For many years that accolade went to the US explorer Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the North Pole on 6 April 1909. Yet even at the time his claim was disputed. Dr Frederick Cook, a rival American explorer, insisted he had reached the pole almost a year earlier. But neither of them could provide definitive proof of their supposed triumph. Cook’s own evidence was rejected by an independent commission, while Peary refused to hand over any details at all.
In 1989, the US National Geographic Society announced that an analysis of photographs taken by Peary, together with his records of ocean depths and other data, were consistent with his expedition getting within eight kilometres of the true pole. Cook’s claim, meanwhile, has always been dogged by suspicions of fraud.
In the years that followed, the North Pole was reached many times by airborne and submarine expeditions. Surprisingly, the first undisputed expedition to reach the North Pole over the surface did not achieve its goal until 1968, when the American Ralph Plaisted and three companions arrived on snowmobiles. On 6 April the following year, the British explorer Wally – later Sir Walter – Herbert became the first to reach the North Pole the traditional way, on foot.
Robert is a science writer and visiting professor of science at Aston University.