12 Facts About The Fram, The Most Important Arctic Exploration Ship To Ever Sail

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Norway set its sights on polar exploration, and, for two decades, a series of history’s most famous explorers set out to expose the mysteries of these frozen expanses. To get the job done, Norway relied on the most famous exploration vessel of its time, a three-masted schooner named the Fram. In the history of famous explorer ships, the Fram tops them all.

At a time when ships simply weren’t up to the task of Arctic and Antarctic exploration, the Fram safely guided scores of Norwegian explorers closer to the ice caps than ever before.

Over a series of four expeditions between 1893 and 1912, the Fram accumulated a library’s worth of nautical exploration stories that are both harrowing and enlightening. As a ship, the Fram more than lived up to its Viking heritage as an indomitable force for exploration.

  • Before The Fram, Arctic Exploration Was Ridiculously Dangerous And Nearly Impossible
    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Before The Fram, Arctic Exploration Was Ridiculously Dangerous And Nearly Impossible

    Before the Fram was commissioned, Arctic exploration attempts were fraught with peril. The primary reason for that danger – aside from the freezing temperatures and hostile wildlife, of course – was a fleet of ships that were ill-equipped to handle the Arctic ice pack.

    See, whenever a ship would venture north, it would encounter sheets of floating ice that would quickly freeze to the sides of the boat. More and more ice packs would hit the boat, freezing all around the sides of the ship and exerting incredible pressure on the hull. That pressure would eventually cause the ship to crack and break, which, as you can imagine, is not an ideal scenario when you’re thousands of miles from home in the middle of the frigid Arctic Ocean. 

    In order to chart the vast expanses of the north, explorers would need a special kind of ship. They’d need the Fram.

  • An Innovative Design Allowed The Fram To Literally Rise Above The Ice It Faced

    In the mid 1880s, scientists postulated that there was a continuous current running east to west underneath the Arctic Ocean. The only problem with the theory was that it was impossible to prove because ships were unable to proceed far enough north. The Arctic Ocean’s floating sheets of ice barred entry for even the most intrepid sailor.

    As a result, 23-year-old Fridtjof Nansen contracted shipwright Colin Archer to construct a ship that was designed specifically to be able to rise above the Arctic’s floating ice in order to maintain momentum and keeping moving. The Fram’s design allowed the pressure of the ice pack to push the ship above the ice so that it might not be completely destroyed as it proceeded on its mission. That mission was to plunge onward, farther than ever before.

    Hence the name of the ship, the Fram, which means “Forward."

  • The Fram Was Built To Take On Freezing Temperatures

    When the Fram was initially constructed in 1891, Fridtjof Nansen was intent that the expedition not be sacrificed due to a lack of supplies and technology.

    Not only did he ensure that the ship was stocked with enough supplies to feed dogs and 12 men for five years, but Nansen also worked to preserve the scientific endurance of the expedition by making things a little bit more comfortable for his team. He did so by including a windmill that powered an electric generator that would run heaters and lights for the crew.

    The Fram was also outfitted with insulation to withstand the cold.

  • Hundreds Of People Applied To Be On The Fram’s First Crew

    When Nansen announced his plan to sail to the North Pole, people both in Norway and around the world got pretty excited. They thought it was a phenomenal idea. Nearly half a million crowns were raised to fund the expedition, not including a 20 thousand crown donation from the King of Norway himself.

    Thanks to Nansen’s reputation as a stalwart explorer, when the time came to populate the Fram with its 12-person crew, Nansen received applications from hundreds of people, both competent and... not.

    In one instance, Nansen claimed to have received a letter from a French woman who was “tired of life” and offered her unspecified “services” for a shot at adventure before she joined a convent. That particular application was rejected.

  • On Its First Expedition, The Fram Got Trapped In The Arctic For Three Years
    Photo: Henry Van der Weyde / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    On Its First Expedition, The Fram Got Trapped In The Arctic For Three Years

    Unfortunately for Nansen, his 1893 voyage with the Fram was thwarted by two major factors. First, the Arctic current that Nansen was investigating wasn’t strong enough to propel the Fram through the thick Arctic ice.

    Second, Nansen underestimated just how cold it gets in the Arctic. As a result, the Fram – like so many ships before it – was frozen to an ice floe for almost three years. The men subsisted on walrus and polar bear meat before ultimately turning home. 

    That being said, the Fram performed spectacularly well on its maiden voyage, never failing to keep its men warm and secure in the barren Arctic wasteland. What’s more, Nansen and his crew were able to gather invaluable information about the Arctic terrain before setting off again.

  • The Fram Became An ‘Arctic Ice Station’

    While hopes were high that the Arctic current might carry the Fram across the North Pole, Nansen and his men had prepared for the possibility that they’d end up frozen in an ice pack. In fact, Nansen basically counted on it.

    During their tenure trapped in the ice, each man on the crew occupied his time with scientific experiments that aimed to provide unprecedented data on the ice and the sea below it. The crew also observed the various states of the Aurora Borealis.

    Over the course of the Fram’s time in the ice, it moved 189 miles in a straight line, eventually reaching 82°30'N, the record for the northernmost expedition to date.