May 20, 2013
When the great minds of science gathered at the U.S. National Museum (now known as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History) on April 26, 1920, the universe was at stake. Or at least the size of it, anyway. In scientific circles, it was known as the Great Debate, and although they didn’t know it at the time, the astronomy giants Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis—the two men who came to Washington, D.C., to present their theories—were about to have their life’s work eclipsed by Edwin Hubble, a young man who would soon become known as the greatest astronomer since Galileo Galilei.
Harlow Shapley arrived from the Mount Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena, home of the world’s most powerful observational device—the 100-inch Hooker Telescope. A Californian who had studied at Princeton, Shapley came to the Great Debate to advance his belief that all observable spiral nebulae (now recognized as galaxies) were simply distant gas clouds—and contained within one great galaxy, the Milky Way.
On the other hand, Curtis, a researcher at the Lick Observatory near San Jose and then director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, believed that the spiral nebulae existed far outside the Milky Way. In fact, he referred to them as “island universes,” and he estimated that they were much like the Milky Way in size and shape.
After presenting their respective ideas to each other in advance, the two astronomers entered the auditorium that evening and engaged in a lively, formal debate over “The Scale of the Universe.” In essence, they disagreed on “at least 14 astronomical issues,” with Curtis arguing that the sun was at the center of what he believed was a relatively small Milky Way galaxy in a sea of galaxies. Shapley maintained his position that the universe comprised one galaxy, the Milky Way, but that it was much larger than Curtis or anyone else had supposed, and that the sun was not near its center.
Each man believed his argument had carried the day. While there was no doubt that Curtis was the more experienced and dynamic lecturer, the Harvard College Observatory would soon hire Shapley as its new director, replacing the recently deceased Edward Charles Pickering. Both men, it would turn out, had gotten their theories correct—partially.
Back in California, a 30-year-old research astronomer, Edwin Hubble, had recently taken a staff position at the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he worked beside Shapley. Hubble was born in Missouri in 1889, the son of an insurance agent, but at the end of the century his family moved to Chicago, where he studied at the University of Chicago. A star in several sports, Hubble won a Rhodes scholarship and studied at Oxford. Though he promised his father he’d become a lawyer, he returned to Indiana to teach high school Spanish and physics (and coach basketball). But he remained fascinated by astronomy, and when his father died, in 1913, the young scholar decided to pursue a doctorate in the study of stars at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory.
He completed his dissertation (“Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae) and received his PhD in 1917, shortly before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War I. It would be said that while he was in France, he taught soldiers to march at night, navigating by the stars. When he returned to the United States, Hubble was hired by George Ellery Hale, the director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he set about observing and photographing stars that were thought to be located in the Andromeda nebula within the Milky Way.
In October 1923, Hubble was examining photographs he had taken of the Andromeda nebula with the Hooker Telescope when he realized that he might have identified a Cepheid variable—an extremely luminous star. Hubble thought he might be able, over time, to calculate its brightness. And in doing so, he might accurately measure its distance.
For months, Hubble focused on the star he labeled “VAR!” on the now-famous photograph. He could determine by the star’s varying, intrinsic brightness that it was 7,000 times brighter than the sun, and according to his calculations, it would have to be 900,000 light-years away. Such a distance obliterated even Shapley’s theory on the size of the universe, which he estimated at 300,000 light-years in diameter. (Curtis believed it was ten times smaller than that.)
The implications of a star nearly a million light-years away were obvious, yet Shapley quickly dismissed his former colleague’s work as “junk science.” But Hubble continued to photograph hundreds of nebulae, demonstrating a method of classifying them by shape, light and distance, which he later presented to the International Astronomical Union.
In essence, he was credited with being the first astronomer to show that the nebulae he had observed were neither gas clouds nor distant stars in the Milky Way. He demonstrated that they were galaxies, and that there were countless numbers of them beyond the Milky Way.
Hubble wrote Shapley a letter and presented his findings in detail. After reading it, Shapley turned to a graduate student and delivered the remark for which he would become famous: “Here is the letter that has destroyed my universe.”
Edwin Hubble would continue measuring the distance and velocity of objects in deep space, and in 1929, he published his findings, which led to “Hubble’s Law” and the widely accepted realization that the universe is expanding. Albert Einstein, in his theory of general relativity, produced equations that showed that the universe was either expanding or contracting, yet he second-guessed those conclusions and amended them to match the widely accepted scientific thinking of the time—that of a stationary universe. (He later called the decision to amend the equation “the biggest blunder” of his life.) Einstein ultimately paid a visit to Hubble and thanked him for the support his findings at Mount Wilson gave to his relativity theory.
Edwin Hubble continued to work at the Mount Wilson Observatory right up until he died of a blood clot in his brain in 1953. He was 63. Forty years later, NASA paid tribute to the astronomer by naming the Hubble Space Telescope in his honor, which has produced countless images of distant galaxies in an expanding universe, just as he had discovered.
Articles: “Star that Changed the Universe Shines in Hubble Photo,” by Clara Moskowitz, Space.com, May 23, 2011, http://www.space.com/11761-historic-star-variable-hubble-telescope-photo-aas218.html. “The 1920 Shapley-Curtis Discussion: Background, Issues, and Aftermath,” by Virginia Trimble, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, v. 107, December, 1995. http://adsbit.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-iarticle_query?1995PASP%2E%2E107%2E1133T “The ‘Great Debate’: What Really Happened,” by Michael A. Hoskin, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 7, 169-182, 1976, http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/cs_real.html “The Great Debate: Obituary of Harlow Shapley,” by Z. Kopal, Nature, Vol. 240, 1972, http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/shapley_obit.html. “Why the ‘Great Debate’ Was Important,” http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/cs_why.html. “1929: Edwin Hubble Discovers the Universe is Expanding,” Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, http://cosmology.carnegiescience.edu/timeline/1929. “The Great Debate Over the Size of the Universe,” Ideas of Cosmology, http://www.aip.org/history/cosmology/ideas/great-debate.htm.
Books: Marianne J. Dyson, Space and Astronomy: Decade by Decade, Facts on File, 2007. Chris Impey, How it Began: A Time-Traveler’s Guide to the Universe, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
April 30, 2013
In 1937, Walter Reuther and his United Autoworkers Union had brought General Motors and Chrysler to their knees by staging massive sit-down strikes in pursuit of higher pay, shorter hours and other improvements in workers’ lives. But when Reuther and the UAW set their sights on the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, Henry Ford made it clear that he’d never give in to the union.
On the morning of May 26, 1937, Detroit News photographer James “Scotty” Kilpatrick was among a crowd waiting for the shift change at River Rouge, which employed 90,000 workers. About 2 p.m. that May 26, Reuther arrived at the Miller Road Overpass at Gate 4 with an entourage of clergymen, representatives from the Senate Committee on Civil Liberties and dozens of women from UAW Local 174, where Reuther was president. The woman wore green berets and carried leaflets reading, “Unionism, not Fordism,” which they intended to hand out to departing workers. At the direction of “Scotty” Kilpatrick, Reuther posed for photographs with UAW organizational director Richard Frankensteen and a few other organizers atop the overpass—public property—with the Ford Motor Company sign in the background.
Then Harry Bennett showed up with his entourage. Bennett, one of Henry Ford’s right-hand men, led the notorious Ford Service Department, a private police force composed of ex-convicts, ex-athletes, ex-cops and gang members.
“You will have to get off here,” one of Bennett’s men told the unionists.
“We’re not doing anything,” Reuther replied.
Like that, what would become infamous as the Battle of the Overpass was on. Forty of Bennett’s men charged the union organizers. Kilpatrick called out a warning, but the security men pounced, beating the union leaders while reporters and clergy looked on. Kilpatrick and the other photographers began snapping away. Reporters accompanying them took notes on what they were seeing.
Reuther was kicked, stomped, lifted into the air, thrown to the ground repeatedly, and tossed down two flights of stairs. Frankensteen, a 30-year-old, hulking former football player, go it worse because he tried to fight back. Bennett’s men swarmed him, pulled his jacket over his head and beat him senseless.
“It was the worst licking I’ve ever taken,” he later told reporters. “They bounced us down the concrete steps of an overpass we had climbed. Then they would knock us down, stand us up, and knock us down again.” Another union leader was tossed off the overpass; his fall 30 feet to the pavement below broke his back. The security men even roughed up some of the women.
The battle, such as it was, ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. But then there was the matter of witnesses—especially the journalists on the scene. Some of Bennett’s security men began to tear notebooks from reporters’ hands. Others went after the photographers, confiscating film and smashing cameras to the ground. They chased one fleeing photographer for five miles, until he ducked into a police station for safety.
Scotty Kilpatrick fled, too—and made it to his car in just enough time to hide the glass-plate negatives from his Speed Graphic under the back seat. When some Bennett men stopped him and demanded that he surrender his negatives, he handed them unexposed plates.
Once Reuther, Frankensteen and witnesses began to tell reporters what they had seen in front of the Ford plant, Harry Bennett issued a statement. “The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials,” it said. “They feel, with or without justification, the [Senator] La Follette Civil Liberties Committee sympathizes with their aims and they simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality that they could take down to Washington and flaunt before the senatorial committee.
“I know definitely no Ford service men or plant police were involved in any way in the fight,” Bennett continued. “As a matter of fact, the service men had issued instructions the union people could come and distribute their pamphlets at the gates so long as they didn’t interfere with employees at work.” The unionists, he said, “were beaten by regular Ford employees who were on their way to work on the afternoon shift. The union men called them scabs and cursed and taunted them.”
Dearborn Police later said the Ford Service Department was “defending public property.”
Meanwhile, Scotty Kilpatrick developed his negatives, and other photographers, after the event, captured on film the injuries to the bloodied Reuther and Frankensteen. “If Mr. Ford thinks this will stop us, he’s got another thing coming,” Frankensteen said. “We’ll go back there with enough men to lick him at his own game.”
Reuther was more composed: “Before the UAW gets through with Harry Bennett and Ford’s Service Department, Dearborn will be a part of the United States and the workers will be able to enjoy their constitutional rights.”
Bennett did his best to put his version into news accounts of the Battle of the Overpass, but once Kilpatrick’s photographs were published, it was obvious that the beatings were far more violent than Bennett had described. And they showed Ford security men surrounding and beating UAW men and grabbing UAW women. In all, 16 unionists were injured in the attack, including seven women. Reuther was pictured bloodied and with a swollen skull, and Frankensteen was even worse—his face cut and his shirt torn and bloodstained. Kilpatrick’s photographs quickly turned public opinion toward the notion that the Ford Service Department was a gang of hired thugs.
In a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board in 1937, the Ford Motor Company was called to defend itself from charges that the company was engaging in unfair labor practices in violation of the 1935 Wagner Act, which prohibited employers from interfering with workers’ efforts to organize into unions. During the hearing, Ford workers testified that if their superiors suspected them of showing interest in the UAW, Ford Service Department men would pull them from the assembly lines and escort them to the gate as they were fired on the spot, often without explanation.
The publicity from the Battle of the Overpass and the ensuing labor-board hearing proved to be too much for Henry Ford. He had tried to raise his workers’ pay soon after the incident in Dearborn, but his efforts came too late, and ultimately, like Detroit’s other automotive giants, he had no choice but to sign a contract with the UAW.
The power of Scotty Kilpatrick’s photographs eventually vaulted Walter Reuther into national prominence as a labor leader and prompted the administrators of the Pulitzer Prizes to institute an award for photography. The first Pulitzer for photography would be awarded to Milton Brooks of the Detroit News in 1942—for his image of UAW strikers savagely beating a strikebreaker.
“Union Acts to Prosecute Ford in Beating of Two Organizers,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1937. “C.I.O. Leaders Slugged, Driven Off in Attempt to Spread Handbills,” Washington Post, May 27, 1937. “Ford Men Beat and Rout Lewis Union Organizers,” New York Times, May 27, 1937. “The Battle of the Overpass, at 75,” by Bryce Hoffman, The Detroit News, May 24, 2012. “Ford Motor Company Chronology,” The Henry Ford, http://www.hfmgv.org/exhibits/fmc/battle.asp
Books: Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Basic Books, 1995.
November 19, 2012
Who first thought of building a pyramid, or of using gunpowder as a weapon? Who invented the wheel? Who, for that matter, came up with the idea of taking a movie camera into battle and turning a profit from the horrible realities of war? History offers no firm guidance on the first three questions, and is not entirely certain even on the fourth, although the earliest war films cannot have been shot much earlier than 1900. What we can say, fairly definitely, is that most of this pioneer footage tells us little about war as it was actually waged back then, and quite a lot about the enduring ingenuity of filmmakers. That is because almost all of it was either staged or faked, setting a template that was followed for years afterwards with varying degrees of success.
I tried to show in last week’s essay how newsreel cameramen took on the challenge of filming the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20—a challenge they met, at one point, by signing the celebrated rebel leader Pancho Villa to an exclusive contract. What I did not explain, for lack of space, was that the Mutual Film teams embedded with Villa were not the first cinematographers to tussle with the problems of capturing live action with bulky cameras in dangerous situations. Nor were they the first to conclude that it was easier and safer to fake their footage—and that fraud in any case produced far more saleable results. Indeed, the early history of newsreel cinema is replete with examples of cameramen responding in precisely the same way to the same set of challenges. Pretty much the earliest “war” footage ever shot, in fact, was created in circumstances that broadly mirror those prevailing in Mexico.
November 9, 2012
When he was born he had such a sleepy disposition his parents named him Goyahkla—He Who Yawns. He lived the life of an Apache tribesman in relative quiet for three decades, until he led a trading expedition from the Mogollon Mountains south into Mexico in 1858. He left the Apache camp to do some business in Casa Grandes and returned to find that Mexican soldiers had slaughtered the women and children who had been left behind, including his wife, mother and three small children. “I stood until all had passed, hardly knowing what I would do,” he would recall. “I had no weapon, nor did I hardly wish to fight, neither did I contemplate recovering the bodies of my loved ones, for that was forbidden. I did not pray, nor did I resolve to do anything in particular, for I had no purpose left.”
He returned home and burned his tepee and his family’s possessions. Then he led an assault on a group of Mexicans in Sonora. It would be said that after one of his victims screamed for mercy in the name of Saint Jerome—Jeronimo in Spanish—the Apaches had a new name for Goyahkla. Soon the name provoked fear throughout the West. As immigrants encroached on Native American lands, forcing indigenous people onto reservations, the warrior Geronimo refused to yield.
Born and raised in an area along the Gila River that is now on the Arizona-New Mexico border, Geronimo would spend the next quarter-century attacking and evading both Mexican and U.S. troops, vowing to kill as many white men as he could. He targeted immigrants and their trains, and tormented white settlers in the American West were known to frighten their misbehaving children with the threat that Geronimo would come for them.
By 1874, after white immigrants demanded federal military intervention, the Apaches were forced onto a reservation in Arizona. Geronimo and a band of followers escaped, and U.S. troops tracked him relentlessly across the deserts and mountains of the West. Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3,000 miles—and which included help from Apache scouts—he finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife. He was “anxious to make the best terms possible,” Miles noted. Geronimo and his “renegades” agreed to a two-year exile and subsequent return to the reservation.
In New York, President Grover Cleveland fretted over the terms. In a telegram to his secretary of war, Cleveland wrote, “I hope nothing will be done with Geronimo which will prevent our treating him as a prisoner of war, if we cannot hang him, which I would much prefer.”
Geronimo avoided execution, but dispute over the terms of surrender ensured that he would spend the rest of his life as a prisoner of the Army, subject to betrayal and indignity. The Apache leader and his men were sent by boxcar, under heavy guard, to Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida, where they performed hard labor. In that alien climate, the Washington Post reported, the Apache died “like flies at frost time.” Businessmen there soon had the idea to have Geronimo serve as a tourist attraction, and hundreds of visitors daily were let into the fort to lay eyes on the “bloodthirsty” Indian in his cell.
While the POWs were in Florida, the government relocated hundreds of their children from their Arizona reservation to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. More than a third of the students quickly perished from tuberculosis, “died as though smitten with the plague,” the Post reported. Apaches lived in constant terror that more of their children would be taken from them and sent east.
Geronimo and his fellow POWs were reunited with their families in 1888, when the Chiricahua Apaches were moved to Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama. But there, too, the Apaches began to perish—a quarter of them from tuberculosis— until Geronimo and more than 300 others were brought to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1894. Though still captive, they were allowed to live in villages around the post. In 1904, Geronimo was given permission to appear at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which included an “Apache Village” exhibit on the midway.
He was presented as a living museum piece in an exhibit intended as a “monument to the progress of civilization.” Under guard, he made bows and arrows while Pueblo women seated beside him pounded corn and made pottery, and he was a popular draw. He sold autographs and posed for pictures with those willing to part with a few dollars for the privilege.
Geronimo seemed to enjoy the fair. Many of the exhibits fascinated him, such as a magic show during which a woman sat in a basket covered in cloth and a man proceeded to plunge the swords through the basket. “I would like to know how she was so quickly healed and why the wounds did not kill her,” Geronimo told one writer. He also saw a “white bear” that seemed to be “as intelligent as a man” and could do whatever his keeper instructed. “I am sure that no grizzly bear could be trained to do these things,” he observed. He took his first ride on a Ferris wheel, where the people below “looked no larger than ants.”
In his dictated memoirs, Geronimo said that he was glad he had gone to the fair, and that white people were “a kind and peaceful people.” He added, “During all the time I was at the fair no one tried to harm me in any way. Had this been among the Mexicans I am sure I should have been compelled to defend myself often.”
After the fair, Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show brokered an agreement with the government to have Geronimo join the show, again under Army guard. The Indians in Pawnee Bill’s show were depicted as “lying, thieving, treacherous, murderous” monsters who had killed hundreds of men, women and children and would think nothing of taking a scalp from any member of the audience, given the chance. Visitors came to see how the “savage” had been “tamed,” and they paid Geronimo to take a button from the coat of the vicious Apache “chief.” Never mind that he had never been a chief and, in fact, bristled when he was referred to as one.
The shows put a good deal of money in his pockets and allowed him to travel, though never without government guards. If Pawnee Bill wanted him to shoot a buffalo from a moving car, or bill him as “the Worst Indian That Ever Lived,” Geronimo was willing to play along. “The Indian,” one magazine noted at the time, “will always be a fascinating object.”
In March 1905, Geronimo was invited to President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade; he and five real Indian chiefs, who wore full headgear and painted faces, rode horses down Pennsylvania Avenue. The intent, one newspaper stated, was to show Americans “that they have buried the hatchet forever.”
After the parade, Geronimo met with Roosevelt in what the New York Tribune reported was a “pathetic appeal” to allow him to return to Arizona. “Take the ropes from our hands,” Geronimo begged, with tears “running down his bullet-scarred cheeks.” Through an interpreter, Roosevelt told Geronimo that the Indian had a “bad heart.” “You killed many of my people; you burned villages…and were not good Indians.” The president would have to wait a while “and see how you and your people act” on their reservation.
Geronimo gesticulated “wildly” and the meeting was cut short. “The Great Father is very busy,” a staff member told him, ushering Roosevelt away and urging Geronimo to put his concerns in writing. Roosevelt was told that the Apache warrior would be safer on the reservation in Oklahoma than in Arizona: “If he went back there he’d be very likely to find a rope awaiting him, for a great many people in the Territory are spoiling for a chance to kill him.”
Geronimo returned to Fort Sill, where newspapers continued to depict him as a “bloodthirsty Apache chief,” living with the “fierce restlessness of a caged beast.” It had cost Uncle Sam more than a million dollars and hundreds of lives to keep him behind lock and key, the Boston Globe reported. But the Hartford Courant had Geronimo “getting square with the palefaces,” as he was so crafty at poker that he kept the soldiers “broke nearly all the time.” His winnings, the paper noted, were used to help pay the cost of educating Apache children.
Journalists who visited him depicted Geronimo as “crazy,” sometimes chasing sightseers on horseback while drinking to excess. His eighth wife, it was reported, had deserted him, and only a small daughter was watching after him.
In 1903, however, Geronimo converted to Christianity and joined the Dutch Reformed Church—Roosevelt’s church—hoping to please the president and obtain a pardon. “My body is sick and my friends have thrown me away,” Geronimo told church members. “I have been a very wicked man, and my heart is not happy. I see that white people have found a way that makes them good and their hearts happy. I want you to show me that way.” Asked to abandon all Indian “superstitions,” as well as gambling and whiskey, Geronimo agreed and was baptized, but the church would later expel him over his inability to stay away from the card tables.
He thanked Roosevelt (“chief of a great people”) profusely in his memoirs for giving him permission to tell his story, but Geronimo never was permitted to return to his homeland. In February 1909, he was thrown from his horse one night and lay on the cold ground before he was discovered after daybreak. He died of pneumonia on February 17.
The Chicago Daily Tribune ran the headline, “Geronimo Now a Good Indian,” alluding to a quote widely and mistakenly attributed to General Philip Sheridan. Roosevelt himself would sum up his feelings this way: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
After a Christian service and a large funeral procession made up of both whites and Native Americans, Geronimo was buried at Fort Sill. Only then did he cease to be a prisoner of the United States.
Articles: “Geronimo Getting Square With the Palefaces,” The Hartford Courant, June 6, 1900.” “Geronimo Has Cost Uncle Sam $1,000,000,” Boston Daily Globe, April 25, 1900. “Geronimo Has Gone Mad,” New York Times, July 25, 1900. “Geronimo in Prayer,” The Washington Post, November 29. 1903. “Geronimo Seems Crazy,” New York Tribune, May 19, 1907. “Geronimo at the World’s Fair,” Scientific American Supplement, August 27, 1904. “Prisoner 18 Years,” Boston Daily Globe, September 18, 1904. “Chiefs in the Parade,” Washington Post, February 3, 1905. “Indians at White House,” New York Tribune, March 10, 1905. “Savage Indian Chiefs,” The Washington Post, March 5, 1905. “Indians on the Inaugural March,” by Jesse Rhodes, Smithsonian, January 14, 2009. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/heritage/Indians-on-the-Inaugural-March.html “Geronimo Wants His Freedom,” Boston Daily Globe, January 28, 1906. “Geronimo Joins the Church, Hoping to Please Roosevelt,” The Atlanta Constitution, July 10, 1907. “A Bad Indian,” The Washington Post, August 24, 1907. “Geronimo Now Good Indian,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 18, 1909. “Chief Geronimo Buried,” New York Times, February 19, 1909. “Chief Geronimo Dead,” New York Tribune, February 19, 1909. “Native America Prisoners of War: Chircahua Apaches 1886-1914, The Museum of the American Indian, http://www.chiricahua-apache.com/ “’A Very Kind and Peaceful People’: Geronimo and the World’s Fair,” by Mark Sample, May 3, 2011, http://www.samplereality.com/2011/05/03/a-very-kind-and-peaceful-people-geronimo-and-the-worlds-fair/ “Geronimo: Finding Peace,” by Alan MacIver, Vision.org, http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=12778
Books: Geronimo, Geronimo’s Story of His Life, Taken Down and Edited by S. M. Barrett, Superintendent of Education, Lawton, Oklahoma, Duffield & Company, 1915.
May 16, 2012
For Lawrence Oates, the race to the South Pole had a portentous start. Just two days after the Terra Nova Expedition left New Zealand in November 1910, a violent storm killed two of the 19 ponies in Oates’s care and nearly sank the ship. His journey ended almost two years later, when he stepped out of a tent and into the teeth of an Antarctic blizzard after uttering ten words that would bring tears of pride to mourning Britons. During the long months in between, Oates’s concern for the ponies paralleled his growing disillusionment with the expedition’s leader, Robert Falcon Scott.
Oates had paid one thousand pounds for the privilege of joining Scott on an expedition that was supposed to combine exploration with scientific research. It quickly became a race to the South Pole after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, already at sea with a crew aboard the Fram, abruptly changed his announced plan to go to the North Pole. “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC—AMUNDSEN,” read the telegram he sent to Scott. It was clear that Amundsen would leave the collecting of rock specimens and penguin eggs to the Brits; he wanted simply to arrive first at the pole and return home to claim glory on the lecture circuit.
Born in 1880 to a wealthy English family, Lawrence Oates attended Eton before serving as a junior officer in the Second Boer War. A gunshot wound in a skirmish that earned Oates the nickname “Never Surrender” shattered his thigh, leaving his left leg an inch shorter than his right.
Still, Robert Scott wanted Oates along for the expedition, but once Oates made it to New Zealand, he was startled to see that a crew member (who knew dogs but not horses) had already purchased ponies in Manchuria for five pounds apiece. They were “the greatest lot of crocks I have ever seen,” Oates said. From past expeditions, Scott had deduced that white or gray ponies were stronger than darker horses, though there was no scientific evidence for that. When Oates told him that the Manchurian ponies were unfit for the expedition, Scott bristled and disagreed. Oates seethed and stormed away.
Inspecting the supplies, Oates quickly surmised that there was not enough fodder, so he bought two extra tons with his own money and smuggled the feed aboard the Terra Nova. When, to great fanfare, Scott and his crew set off from New Zealand for Antarctica on November 29, 1910, Oates was already questioning the expedition in letters home to his mother: “If he [Amundsen] gets to the Pole first we shall come home with our tails between our legs and make no mistake. I must say we have made far too much noise about ourselves all that photographing, cheering, steaming through the fleet etc. etc. is rot and if we fail it will only make us look more foolish.” Oates went on to praise Amundsen for planning to use dogs and skis rather than walking beside horses. “If Scott does anything silly such as underfeeding his ponies he will be beaten as sure as death.”
After a harrowingly slow journey through pack ice, the Terra Nova arrived at Ross Island in Antarctica on January 4, 1911. The men unloaded and set up base at Camp Evans, as some crew members set off in February on an excursion in the Bay of Whales, off the Ross Ice Shelf—where they caught sight of Amundsen’s Fram at anchor. The next morning they saw Amundsen himself, crossing the ice at a blistering pace on his dog sled as he readied his animals for an assault on the South Pole, some 900 miles away. Scott’s men had had nothing but trouble with their own dogs, and their ponies could only plod along on the depot-laying journeys they were making to store supplies for the pole run.