 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

A well-written tale of two unlucky polar explorers. While undertaking archaeological research in the Spitsbergen archipelago, 600 miles below the North Pole, Capelotti (Social Sciences/ Penn. State Univ., Abington) worked with artifacts left behind by the Swedish explorer Salomon August Andre and the American journalist Walter Wellman. Capelottis book falls into two roughly equal parts; the first treats the failed attempts by first Andre and then Wellman to reach the North Pole by airship, and the second examines the material remains of their expeditions. The first part is the more interesting for general readers, especially because the principals seemed strangely unaware that they were doomed to failure from the outset. Andre, whom history has remembered unkindly as either a lunatic or an idiot, attempted his polar feat in an airship that, though it needed to stay aloft for a month, would not hold its hydrogen gas for more than a few days. The craft disappeared, taking Andre and two crewmen with it. Their remains have never been recovered, although film from their aerial photographs was later found and processed. Wellman, a Chicago-based journalist and incessant self-promoter, participated in the search for Andres lost ship, and he took up the challenge in three failed airborne expeditions; a rival Chicago paper proclaimed the last a voyage which for foolhardiness exceeds anything in the history of human recklessness. All this is but a footnote in the history of exploration, but Capelloti tells it well. The second portion of his narrative, which will likely interest only archaeology buffs, looks in close detail (One cross beam steel tube 1 inch in diameter remains attached to two side frame members, spacing them apart by a width of 30 inches along the inner edge of the frame and 34.25 inches along the outer edge) at the detritus Andre and Wellman left behind. All in all, a nice job of historical reconstruction. (31 b&w illustrations) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.


A brilliant and absorbing reconstruction of two polar expeditions. Dr. Capelotti's fascinating book lifts the veil covering the obsessions of explorers. -- Alan Gurney, author of Below the Convergence

It's the weirdness of these early airships and some of the people promoting them, especially in unforgiving world of the Arctic, that makes Dr. Capelotti's book a 'must' for anyone interested in aviation history or in polar exploration. The Author deftly combines archaeological and historical sources in a fresh and convincing way to tell his story. -- Richard A. Gould, Brown University

More About the Author

Historical archaeologist P.J. Capelotti, Professor of Anthropology at Penn State University, Abington College, is author or editor of more than a dozen non-fiction histories, including By Airship to the North Pole: an archaeology of human exploration (1999), Sea Drift: Rafting Adventures in the Wake of Kon-Tiki (2001), Life and Death on the Greenland Patrol (2005), The Whaling Expedition of the Ulysses (2010), and Shipwreck at Cape Flora: The expeditions of Benjamin Leigh Smith, England's forgotten explorer, (2013). His theory of archaeological research in space: The Human Archaeology of Space, was published in 2010 by McFarland. A volume of essays and poetry, Gods Meadow: a summer of poems on the edge of Oslo fjord, was published in 2005, and his first novel, Nautilus: a modern sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, has been described by Clive Cussler as "an amazing tale filled with enigmas filled with riddles and dark mysteries. Truly a fascinating read." Nautilus will appear under the pen name Pete Shaw.

Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 24, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I carried this book with me on a long trip. Repeatedly -- on planes and in airport waiting rooms -- strangers who caught sight of the cover interrupted my reading to ask questions about the book. The brilliant blue photo on the cover, and the title, would seem to explain their eager curiousity. Note the lower left hand corner, where there appears to be a fillet of a 100 year old dirigible, lying on the beach from which airships to the north pole were launched long ago. Actually it is the ruins of a huge airship hangar, though the author discovered in the rubble the remains of two airship gondolas.
The book is superb and special: good science, good writing, and a fascinating story about technology, courage, folly and grand showmanship.
An eerie thing about this beach from which the airships were launched. In prior centuries, it was a used as a slaughterhouse by whalers. The author discovered the spine of one ancient whale nearby. In here somewhere there is a strange, unscientific, unstated metaphor about the souls of whales arising into the air. As blimps.
An absolutely first rate adventure. The best book I have come across this year.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Harvey M. Solomon ( on October 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
In 1992 I visited Dane Island, in part, because of my interest in the pioneering efforts of Andre and Nobile. I walked the beach pictured on the dust cover of this book and photograped many of the artifacts so well described in it. The weather was typical of late August in the high Arctic. Rain, fog, snow squalls and a stark background of black peaks embedded in snow amidst an almost overpowering sensation of gloom and glacial cold. The earlier artifacts related to the Dutch whaling station of Schmeerenburg (Blubbertown) and the graves of long dead whalers buried in the permafrost and covered with mounds of stones to protect their remains from polar bears are readily identidied. For those interested in a unique aspect of Arctic history/exploration this is an extremely interesting and well written book. Until relatively recently, many polar explorers have been pictured in heroic format. Although some may disagree, this is most likely not the case with regard to Byrd or Scott. This book paints an authentic picture of Wellman, warts and all. In addition it allows the informed reader to appreciate the accomplishments of Umberto Nobile who deserves far more credit than he usually gets for the successful transpolar flight of the Norge and who subsequently utilized the Italia for meaningful scientific studies and geographical investigation of the Arctic.
With regard to the beautiful weather depicted on the dust cover of this book I would guess it was the only day like this the author experienced on Dane Island. I am envious of his opoportunity to have been there under such unusual conditions and thank him for sharing the beauty of this site with his readers.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A. Simon on January 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I have always been interested in polar exploration. I enjoyed "Andree's Story" and looked forward to this book. But I found the author's pretentious and unscientific style (every third word is I, and he goes on ad nauseam about his archaeologocial expertise and the fact that he visited Danes Island) quite distracting.
Still, if you are interested in the topic and if you want to learn more about Walter Wellman's expeditions, this book may be for you.
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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
For years I have been a fan of books on the history of polar exploration and mountaineering. I was really looking forward to digging into the stories behind these attempts to use airships to attain the north pole, and what interesting facts we might learn from the sites themselves....However I was very disappointed in the final result. The historical summary was adequate, however the later portion of the book was pretentious, drawn out, and extremwly dry reading. One would expect that archeology would be employed to answer some "big questions" or resolve some major controversy. Wrong! Instead we learn about the quality of the iron filings used to generate the gas for the balloons, that the car body had more wood in it than expected, and that there was not much on the site to suggest that advertizing was the real reason behind the later expeditions. Yawn! Unless you have some personal stake in the topic (like you visited the site explored by the author) I'd pass this one by...
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