Explorer Elisha Kent Kane's Telescope

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Elisha Kent Kane was born in 1820, two years after the first of several British expeditions was sent into the Arctic in an effort both to locate a northwest passage for ships across far northern Canada, and to map a region virtually unknown. In 1845 Sir John Franklin, in command of two ships, the Erebus and Terror, set sail from England to find the passage to the Pacific. In 1848, after no news had been received from the expedition, three search parties were sent out hopefully to find Franklin and his 128 men. They failed in their effort, confounded by bad weather and heavy ice. It was in 1850 that Lady Jane Franklin appealed to the United States to raise a rescue expedition. Her pleas were answered by Henry Grinnell, a shipping magnate who was interested in the commercial possibilities, potentially offered in Arctic waters, including new opportunities for the whaling industry.

Grinnell offered two ships and Congress passed legislation that authorized an expedition and allocated funds to man and outfit the vessels. The expedition was placed under the control of the Navy Department. It was at this time that Elisha Kent Kane, M.D, who was working for the Office of Coastal Survey, offered his services, which were promptly accepted. Kane was enthralled by the prospect of Arctic exploration. This, the first Grinnell Expedition, failed to find Franklin, and returned home after sixteen months. But Kane was undeterred and raised enough interest and financial support to convince Grinnell to mount a second expedition in 1853. Even though the Second Grinnell Expedition also failed, Kent, who was in command, was able to add to a growing store of information about not only the geography of the Arctic, but also of the lifestyle of the region's native inhabitants. His reputation stands as one of the intrepid polar explorers of the nineteenth century, although his accomplishments at the time were overshadowed by the slow decline of whaling and the polarization of sectional issues that would result in the Civil War.

This telescope was given to Professor Alexander Dallas Bache by Kane. As head of the Coast Survey, Bache was instrumental in sending Kane on his 1853 expedition to find Franklin. Kane apparently presented the spyglass to Bache on his return.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why was the search for the Northwest Passage the focus of many polar expeditions?
  2. What were the compelling factors that drove polar exploration?
  3. How does an artifact, like Kane's telescope, open the door to historical discovery?