The Antarctic Snow Cruiser

In 1939, scientists and engineers at Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology designed and built a massive new vehicle intended for use in Antarctic exploration. The Antarctic Snow Cruiser measured 55 feet long, weighed more than 37 tons fully loaded, and rolled on four smooth 10-foot-tall tires designed to retract and allow part of the vehicle to scoot across crevasses. The Institute loaned the $150,000 machine to the U.S. government for its upcoming Antarctic expedition headed by Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, and had the Snow Cruiser driven from Chicago to Boston (at a top speed of 30 mph) to be loaded on the ship the North Star. The crew managed to deliver the Snow Cruiser to the Antarctic ice, but the design proved faulty, and the vehicle was soon converted to a stationary crew quarters, never to leave Antarctica again. The diesel-electric hybrid powertrain was severely underpowered, and the smooth tires, designed for swampy terrain, offered very little traction, sinking into the snow. More than 75 years later, the world is still unsure where it is—the Antarctic Snow Cruiser could remain buried somewhere under sheets of ice, or it could have broken off with an ice floe, eventually sinking to the bottom of the ocean. [16 photos total]

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1
Chicagoans got their first good look at the giant snow cruiser built for the Admiral Byrd Antarctic expedition when it was rolled out of the Chicago construction yards on October 24, 1939. (AP) #
2
A huge snow and ice cruiser designed for the Byrd Antarctic Expedition was unveiled in model form at Chicago July 14, 1939 by its designed Dr. Thomas Poulter. Resembling a cross between a bus and a tank, the actual cruiser will be 55 feet long and 15 feet high. It will be able to carry four men inside and an airplane depending upon conditions. (AP) #
3
The Antarctic snow cruiser, designed by the search foundation of Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, undergoing tests in the dunes near Gary, Indiana, on October 26, 1939, while en route to Boston then to the south polar areas. (AP) #
4
Admiral Byrd’s snow cruiser passes through traffic and onlookers before halting for the night in Framingham, Massachusetts, on November 12, 1939. Traffic was snarled for 20 miles in a jam that involved 70,000 automobiles. Note the two spare tires visible in the rear compartment of the cruiser. (AP) #
5
The Snow Cruiser gently approaches a low bridge on its way to Boston in 1939. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection) #
6
The Snow Cruiser safely passes under a railroad bridge on its way to Boston in 1939. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection) #
7
The controls of the snow cruiser, with Dr. F. A. Wade (foreground), chief scientist of the U.S. Antarctic service, and Harold Vagtborg, director of the Armour Institute of Technology Research Foundation. (AP) #
8
The vehicle arrives on Boston’s waterfront. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection) #
9
Policemen keep a path clear as the Snow Cruiser maneuvers to the wharf in Boston. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection) #
10
On the docks in Boston in November of 1939. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection) #
11
Onlookers watch as expedition members prepare to load the massive Snow Cruiser onto the deck of the North Star in November of 1939. The rear section of the vehicle is prepared for removal, to allow it to fit on the ship. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection) #
12
The Snow Cruiser rolls onto the North Star at high tide. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection) #
13
Richard Byrd's giant snowmobile aboard the North Star in Boston on November 14, 1939. (AP) #
14
Admiral Richard E. Byrd, leaving the North Star in Boston, the Snow Cruiser in background. Byrd was making inspection of Gear, Etc. in readiness for his departure for the Antarctic. (AP) #
15
Admiral Byrd’s snow cruiser protrudes two feet over the port rail despite its 10-foot tail being removed, shown here safely stowed across the deck of the North Star, ready for the long journey to the Antarctic region with tons of supplies aboard. The North Star set sail on November 15, 1939. (AP) #
16
Members of Rear Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expedition are hard at work loading sleds with supplies from the ship, North Star, (in background), at the party’s west base on March 16, 1940. By this time the Snow Cruiser had been driven off the North Star, proved itself unable to handle the Antarctic terrain, and had been converted into a heated crew quarters. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any still photos of the unloading or the converted vehicle, but did find this short, interesting color movie of the nearly-disastrous unloading of the Snow Cruiser on January 15, 1940. (U.S. Antarctic Service Photo / AP) #

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