Nansen’s Arctic Expedition: One of the First Uses of Wind-Electric Generation

By Paul Gipe

As part of our research into the history of wind turbines, Erik Möllerström and I came across the story of Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his expedition on the Fram.

This wasn’t the first time I’d come across the Fram. Craig Morris threw a picture of the Fram across my figurative transom several years ago when I was writing my last book. The photo of the 19th-century sailing ship with its onboard wind turbine was intriguing and the story behind it even more so.

Then the Fram came up again as we were finalizing our manuscript for publication. We’d turned to UMass engineering professor Jim Manwell for some last minute help. Turns out he’s been fascinated by the Fram since childhood.

The Fram and its wind turbine are significant for several reasons. Nansen was famous at the time for the first crossing of the Greenland icecap. He was a contemporary of James Blyth in Scotland, Charles Brush in Cleveland, and Charles de Goyon, the duc de Feltre [1], all who had developed their own wind turbines for generating electricity just a few years before Nansen set sail on the Fram in 1894. Nansen was also a scientist who extensively documented his expedition with photos, sketches, and observations. Most importantly—for polar explorers of the period–he lived to publish his findings.

And fortunately for us, Nansen’s work was translated into English and is available online.[2] It’s brilliantly written, poetic in places, even allowing for the passage of more than a century so I am not going to give a long account here.

I have digitally extracted references to the windmill or wind turbine that Nansen used on the Fram to charge batteries that were used for lighting in the dark of the Arctic winter. I am also interspersing digital copies of the Nansen’s original photographs that have been made part of the historical record by the National Library of Norway.

Norway has a museum dedicated to the Fram and polar explorers in the capital Oslo where there’s a reconstruction of Nansen’s windmill. The ship in the museum is not a reconstruction but the actual Fram that Nansen sailed. There’s a short video about the wind turbine in English on YouTube.[3]

While the Norwegians may not have been the first to use wind energy to generate electricity, they were certainly the first to use it in polar exploration.[4]

Jim Manwell points out that the Fram’s wind turbine was probably also the first worldwide used shipboard and most likely the first offshore, floating wind turbine.

The wind turbine was used from 1884 to 1885 when the wooden cogs became so worn from use that it was disassembled and the wood used for skis and sledges.

Notes on the Fram’s wind turbine. It used four blades upwind with sail cloth over a lattice frame. The rotor was mounted on a stub tower on the port side of the ship and had to be turned into the wind.

The mill was not a small structure as can be seen in the photos and its design reflected the craft of the day. In the photos you can see the bow sprit and cable stays. You can also see the main shaft running aft where there must have been a right-angle drive to power a vertical shaft running into the ships interior. The vertical shaft drove a DC dynamo capable of charging 30 batteries at 64 volts. Nansen mentions below that when the batteries were charged they had to manually furl the rotor. Traditionally this entails braking the rotor and removing the sail cloth—by hand. Imagine doing this under arctic conditions.

The batteries powered arc lights. This was before incandescent bulbs had become widespread. Interestingly, Charles Brush had made his fortune in arc lighting before he installed his wind-electric windmill on his Cleveland estate.

Nansen’s windmill reflected European mill craft and not the multi-blade American or “Chicago” mill design used by Brush or de Goyon even though they were contemporaries and the design was known in Europe.

From Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen.

“It may be mentioned as an improvement on former expeditions that the Fram was furnished with an electric light installation. The dynamo was to be driven by the engine while we were under steam; while the intention was to drive it partly by means of the wind, partly by hand power, during our sojourn in the ice. For this purpose we took a windmill with us, and also a “horse-mill” to be worked by ourselves. I had anticipated that this latter might have been useful in giving us exercise in the long polar night. We found, however, that there were plenty of other things to do, and we never used it; on the other hand, the windmill proved extremely serviceable.”

“Presently we began putting up the windmill which was to drive the dynamo and produce the electric light. While the ship was going, the dynamo was driven by the engine, but for a long time past we had had to be contented with petroleum lamps in our dark cabins. The windmill was erected on the port side of the fore-deck, between the main-hatch and the rail. It took several weeks to get this important appliance into working order.”

“When at last the windmill was ready, it had to be attended to, turned according to the wind, etc. And when the wind was too strong some one had to climb up and reef the mill sails, which was not a pleasant occupation in this winter cold, and involved much breathing on fingers and rubbing of the tip of the nose.”

“There is now southwesterly wind, and the windmill, which has been ready for several days, has been tried at last and works splendidly. We have beautiful electric light to-day, though the wind has not been especially strong (5–8 m. per second). Electric lamps are a grand institution. What a strong influence light has on one’s spirits! There was a noticeable brightening-up at the dinner-table to-day; the light acted on our spirits like a draught of good wine. And how festive the saloon looks! We felt it quite a great occasion—drank Oscar Dickson’s health, and voted him the best of good fellows.”

“Wonderful moonshine this evening, light as day; and along with it aurora borealis, yellow and strange in the white moonlight; a large ring round the moon—all this over the great stretch of white, shining ice, here and there in our neighborhood piled up high by the pressure. And in the midst of this silent silvery ice-world the windmill sweeps round its dark wings against the deep-blue sky and the aurora. A strange contrast: civilization making a sudden incursion into this frozen ghostly world.”

“One more look at the star of home, the one that stood that evening over Cape Chelyuskin, and I creep on board, where the windmill is turning in the cold wind, and the electric light is streaming out from the skylight upon the icy desolation of the Arctic night.”

“A tremendous snow-storm is going on. The wind has at times a velocity of over 35 feet per second; it is howling in the rigging, whistling over the ice, and the snow is drifting so badly that a man might be lost in it quite near at hand. We are sitting here listening to the howling in the chimney and in the ventilators, just as if we were sitting in a house at home in Norway. The wings of the windmill have been going round at such a rate that you could hardly distinguish them; but we have had to stop the mill this evening because the accumulators are full, and we fastened up the wings so that the wind might not destroy them. We have had electric light for almost a week now.”

“It is by no means pleasant work standing up on the windmill, reefing or taking in the sails; it means aching nails, and sometimes frost-bitten cheeks; but it has to be done, and it is done. There is plenty of ‘mill-wind’ in the daytime now—this is the third week we have had electric light—but it is wretched that it should be always this north and northwest wind; goodness only knows when it is going to stop.”

“The windmill, too, is to have fresh sails, so that it can go in any kind of weather. Ah, if we could but give the Fram wings as well! ”

[1] Etienne Rogier. “The First Wind Generator in France, 1887.” Windmillers’ Gazette, 2019.

[2] Nansen, Fridtjof. “Farthest North: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the Ship ‘Fram’ 1893–96 and of a Fifteen Months’ Sleigh Journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen.” Farthest North, Vol. I by Fridtjof Nansen, 1897.

[3] Fram Guided Tour 3: The Windmill, 2020.

[4] Malm, Anders. “Nansen først ute med vindkraft (Nansen was first with a wind turbine).” NRK, May 14, 2011.–nansen-forst-ute-med-vindkraft-1.7628865.