Today, we go after gold -- and gain education
instead. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The early exploration of the
New World was full of misadventure. Take
Frobisher's quest for the Northwest Passage:
Martin Frobisher, born in 1535, took up sailing at
19. He became an excellent pirate. Piracy against
Spain was legal in England, but Frobisher was too
good at it. He got in the way of Queen Elizabeth's
negotiations with Spain. She finally had to draft
his talents into the English Navy. Then he met
Elizabeth's counselor, John Dee. Dee helped
convince Frobisher that he could find a Northwest
passage to Asia through Arctic Canada.
In 1576, Frobisher set out in three tiny ships to
look for China. The largest had only an 18-man
crew. Frobisher got to Greenland and thought it was
one of the Faeroe Islands. A storm sank one of his
three ships. Another defected back to England. He
finally reached two large bodies of land. He
thought the northern one must be Asia and the
southern one America.
Actually he'd found a 150-mile bay running into
Baffin Island. On land he met Inuit Indians who
laughed at his alien band. They'd been hearing
about Europeans since Leif Ericson.
Then Inuits kidnapped five of his crew. Frobisher
snatched up some mineral samples, took a hostage,
and headed home. Back in England, one of his
samples looked like it might contain gold. The
Royal assayer said no -- it was fool's gold. But
England was hungry for the kind of wealth Spain had
been looting out of Central America. That rock had
to be gold. Finally they found an Italian assayer
who said it was low-grade gold ore.
So merchants formed a Cathay Company and sent
Frobisher back to the Arctic. The Queen named him
the Admiral-of-Cathay. He set up a small fort on
Baffin Island. He learned about the Inuits. This
time he brought 200 tons of ore back to England.
When it proved worthless, his backers assumed
Frobisher had just mined in the wrong place. They
outfitted a third and much larger voyage.
They sent 15 ships to build a colony. This time
Frobisher realized he'd found an Arctic bay, not
China. When he brought back 1100 tons of worthless
ore, that should've been IT. But it wasn't. They
asked him to make yet a fourth voyage. This time he
said, "No!" He wanted to find the Northwest
Passage, not set up trading posts. He wanted
action. Later, he fought the Spanish Armada with
Drake. He finally died in an action against the
Meanwhile we'd learned geography, anthropology,
bad-weather sailing and survival -- not because
Frobisher was a teacher or a scholar, but because
he was a catalyst. He was a coarse, combative man,
and he took part in a great folly. Sustained risk
was the only life he know how to live. And we came
out richer for that.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
McFee, W., The Life of Sir Martin
Frobisher. New York: Harper & Brothers
Stefansson, V., The Three Voyages of Martin
Frobisher. Vols I and II, London: The
Argonaut Press, 1938.
See also the article on Frobisher in the
Dictionary of National Biography and a
recent review of two new books: Gogg, G.E.,
Science, Vol. 264, 13 May, 1994, pp.
1021-1024. [The books are Archeology of the
Frobisher Voyages. (Fitzhugh, L.W., and
Olin, J., eds.) Washington, DC: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1993; and The Meta
Incognita Project. Contributions to Field
Studies, (Alsford, S., ed.) Quebec: Canadian Museum
of Civilization, 1993.]
Stereopticon photo courtesy of
Whaling vessels in Frobisher's arctic waters
near Baffin Island in the early 20th century
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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