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Matthew Henson's 1932 New York Times interview
"He smiled as he recalled how Amundsen and the explorers on the (Italian airship)Norge broadcast a message direct from the top of the earth."
"Times have changed," said Henson; "Peary would be surprised. Little did we ever dream, as we pushed on across the ragged ice fields, that some day an airplane would rush up there and back in a few hours. What a strange sight it would have been had we seen a dirigible like the Norge cast its creeping shadow over the white expanse. I wonder what the Eskimos would think of aircraft lights blinking in the night sky and traveling toward the goal that once required years and years to find."

Veteran Explorer Finds Radio Enlivens Adventure
LOOKING BACK ACROSS THE ICE

Henson, Who Reached North Pole With Peary Twenty-three
Years Ago, Reminisces and Recalls Changes Made by Radio

MATTHEW A. HENSON, the Negro who made eight trips into the Arctic with Robert E. Peary, and finally in 1909 stood on the top of the world, visited THE NEW YORK TIMES radio station a few days ago and reminisced as he inspected the short-wave equipment which picked up messages relayed from the Norge over the North Pole and Byrd in the south polar regions. It was twenty-three years ago, on April 6, that Peary, Henson, four Eskimos and forty dogs reached the Pole.

He looked at the maps and pictures, historic mementos of the airplane trails above the Arctic and Antarctic wastes, and recalled today's speed in communication and transportation compared to the long, hazardous trudge and hardships of exploration two decades ago.

Marconi Was Just Beginning.
When Peary and Henson first went North in 1891 the youthful Marconi was beginning his activities in exploring space with invisible waves. When they reached the Pole in 1909 wireless trailed them into the Arctic region, where at Battle Harbor the first station was built in that territory to communicate with sealers from Canada and Norway. But wireless was too cumbersome, too expensive and too elusive in those days to be transported across the ice on sleds, although Henson admits it would have been a great boon to them. He smiled as he recalled how Amundsen and the explorers on the Norge broadcast a message direct from the top of the earth. He smiled again when he glanced at the Antarctic map and thought of Byrd and his companions plucking music and voices of friends out of the blizzards and bleak air blowing over their isolated camp.

"Times have changed," said Henson; "Peary would be surprised. Little did we ever dream, as we pushed on across the ragged ice fields, that some day an airplane would rush up there and back in a few hours. What a strange sight it would have been had we seen a dirigible like the Norge cast its creeping shadow over the white expanse. I wonder what the Eskimos would think of aircraft lights blinking in the night sky and traveling toward the goal that once required years and years to find."

Henson says that Bob Bartlett, who piloted Peary's ship, the Roosevelt, into the Arctic, has since learned that the Eskimos who accompanied Peary and Henson are dead. Henson is the only survivor of the polar party who has lived to see radio and the airplane change the aspect of exploration. Peary died in 1920.

News Gathering Has Changed.
"Radio has helped to blaze new trails," said Henson. "Marconi made it safe for the airplane to go out across the treacherous ice. If a plane is forced to land, radio can summon a rescue party. When we went into the North we vanished. We might get back or be lost forever and no one would have known where we were overtaken and laid low by the elements."

THE TIMES radio station operator recalled that when the Norge was encircling the Pole the civilized world was aware of it. When Byrd flew over the South Pole newspapers were on the streets of New York in a few hours with the story flashed by radio from Little America 9,000 miles distant, but only one-twentieth of a second away by the magic of the electromagnetic waves that rushed up from the bottom of the globe.

"And to think how long it was after we reached the Pole before people knew about it," said Henson. "We had to walk and sail a long way to reach the northernmost telegraph station in Labrador, and then Peary sent his startling news dispatch to THE NEW YORK TIMES. I believe he said, 'I have the Pole.' We were at the Pole in April and it was September before Peary could notify the world."

When All Was Silence.
Henson laughed as he recalled the "silent days when Peary went North; when men never removed their parkas and kammicks for months at a time; when the end of the world was only as far as the eye could penetrate through fiercely driven snow." He chuckled as he spoke of his years at the side of the intrepid Arctic explorer, when messages were never received and never sent "because Peary knew it was useless to try." Henson described how "Peary shook my hand and beamed at our four Eskimo dog drivers at 10:30 A. M., Eastern Standard Time, on April 6, 1909." The party was near the Pole.

"I remember that Peary was apparently lost in thought while we rested at the Pole," said Henson. “I did not dare break his train of thought, but I believe he was thinking of home, and what a boon it would be to send word immediately that we were safe and the expedition had been successful. Radio was a new thing then. The first station in the North was erected in 1909 at Battle Harbor, Labrador, on top of a high hill overlooking the sea. It was used to communicate with the seal hunters in the ice fields. It was considered a powerful sending outfit, but I remember the operators found difficulty in sending or receiving messages more than 100 miles.

Radio's Prestige Had Grown.
"Peary decided radio was 'not so good' when assembling stores, material and instruments for his last trip. But wireless, as it was called, in those days, made rapid progress during our year in the North. When we again set foot on New York's streets Marconi's invention had gained greatly in prestige. The S.S. Republic disaster had helped to prove the value of wireless at sea. But it seems that Peary decided wisely when he left wireless at home and took stores and provisions which he believed would be of more value. Our ship, the Roosevelt, froze fast in the ice about 1,500 miles north of Battle Harbor. With wireless equipment then available we might have covered only a few miles. It would have been useless to try to keep in touch with civilization.

"We could never have used radio sets on our sledges because of their bulk and weight in 1909. A load of 800 to 900 pounds was carried by a dog-sled team of eight huskies. It was nearly all food. We counted on a load of that weight to sustain the dogs and the driver for 100 days’ traveling. That meant only one pound of food per day for each animal and a like amount for the driver. Besides, we had to carry alcohol for heaters and a small alcohol burner.

“Our only means of sending messages in the North was by manpower.” Henson continued. “Much to our sorrow we soon discovered that Eskimos were not reliable as message carriers if they were frightened at being so far from home, or the least bit homesick.
(above) Wireless in 1908 when Henson & Peary left for their last arctic expedition.
(above) 1923 era book
 
These magazines from 1932 show that radio became a hobby field due to the invention of the vacuum tube.
“Early on the morning of April 6 we passed over the Pole without knowing it. What an opportunity was lost because we did not have means of communication such as explorers have today? When Peary found we had traveled too far we snatched a few hours’ sleep, then backtracked and sidetracked, taking sun-shots. Peary took the sights while I hade notes in his book.

He was terrifically impressed when all observations checked closely. He realized his life’s ambition was at last fulfilled. He said to me ‘My boy, do you think we have reached the Pole?’ I said I believed we had. He assured me our observations were accurate enough to gauge our position with a mile.

Thirty hours later we started back to the Roosevelt, far across the ice to the south, 550 miles away.”

END
Download the restored 1932 New York Times interview in PDF.