The Polar Ship Fram

The Fram was the first ship specially built in Norway for polar research. She was used on three important expeditions: with Fridtjof Nansen on a drift over the Arctic Ocean 1893-96, with Otto Sverdrup to the arctic archipelago west of Greenland - now the Nunavut region of Canada - 1898-1902, and with Roald Amundsen to Antarctica for his South Pole expedition 1910-12. The Fram is now housed and exhibited in the Fram Museum at Bygdøynes, Oslo

The Polar Ship Fram

The theory behind the Fram

The theory of an east-west current over the Arctic Ocean was put forward by professor in meteorology and first director of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute Henrik Mohn in 1884. Remains of the American expedition ship Jeannette had been found by the Greenland coast that year after the ship had been crushed in the ice and sunk near the New Siberian Islands (Novosibirskiye ostrova) in 1881. Fridtjof Nansen read and noted this and related it to the driftwood and earth from Siberia that he had found in the ice off Greenland in 1882.

Forcing ships through the arctic ice to reach the North Pole had been tried and had failed many times already. Nansen conceived the plan of building a ship “so small and so strong as possible ... that it was improbable that it could be destroyed by the ice”. With such a ship he could drift with and thereby prove the theory of the current, and at the same time hopefully drift over or very near to the North Pole.

The plan called for the construction of such a ship as had never been seen before – one that could withstand the crushing pressures of the pack ice in the Arctic Ocean, for several years. It is therefore to Fridtjof Nansen´s bold theories that the Fram owes her innovative design and proportions. Today, she occupies a unique position in the history of exploration, being the ship with the record of sailing both furthest north and furthest south of any. These records were achieved during the First and Third Fram expeditions.

The building of the Fram

After the Norwegian parliament had made a grant of NOK 280 000 available for the venture, and various enthusiastic private citizens had added their contributions, the work of building a polar exploration vessel to Nansen´s specifications commenced.

Nansen´s closest adviser on the project was Otto Sverdrup, while the building work was entrusted to Colin Archer. It was a formidable task. Nansen wanted a ship which, though small and light, would be strong enough to withstand the tremendous pressure of the pack ice, a ship with a hull designed to ensure that it would be lifted up by the ice and not forced under and churned to pieces. The principle can be illustrated by squeezing a round nut between the fingers and seeing how it pops up.

Moreover, it had to provide a comfortable home for the crew, who would have to be prepared to spend several years on board. In the event, the ship proved bigger than Nansen had envisaged. It had a displacement of 800 tons loaded, measured 39 m from stem to stern, was 11 m in the beam, and had a draught of 5 m. The proportion of wide beam compared with the length gave better strength in the ice, but also made the Fram roll most uncomfortably in the open sea.

Nansen, Otto Sverdrup and Colin Archer had close consultations throughout the building process. Archer made three models and four drawings before the construction started, and adjustments and changes were made constantly during the construction. The materials were hand-picked: oak and iron in the main, with pitch pine, Norwegian pine and greenheart in addition.

The separate pieces were either laid double or were strengthened in various ways. The ribs were of naturally-formed oak bolted two together for double strength and laid only 5 cm apart. The space between was filled with a mixture of pitch, tar and sawdust. The keelson was of pitch pine, which has a naturally high resin content which protects from decay. This was laid double, apart from under the engine room where there was not enough space.

The ice sheathing on the outside of the hull was of greenheart and was fastened so that it could be torn off by the ice without seriously damaging the hull. Greenheart is hard and durable and is the densest wood that is traded.

The ribs were covered on the inside with planks of pitch pine, while on the outside there were two layers of oak under the ice sheathing. In the living quarters the pitch pine was covered with a layer of tarred felt followed by three layers of panelling with insulation between.

In addition to the choice of materials and the extra strengthening of the hull, there were other adaptations that would make the Fram resistant to damage from the ice. The rudder was strengthened with three heavy U-shaped iron frames and both the rudder and the propeller could be lifted up. The stern had a special construction that gave a double end with a well in between. This was divided into two parts where the rudder and the propeller could be hoisted away from the ice. The rudder was sited low so as to avoid most of the inevitable collisions with ice.

The Fram was designed as a three-masted schooner, with the standing rigging of steel wire and the running rigging of hemp. A windmill was included on board, which ran a generator to provide electric power for lighting by electric arc lamps. A triple expansion steam engine of 220 hp gave a speed of 6-7 nm/hour in calm seas.

On 26 October 1892 the Fram was christened by Nansen’s wife Eva and launched at Colin Archer’s shipyard in Larvik.

The 2nd Fram expedition

Some alterations and improvements were made to the Fram, under Colin Archer’s leadership, before Otto Sverdrup’s 2nd Fram expedition.

The keel had been designed originally to stick very little below the bottom planks in order to protect it and give a shallower draught and better manoeuvrability in the ice. This did, however, make the ship difficult to steer in open sea. A false keel, from 0 to 39 cm deep stem to stern, was therefore added so that it could be torn off by the ice without seriously damaging the main keel. A new upper deck was also added from the engine room to the bow, increasing the mid-ship freeboard to 1.9 m. The original deckhouse was removed. This gave much more room for the living quarters which were increased with a saloon with three single cabins on each side, in addition to the original cabins at the stern. A new, relatively spacious galley was built between the two cabin quarters. There was also room for a workshop and a laboratory.

To insulate the cabins better additional panelling was added 30 cm from the ship’s sides and the space inside filled with cork. Cork insulation was also added in several other spaces. The 220 hp steam engine was kept.

The 3rd Fram expedition

The Fram had been out of use for some years before Amundsen received permission to use her for his expedition in 1910. This time she was overhauled at the naval shipyard at Horten.

Some outer planking and upper deck planks needed to be renewed, the rig was partly replaced and a new deckhouse was built stretching from between the upper deck and the poop deck to the mizzen mast. A new steering wheel was placed on the deckhouse roof, with the old one kept in reserve.

The old steam engine was replaced with a modern Swedish diesel engine of 180 hp, a first for polar exploration vessels.

Saving the Fram

On the return from Antarctica in 1912 the Fram was sailed to Buenos Aires, arriving 25 May. Roald Amundsen was now to return to the original plan of seeking a more northerly drift across the Arctic Ocean than the First Fram Expedition had managed, and the idea was to sail around South America and north to the Bering Strait. There was much for Amundsen to arrange beforehand, and in October 1913 the Fram was sailed further north, to Colón at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal. The famous polar ship had been given the honour of sailing first through the canal, but having waited there until 1 December this plan was abandoned and the Fram was ordered to sail south round Cape Horn and north to San Francisco. Arriving once more at Buenos Aires captain Nilsen received the message to return home to Norway instead. Horten was reached on 16 July 1914.

Because of the First World War there was no chance of arranging a new polar expedition and the Fram was left lying at Horten. The long months in tropical waters had left her worm eaten and in generally poor condition. Amundsen therefore had a new polar ship built, the Maud.

Luckily the feeling grew generally in Norway that such a ship should not be left to vandals and the weather. Several committees worked to get her preserved, without success. Then Otto Sverdrup, who was deeply concerned about the fate of his old ship, became chairman of the Fram Committee in 1925 and took it on himself to save her.

Fram was towed – almost as a wreck - to Framnæs Shipyard in Sandefjord in 1929 and, with the support of the ship owner and whaling magnate Lars Christensen and supervision by Sverdrup, she was restored. It was decided to return her to her state during Sverdrup’s 2nd Fram expedition since, in the opinion of experts, she had then “been at her best”.

In May 1930 the Fram was towed to Trondheim to be shown at an exhibition there and in September-October she was towed back to Oslo, visiting a number of coastal towns on the way. Otto Sverdrup died on 26 November and Lars Christensen continued the work to preserve the Fram. She was towed back to Horten and then Sarpsborg, where she lay until 1934 covered with a corrugated tin roof.

Sverdrup had meant that the Fram should be taken ashore and that a house should be built to include even the masts. In a royal resolution of 19 June 1931 the ownership to the Fram was given to the Committee for the Preservation of the Polar Ship Fram, and the engine was returned from the Technical College in Trondheim. In March 1935 the foundations of the 1500 m² Fram House were laid at Bygdøy in Oslo.

The Fram arrived in Oslo on its last voyage 6 May 1935, towed by the towboat Høvdingen and with Oscar Wisting in charge on board. It took over two months to get the ship on land, with a small electric motor pulling her at a speed of 1 cm/minute. She was in place on 10 July and the house could be built around. It was almost finished by the end of the year.

Sailors and other fans from all over the world sent money to complete the rescue – a total of NOK 252 000 (8.5 million NOK today). The building was finished in spring 1936 at a cost of 240 000 NOK. The copper roofing cost an additional 20 000. On 20 May 1936 the Fram House was opened with the King, Crown Prince and other dignitaries present, together with participants from all three Fram expeditions: Sigurd Scott-Hansen from the 1st, Gunnar Isachsen and Adolf Lindstrøm from the 2nd (Lindstrøm also from the 3rd) and Oscar Wisting from the 3rd.


Three times the skill of the designer and shipwrights, combined with first-class navigation and outstanding seamanship, brought the Fram safely home from hazardous voyages in uncharted waters, from unmapped areas.

Today, this proud little ship is on display for all to admire in the museum at Bygdøy in Oslo that bears her name. Welcome aboard!