Monday, December 6, 2004


"You never feel safe when you have to navigate in waters which are completely blank." Lieutenant Maxwell Member, Bering's Second Polar Expedition

"Rae obtained from the Eskimo spoons and other articles that were found to have belonged to Franklin's expedition." This cryptic note in Encyclopedia Americana regarding the fate of the infamous Franklin Arctic expedition demands explanation. Several years after the Rae search, McClintock, leading the last search party, found that they had carried more than spoons. They had a great deal of silverware-place settings. If I were in the Arctic trying to survive by walking out from a shipwreck, what would I want with spoons? What would possess men - hungry, ship crushed by ice, senses numbed by the cold, 1,000 miles from nearest help, and sick - to drag ornate silverware over the jagged ice on their futile attempt to walk out? The answer, although taken from the history of the 1800's, is relevant to you, and to us collectively, today.

Sir John Franklin, born in England in 1786, was a naval officer, an explorer, and a hero, of sorts. He entered the Navy at 14 as a midshipman and fought in the battles of Trafalgar and New Orleans. He was promoted to Captain after three explorations. A member of a class of British naval officers - rich, war-tested, sporting, restless, seeking excitement - he was thoroughly imbedded in the British cultural tradition of duty, honor, and dogged persistence.

Sir John became a public figure after his Arctic expeditions, publishing a book each time describing his adventures. He was knighted in 1829 and became Lieutenant Governor of the penal colony in Van Dieman's Land, now known as Tasmania. After seven year; he returned to England to find that the British Navy was preparing what was hoped to be the last exploration of the Arctic for a Northwest Passage.

The search for the Northwest Passage began in the 1500's. Searches were made numerous times for a sea route north of continental Canada and Alaska which was to link the Atlantic and the Pacific. By the 19th century, the search had largely become a project of the Royal Navy. Various expeditions had charted all but a few hundred miles of what was believed would prove to be the passage. The search had become academic. There was no commercial value. Britain had the resources and wanted to be credited with the discovery to provide glory to the nation and display the power and expertise of the Navy. One final massive effort was planned to provide the last pieces of the puzzle.

Sir Franklin had become a hero, not because of his brilliance but because of his courage and endurance of incredible hardships. In his previous exploits he had been wounded in battle, shipwrecked on Australia's Barrier Reef, and, on his Arctic expedition, abandoned on the frozen waters without supplies. All but three died on that journey. He was only a few days from death when rescued.

In those days it was common practice for an exploration of the Arctic to last for three years. Two winters were spent locked in by the ice. Sailing could only be done during the few weeks that the water was navigable. During the winter, land explorations were made.

The last Franklin expedition began in May 1845. Two 300-ton plus bark-rigged sailing ships, with the formidable names of Erebus and Terror, were outfitted for the journey. With the sporting interests of the British Navy, staffing the ships with 129 volunteer officers and men was easy. The ships were even outfitted with an innovation to help with the ice. Coal fueled locomotive steam engines delivering 20 hp were provided. The ships also had an unheard of luxury - heated cabins. They sailed and were last seen on July 26 by a Scottish whaler. All men and equipment were lost - the greatest single disaster in the annals of Arctic exploration.

What happened? John Rae, Hudson's Bay Company, discovered some clues 12 years later. While very little is known of the actual events, McClintock later found some of the bodies and notes. The ships were never located. They survived the first winter but the end of the second winter found them permanently beset by ice. Many died on the ship. The survivors left the ship after the third winter and tried to reach safety overland, a trip of over 1,000 miles. None made it.

The key to the disaster lies in the preparation for the expedition. Although the ships had two auxiliary steam engines, they only had a 12-day supply of coal. Instead, each ship had a 1,200 volume library, a hand organ playing 50 tunes, china place settings for officers and men, cut glass wine goblets, and sterling silver flatware.

The flatware deserves more attention because it was found with the bodies of the men who tried to walk out over 1,000 miles of wilderness. The silverware was of an ornate Victorian design, with richly patterned heavy handles, each bearing the officer's initials and family crest.

They had no special clothing, only the standard uniforms of the Navy. A skeleton of one of the officers later found was described wearing a uniform, trousers and jacket, of fine blue cloth edged with silk braid. The sleeves of the jacket were slashed and decorated with five covered buttons each. Over the uniforms he wore a blue great coat and a black silk neckerchief.

This is a tragic example of a paradigm. A paradigm is a pattern of rules, values, experiences, and beliefs that govern behavior. Franklin was deeply embedded in the "good old boy" British Navy paradigm that made exploration a sporting event, but one in which he didn't want to miss the amenities of his life. It cost all their lives.

Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first introduced the concept of paradigms in relation to creative breakthroughs in science. Since then, the concept has been usefully applied to engineering, the arts, and normal problem solving. Breaking with the old paradigm and establishing a new one is a creative act. It allows new problems to be solved. Solving problems within the old paradigm is puzzle solving-using the rules in established ways. When problems cannot be solved using the rules of the old paradigm, they are set aside. When enough have collected or a destructive anomaly has surfaced, someone's attention is attracted. A new paradigm is developed which solves the open problems and provides future problem solving capability.

The study of the currently accepted paradigm is what prepares someone for acceptance into the community being joined. Since members of the community learn the same values, they will seldom disagree on fundamentals. This acculturation process applies to many areas of life. But what happens when the world around you changes? If you cannot change your paradigm, you may not survive.

We are in a period of rapid social and technological change. Are we, like Franklin, driven by improper forces? Have repeated excursions into danger inured us, as they did Franklin, from those dangers because we were lucky? Do we have the equivalent of the Franklin paradigm in the business world? Are we ready to survive the rigors of the Arctic winter equivalent? Will we take new technology and innovations along with us but not utilize their full potential? Or will we carry our initialed, crested silver spoons to our demise in an environment for which there is no need for spoons?


Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 2, 1971

Encyclopedia Britannica Micropedia. Vol. IV, 1974

"A Frozen Sailor Summons Up a Tale of Heroism" by Bit

Gilbert, Smithsonian, 6/85, p.116

Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard, Harper Colophon

Books, 1983

The Structure of Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn,

University of Chicago Press, 1970

The Poles, Willy Ley Time-Life Books, 1971

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