Robert Scott’s Scales Returned to Antarctica

The Salter scales have returned to Antarctica, after years in a personal collection in Idaho. The New Zealand Subantarctic Heritage Trust brought these antique scales back to the hut where Robert Falcon Scott had left them in 1904.

Scott’s Discovery Expedition of 1901-4 was the first official British expedition to Antarctica since Sir James Clark Ross’s private voyage in 1839. It opened the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and led to the discovery of King Edward VII Land, the Polar Plateau, an emperor penguin colony, and new marine species. Scott built the Discovery Hut at the eponymously named Hut Point on Ross Island and used it to store seal blubber, flour, biscuits, fire bricks, kerosene tins, and other vital supplies. Some items remained long after the expedition went home. One of them was, you guessed it, scales. These scales — made by Britain’s original Salter company, which had been producing spring scales since the 1760s and still exists today — were used to weigh equipment and food in preparation for sledging.  

The Discovery Hut was built in 1902. Photo: Eminetra New Zealand


So why are a set of scales so important? In 1964, the New Zealand Antarctic Society started to log the items in the hut. They found chess pieces, frozen (but rancid) food, letters, and more. However, over the years, visitors routinely pinched souvenirs from the hut. Until the 1970s, throughout the polar regions, even scientists considered historic artifacts fair game for the mantelpiece. Efforts to conserve Antarctic history started in the early 1960s, as contemporary exploration became more popular and the artifacts more imperiled.

In the 1950s, American captain James Douglas arrived in Antarctica to oversee the construction of eight U.S. bases. He took the scales back to the States with him. Before his death, he passed them on to his daughter, Susanna. She hung the scales in her cabin in Idaho, where they resided for 15 years. 

News of the Heritage Trust’s work in finding lost items from the Discovery Hut reached Susanna and prompted her to repatriate them. Many others likewise returned old clothing, equipment, and even decaying 100-year-old food. All of these are now chronicled on the Heritage Trust’s database. 

From 2013 to 2014, the Heritage Trust weatherproofed the Discover Hut and reinforced its compromised sections. Times have changed, and today, anyone who takes items from the Hut will be prosecuted.