From the time of his first Arctic trip in 1886, Peary knew that hot beverages were key to an expedition’s success and a crew’s happiness. After a long day sledging in subzero temperatures a good cup of tea is one of the explorer’s greatest pleasures. As he gained experience and strove to refine his methods, Peary continually struggled with the need to balance efficiency and comfort. Hot tea requires a stove, and a stove requires fuel, but fuel is heavy, and the heavier the sledge, the more difficult it is for a dog team to pull. Over the years he tried and tested many stoves (both commercially made and of his own design) and different fuels. His training as an engineer is evident in the quality of his stove diagrams, and the care with which he controlled and documented his experiments, tracking fuel type, quantity, and time it took water to reach a boil. Luckily for us, these drawings are preserved in Peary’s papers at the National Archives.
Right up to the time of his last expedition in 1908, he was still trying to find the perfect stove. According to expedition member Donald MacMillan he came close. In his 1934 book “How Peary Reached the Pole” MacMillan described it:
“…a stove, which, with six ounces of fuel, would convert ice into boiling water in nine minutes….We had one unreasonable and selfish objection to this invention – the Peary stove went out in nine minutes. After a long hard cold day and the igd-loo was build, our dogs fed, and the door sealed, we yearned for just a little crumb of comfort, for something warm. It seemed a bit of Heaven to place the stiff, cold, frostbitten hands and horny fingers on the warm cylinder of the only nine-minute stove. But it was the perfection of efficiency, and we had not come on the trip to keep warm.”
We will not be sledging over the ice, nor living in a snow house (MacMillan’s “igd-loo”), but even a summer hike in the far north Is improved by the prospect of a nice cup of tea. Our kitchen tent will be outfitted with a standard Coleman stove, itself a tried and true stove used in the north, but we would also like a hot drink while away from camp surveying. Not having Peary’s engineering background, we did not want to design one ourselves and so will have to make due with whatever we can purchase. We have used various small portable stoves in the past, but were intrigued when we found what appears to be the smallest, simplest, stove around, hanging on the rack at LL Bean. The manufacturer even specified the burn time and temperature of the fuel, so we could not resist; like Peary, we would test a stove.
Our sample of stoves was small, one. Our goal was to see how efficiently it would heat ice water, since that is what we will be using in the field. We included some actual ice for effect, but unlike Peary we won’t actually have to be melting ice for drinking water.
Our test stove was the Pocket Stove, by Grabber. Basically, it is a small folding stand which burns solid fuel (wax) tablets.
We put about 32 ounces of water (some frozen) in a pot, and let it go.
In the spirit of modern science, we filmed the experiment, although since watching water boil is hardly enlightening, this is a much edited version:
The result was a qualified success. The fuel burned for about the right amount of time, and it did seem to burn hot, although at times the flame was difficult to see in bright sunlight. It was not hot enough to melt the ice, although it made a good start, and since we won’t actually be melting ice, it will probably be fine. We’ll post an update once we have really field tested it!