Year
1911

Amundsen reaches South Pole

Norwegian Roald Amundsen becomes the first explorer to reach the South Pole, beating his British rival, Robert Falcon Scott.

Amundsen, born in Borge, near Oslo, in 1872, was one of the great figures in polar exploration. In 1897, he was first mate on a Belgian expedition that was the first ever to winter in the Antarctic. In 1903, he guided the 47-ton sloop Gjöa through the Northwest Passage and around the Canadian coast, the first navigator to accomplish the treacherous journey. Amundsen planned to be the first man to the North Pole, and he was about to embark in 1909 when he learned that the American Robert Peary had achieved the feat.

Amundsen completed his preparations and in June 1910 sailed instead for Antarctica, where the English explorer Robert F. Scott was also headed with the aim of reaching the South Pole. In early 1911, Amundsen sailed his ship into Antarctica’s Bay of Whales and set up base camp 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott. In October, both explorers set off–Amundsen using sleigh dogs, and Scott employing Siberian motor sledges, Siberian ponies, and dogs. On December 14, 1911, Amundsen’s expedition won the race to the Pole and returned safely to base camp in late January.

Scott’s expedition was less fortunate. The motor sleds broke down, the ponies had to be shot, and the dog teams were sent back as Scott and four companions continued on foot. On January 18, 1912, they reached the pole only to find that Amundsen had preceded them by over a month. Weather on the return journey was exceptionally bad–two members perished–and a storm later trapped Scott and the other two survivors in their tent only 11 miles from their base camp. Scott’s frozen body was found later that year.

After his historic Antarctic journey, Amundsen established a successful shipping business. He later made attempts to become the first explorer to fly over the North Pole. In 1925, in an airplane, he flew within 150 miles of the goal. In 1926, he passed over the North Pole in a dirigible just three days after American explorer Richard E. Byrd had apparently done so in an aircraft. In 1996, a diary that Byrd had kept on the flight was found that seemed to suggest that the he had turned back 150 miles short of its goal because of an oil leak, making Amundsen’s dirigible expedition the first flight over the North Pole.

In 1928, Amundsen lost his life while trying to rescue a fellow explorer whose dirigible had crashed at sea near Spitsbergen, Norway.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

The birth of quantum theory

German physicist Max Planck publishes his groundbreaking study of the effect of radiation on a “blackbody” substance, and the quantum theory of modern physics is born.Through physical experiments, Planck demonstrated that energy, in certain situations, can exhibit characteristics ...read more

George Washington dies

George Washington, the American revolutionary leader and first president of the United States, dies of acute laryngitis at his estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia. He was 67 years old.George Washington was born in 1732 to a farm family in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His first ...read more

Indy “Brickyard” is completed

On this day in 1909, workers place the last of the 3.2 million 10-pound bricks that pave the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana (a town surrounded by the city of Indianapolis). Since then, most of that brick has been buried under asphalt, but one yard remains ...read more

Operation Barrel Roll begins

In Laos, Operation Barrel Roll, the name given to the first phase of the bombing plan approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson on December 1, begins with U.S. planes attacking “targets of opportunity” in northern Laos.This operation was initiated in response to a Pathet Lao ...read more

Stan Smith is born

On this day in 1946, the American tennis champion Stan Smith is born in Pasadena, California. A three-time All-American at the University of Southern California (USC), Smith captured the NCAA singles title in 1968 and the doubles title in 1967 and 1968. With his USC doubles ...read more

George Washington dies at Mount Vernon

A major landholder and promoter of western settlement, George Washington dies on this day in 1799 at his Mount Vernon home along the banks of the Potomac.From an early age, the future first president of the United States had a passionate interest in the vast unsettled territories ...read more

Aphra Behn is baptized

On this day in 1640, Aphra Behn is baptized at Harbledown, near Canterbury, England. A successful playwright and novelist, Behn has been called the first Englishwoman to make her living as a writer.Behn’s origins are unclear, but historians believe she was probably the daughter ...read more

King Kong remake debuts

On this day in 2005, King Kong, a remake of the classic 1933 film of the same name about a fictional giant ape who climbs New York City’s Empire State Building, opens in theaters.The original King Kong, starring Fay Wray as the great ape’s love interest, as well as Robert ...read more

Blizzard ravages Navajo reservation

On this day in 1967, record snow continues to fall in New Mexico in a blizzard that eventually kills 51 people. In December of that year, snow fell almost constantly in the northern part of the state for two weeks, piling up to five feet in some areas.Particularly hard hit by the ...read more

An unsatisfactory end to a kidnapping

A botched burglary attempt further clouds one of the earliest kidnap-for-ransom cases. As he was about to go to bed, wealthy New Yorker Holmes Van Brunt heard burglars breaking into his brother’s house next door. After rounding up three other men to help him surprise the ...read more

Lincoln pardons his sister-in-law

On this day in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln announces a grant of amnesty forEmilie Todd Helm, his wife Mary Lincoln’s half sister and the widow of a Confederate general. The pardon was one of the first under Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which he had ...read more

USSR expelled from the League of Nations

On this day, the League of Nations, the international peacekeeping organization formed at the end of World War I, expels the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in response to the Soviets’ invasion of Finland on October 30.Although the League of Nations was more or less the ...read more