Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1900-1949

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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1900-1949

One of the driving forces behind exploration and discovery is the overwhelming curiosity of certain men and women who are not content to sit at home with unanswered questions about Earth's mysteries. Throughout the ages, men and women have journeyed through jungles and forests, across scorched deserts and icy tundras, over mountains, along rivers, and across oceans in a quest for answers about geography, peoples, and ancient history.

In the nineteenth century, historic ocean voyages, epic adventures, and exhaustive expeditions rapidly expanded national boundaries and imperial domains as well as scientific knowledge in the fields of botany, zoology, ornithology, marine biology, geology, and cultural anthropology. By the end of the nineteenth century, few areas of the world remained undiscovered and unexplored by humans.

Two of the less explored regions of the world at the turn of the twentieth century were South America and Central Asia. In expeditions to South America from 1906-12, British army officer Percy Fawcett (1867-1925?) mapped Bolivia's boundaries with Brazil, Paraguay, and Peru, explored uncharted interior regions south of the Amazon, and discovered the source of the Rio Verde before mysteriously disappearing in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. From 1913-14, former American president Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and Brazilian Cândido Rondón (1865-1958) led a mapping expedition down a totally unknown Brazilian river that Rondón christened the Rio da Dúvida (River of Doubt), later rechristened the Rio Roosevelt.

From 1893 to 1933, Swedish geographer and explorer Sven Hedin (1865-1952) made significant expeditions to Central Asia, one of the most mysterious regions of the world—a wasteland of deserts and mountains from Afghanistan to Tibet to Mongolia and Siberia. In 1931 French automobile-manufacturer Citroën, who had sponsored expeditions to the Sahara Desert in 1922 and from Algeria to Madagascar in 1924, conducted a retracing of the ancient Silk Road followed by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the greatest ambition of many explorers was to be the first to reach the North and South Poles—literally the last places on Earth to be visited by man. The most famous of these explorers was Robert Peary (1856-1920), who had faced the icy Arctic winds eight times only to lose to the elements. In 1909, at age 52, he set out for his ninth and last try, and finally reached the North Pole on April 6th, along with Matthew Henson (1866-1955), his famous African-American companion who had been with him on all previous attempts, and four Eskimos. His accomplishment fired the race for the South Pole between Norwegian Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), who reached the pole in December 1911, and British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912), who reached the pole in January 1912—second by just weeks—and died tragically in a blizzard on the homeward journey.

Significant scientific exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic continued throughout the twentieth century. During the years between the two World Wars, numerous expeditions to Antarctica traveled overland onto the central plateau, mapping further areas of the coast and gathering much valuable scientific data. However, the most significant technological advance for twentieth-century exploration was the invention of the airplane (a technology whose progress was aided by the discovery of vast fields of fossil fuel in the Middle East in the early 1900s). The introduction of the airplane drastically transformed the technique of polar exploration. From the 1920s through the late 1940s, Admiral Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957) revolutionized Antarctic exploration by the use of aircraft, especially as part of Operation High Jump, a United States Naval expedition he commanded from 1946-47. Byrd was also the first to fly over both the North and South Poles in May 1926 and November 1929, respectively.

From the moment Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) Wright put their plane in the air at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the competition to be the first, the fastest, and to fly higher and farther was on. The science of flight—with its corresponding technological, scientific, and military applications—rapidly advanced in the first half of the twentieth century. World War I brought enormous advances in the field of aviation. Pilots took to the air and became heroes to a fascinated public. Men such as the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh (1901-1974) were celebrated in books, songs, and films. Women like Elise Deroche (1889-1919), the first licensed female pilot, and Amelia Earhart (1898-1937), the first woman to fly solo across both the Atlantic and the Pacific, were also a part of the excitement surrounding the airplane.

In addition to aviation, twentieth-century scientists and engineers designed vessels that could venture to the absolute heights of the atmosphere and the depths of the sea. In 1931 Auguste Piccard (1884-1963) and Paul Kipfer were the first to reach the stratosphere in a balloon—reaching 51,762 feet (15,781 m) before returning to the Earth's surface. Other adventurers such as William Beebe (1877-1962) and Otis Barton were the first to explore the ocean depths. In 1934 Beebe and Barton took their "bathysphere" to a record depth of 3,028 feet (923 m) to study deep-sea marine life near Bermuda. Later, in 1960, Jacques Piccard (1922- ), son of Auguste Piccard, would pilot his bathyscaphe Trieste, a redesign of his father's balloon gondola, to a record depth of 35,800 feet (10,912 m) in the Mariana Trench, nearly 7 miles (11.3 km) down.

While some twentieth-century explorers set out to unravel Earth's mysteries, others were fascinated by the mysteries of mankind and human civilization. Beginning in 1900, several momentous archaeological expeditions returned libraries of new data and priceless artifacts to museums, universities, and collectors around the world. In 1900 Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) began 31 years of systematic excavations of Knossos, the Great Palace of Minos on Crete, originally discovered in 1878. A year later, in 1901, a team of French archaeologists discovered a black stone pillar in Iraq bearing the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest known written compilations of law. Then, in 1907, while tracing ancient caravan routes between China and the West, Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943) uncovered frescoes, statues, and a vast collection of priceless manuscripts in Ch'ien Fo-Tung, the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas. (During the next 25 years, Stein made several more journeys through Central Asian deserts, each producing a rich harvest of archaeological treasures.) In 1911 Yale University professor Hiram Bingham (1875-1956) discovered the ruins of the great Inca city of Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. In 1922 one of the most astonishing archaeological discoveries of all time was made by Howard Carter (1873-1939) and Lord George Carnarvon (1866-1923), who unearthed the tomb of King Tutankhamen, the only tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh to survive essentially intact over the centuries since its closing. A total of 3,500 artifacts were removed from the tomb.

Most of the archaeological discoveries of the early twentieth century were made by historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists who had spent years examining the past civilizations for which they were searching. However, in September 1940 four boys exploring caves in the woods near Lascaux in southern France stumbled upon Paleolithic engravings, drawings, and paintings of figures and animals that dated to about 15,000 B.C.. Then, in Jordan in 1947, two young Bedouins looking for a goat accidentally discovered a cave containing the Dead Sea Scrolls, over 800 manuscripts written between 250 B.C. and A.D. 68, perhaps the most important archaeological discovery of the century.

The first half of the twentieth century saw the last of the truly terrestrial explorers. Building on the advancements in technology up to 1950, science fiction became science fact in the later part of the twentieth century as humans finally realized the dream of visiting the Moon. Earth exploration became three-dimensional—into the oceans and skies, under the icecaps, and down into the Earth's crust. Fascinating archaeological discoveries also refocused attention on man's ancient past, the subject of intensive study during the second half of the century. Thanks to the technologies developed in the first half of the century, explorers were able to go where previously only books and dreams could take them. The quest for answers to the last of Earth's mysteries extended to the universe beyond Earth.


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