11/26/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Admiral Byrd's Antarctic Snow Cruiser

Admiral Byrd's Antarctic Snow Cruiser (see diagram below) was built in 1939 to support his third Antarctic expedition. It was a huge, one-of-a-kind invention designed to house scientists while they traveled to the South Pole and back over a 12-month period. It sported four, independently-steered, pneumatic tires 10 feet tall, and carried an airplane on its roof in support of the expedition. This Jules Verne-like vehicle also slept four comfortably, boasted a galley, machine shop, darkroom, and radio room, and carried a year's supply of food.

Byrd's Snow Cruiser was designed by Dr. Thomas C. Poulter, Director of the Armour Institute in Chicago, and built by the Pullman Company of sleeping car fame at a cost of $150,000. The vehicle was so large the only way to get it from Chicago to Boston, its port of departure, was to drive it across country very, very slowly. The trip attracted huge crowds and newspaper headlines along the way especially when a series of mishaps (including a slip off a too-narrow bridge) spurred speculation that Byrd's Snow Cruiser was a white elephant in disguise.


Unfortunately, the Snow Cruiser proved much slower in the field then her specified cruising speed of 10-13 miles per hour. Though she may have been adept at fording crevasses, she was unable to climb the 35 percent grade she was designed for, a serious problem given her 30-ton weight caused her to sink in the snow more times than anyone cared to remember (see man in photo at bottom -- is that an instruction manual he's reading?).

Byrd's Snow Cruiser proved so problematic that it only managed to cover 96 miles in 12 months of activity and much of that in reverse! As a result, when the expedition ended the vehicle was abandoned. She was rediscovered sometime in the 1950s only to float away on an ice shelf and sink to the bottom of the sea. Nevertheless, the Institute has a warm place in its heart for Bryd's impractical Snow Cruiser even though sled dogs would have performed better.