History

4 intrepid explorers who weren’t Christopher Columbus

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two...” runs the old poem, “...Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Poor old Chris Columbus — once revered as a hero for “discovering America,” his reputation has taken a beating lately. He’s now blamed for kicking off what turned out to be the brutal European conquest of the American natives, whose populations were decimated by disease and war and whose land and treasures were expropriated and exploited.

All this, and he wasn’t even the first European to set foot in the Americas, an honor that goes to Viking Leif Erikson. And he got here by accident in the first place because his calculations were way off and he thought the Earth was a lot smaller than it is. And we have a national holiday for this guy?

Mr. Columbus is far from the only explorer to have achieved some monumental feats. Let’s shift the focus from the much-celebrated life of Columbus and talk about some lesser-known explorers – explorers who were no less intrepid and whose reputations are still intact.

Louise Arner Boyd

Credit: US National Archives / YouTube

In the early 1920s, at a time when automobiles were unreliable, “highways” were often gravel or dirt trails, and many people disapproved of women driving, Louise Arner Boyd (1887–1972) criss-crossed the United States by car, keeping detailed journals of her travels.

And that was just the beginning of her adventures. In the 1930s, Boyd led several expeditions to explore the coasts of Greenland and document the flora and fauna of that icy environment. During World War II, she led a classified scientific mission to characterize radio signal behavior in the areas around Greenland and Baffin Island, Canada.

If that weren’t enough, in 1955 she became the first woman to travel by air over the North Pole. How’s that for intrepid?

William Beebe

Credit: Wildlife Conservation Society / YouTube

If someone offered you the opportunity to crawl inside a chunk of metal and send you to the bottom of the ocean, with nothing but a rubber hose, electric cable, and phone wires linking you to the surface, you would sensibly run, not walk, as far away as you could get. Right?

Right. But you would not be William Beebe.

Beebe (1877–1962) started his career caring for the bird exhibits at the New York Zoological Park and became a highly respected ornithologist who led expeditions all over the world to study various bird species. By the 1930s, he had branched out into marine biology, hence his interest in exploring the ocean depths, up close and personal.

Beebe started his underwater explorations by means of helmet diving, performed in a pressure suit with a watertight helmet for observation. Reaching farther depths, however, required a new class of underwater vessel, and Beebe worked with engineer Otis Barton to develop a device called a bathysphere — the aforementioned chunk of metal. Beebe and Barton made over 30 dives in the bathysphere, reaching depths of over 3,000 feet, and cataloguing many marine species in the waters near Bermuda.

Following his deep-sea adventures, Beebe continued to explore, study, and write about the biology of the north coast of South America.

Julian Nott

Credit: AP Archive / YouTube

The Nazca Desert of southern Peru is famous for its Nazca Lines petroglyphs, giant drawings of human figures, animals, and other shapes made by digging wide, shallow troughs in the desert soil. Their origins and purpose are shrouded in mystery. Made by ancient Incan tribes between 500 BC and 500 AD, each drawing can cover several acres. They can only really be seen from the air.

Leaving aside the question of why the ancient Incas would do such a thing, an equally interesting question is: how? Julian Nott had an idea of how: Hot-air balloons.

Already known for his ballooning adventures, Nott (1944–2019) believed that the Incas could have built and operated hot-air balloons to guide the design and construction of the petroglyphs — hundreds of years before Europeans developed hot-air balloons. In the early 1980s, he even built one and flew it himself, using materials that the Incas would have had available. Although there is essentially no archeological evidence to support Nott’s theory, no one seems to have a better idea.

Nott continued to innovate in the area of ballooning, eventually setting almost 80 ballooning world records.

Ancient Polynesians

Credit: TED-Ed / YouTube

Christopher Columbus’s globe may have been two sizes too small, but at least he had navigation tools and could estimate his position while crossing the Atlantic. The mariners who sailed out from what is now the area of Papua New Guinea 3,000 years ago had no such advantages, not even a globe. Yet they managed to colonize many of the far-flung islands of the western and central Pacific Ocean.

Later generations of Polynesians continued to explore the Pacific, with some evidence that they reached Easter Island off the coast of South America. Whether they actually landed on the continent is the subject of some controversy, all without navigation tools or even any evidence to suggest there was any “there” to be found when they set sail, and hundreds of years before any Europeans even thought of doing such a crazy thing. Now that’s intrepid.