Alfred Wegener

On 6 January 1912 a spectacle of one man against the world took place at the annual meeting of the Geological Association in Frankfurt am Main. That was the day 31-year-old meteorologist Alfred Wegener gave his talk on the formation of the oceans and continents and in the process shook the foundations of accepted doctrine. On the following pages you will find out, among other things, how Alfred Wegener arrived at his theory back then and what young geologists today can learn from him.

Alfred Lothar Wegener was born in 1880 in Berlin in a pastor's family. He spent his childhood and youth, nevertheless, in Zechlinerhütte near Rheinsberg. He spent his school time at the "Köllnisches Real-Gymnasium" in Berlin-Neukölln. After successful high school graduation he studied from 1900 to 1904 physics, meteorology and astronomy in Berlin, Heidelberg and Innsbruck.








In 1905 he was conferred a doctorate in astromomy by Julius Bauschinger at the Friedrich's Wilhelm University of Berlin. He found his first employment in the same year as an assistant in the aeronautic observatory Lindenberg near Beeskow.

From 1906 to 1908 he went as a participant of the Danish expedition under the direction of Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen on his first Greenland journey. After his return he became an assistant lecturer for meteorology, practical astronomy and cosmic physics at the Philipps University of Marburg. In 1909/10 he worked on his book "Thermodynamics of the atmosphere" in which he also used numerous results of the Greenland expedition.













At the beginning of 1912 he introduced to the public for the first time his considerations for the continental movement. During the years from 1912 to 1913 Wegener took part for the second time in an expedition to Greenland. The Danish expedition under Johan Peter Koch spent the winter for the first time on Greenland.

After his return he married Else Köppen, the daughter of his mentor Wladimir Köppen. After the wedding the pair moved to Marburg. At the beginning of the First World War Wegener was drawn as a reserve officer immediately, fought at the west front and was found after two times wound active service-unsuitable. He was assigned to the army weather service and informed as a meteorologist among other things officers who should lead airships. In this time he also worked on his main work "The Origin of the Continents and Oceans" which appeared in 1915 the first time as a book.













In 1919 Wegener was appointed the leader of the department "meteorological research" of the German naval observatory ("Deutsche Seewarte") in Hamburg, which is why the Wegener family resettled to Hamburg. In 1921 he was appointed to the extraordinary professor to the university of Hamburg. Three years later Wegener received the call on the chair of meteorology and geophysics at the Karl Franzens University in Graz, Austria. There he turned first to physics and the optics of the atmosphere as well as the study of the Tromben (cyclones).

Then he focused again upon the scientific evaluation of his second Greenland expedition (ice measurements, atmospheric optics etc.) and published in 1929 the fourth edition of "The Origin of the Continents and Oceans". In the same year he proceeded together with his employees Johannes Georgi, Fritz Loewe and Ernst Sorge on his third Greenland expedition to find the most favourable place for the rise of the main expedition planned in the subsequent year in the Greenlandic ice sheet. On this expedition the thickness of the mainland ice and the all-year weather should be measured from three firm stations.













However, the expedition itself ran unhappily: Caused by strict budgetary politics of the government of Brüning less financial means than intended were available for the household of the imperial Ministry of the Interior also responsible for the science and with it for the household of the emergency community of the German science and for the budget of the expedition clearly. The hope, to receive other money, was low.

 The pressure for success on Wegener as an expedition leader was huge consequently. Besides, by unfavourable ice relations with the landing on the west coast it came to a time delay of 38 days which could not be made up in the following again. In addition, the research station "Eismitte" (in the essentials a cave dug in the ice) could not be equipped completely and be supplied with food; a fact which made overwintering there a difficult project.

In view of this situation Wegener undertook it himself to supply this station with additional food and fuel. Wegener died on the way back of "Eismitte" presumably about 16th of November, 1930. On the 12th of May, 1931 the searching expedition lead by Ernst Sorge and Karl Weiken found Wegener's gravesite which had been put on by his Greenlandic companion, Rasmus Willumsen, carefully. Only heart failure could be assumed as a cause of Wegener's death, as Willumsen and with him Wegener's diary remained missing.







Directly to Wegener's death his scientific achievement was located rather in the meteorology and in the polar research. Today his theory on continental movement is evaluated as his most important scientific achievement which was approved later in the 60s of the 20th century and  became the basis of the theory of the plate tectonics during the following years.

At dizzy height

Alfred Wegener and his brother were avid hot-air balloonists. In 1906 they succeeded in undertaking an exceptionally long balloon flight. Poorly equipped with clothing and supplies, they landed, suffering from hunger and the cold, only after 52.5 hours, thus breaking the existing world record at that time by 17 hours.

Struck by lightning

Wegener’s first meteorological article appeared back in 1905 and described a lightning strike in a group of kites in which six kites were held in the air by over 9,000 metres of wire. The topmost kite carried the self-recording instruments. When Wegener started hauling them in because of an impending storm, he suddenly saw a beam of fire move down the wire to the outermost unwinding reel with a tremendous hiss like an explosion. Wegener was lucky and escaped injury. However, the wire was completely burned up.

On foot and by sled

On the Danish Mylius-Erichsen expedition in 1906-1908 in northeast Greenland Alfred Wegner covered 1,500 km by dog sled within 90 travel days. Using a hand sled, he travelled for 43 days, covering around 500 km.

While crossing Greenland at around 77°N in 1912-1913, he along with his colleagues Koch, Vigfuß and Larsen had to trek over 1,200 km, for the most part on skis at elevations of about 3,000 metres. The actual crossing of the inland ice took 75 days.

Smoker and poet

Wegener started smoking during the expedition in 1906-1908. In response to criticism he answered with a poem in praise of tobacco, which begins as follows:


Ich lobe mir die kurze Pfeife!

Damit der Geist nicht ziellos schweife,

Und die Probleme fest ergreife,

So daß die Arbeit richtig reife, ….


Wegener had a special predilection for Christian Morgenstern’s poetry. On certain occasions he himself occasionally tried his hand at humorous, comical poems, such as:


Auf hoher See Hipp! Hipp! Hurra! Wir fahren nach Amerika!

Wir stampfen gegen Wind und See, sieben Meilen Fahrt, Herrjemineh!

Windstärke neun von vorn o Schreck! Wir nehmen Wasser über Deck.

Doch wenn erlahmt des Sturmes Kraft, entfaltet sich die Wissenschaft.

Der Doktor schon zu diesem Zwecke, füllt den Ballon hier in der Ecke.

Erst muss er tüchtig >Auftrieb< kriegen, dann läßt ihn der Professor fliegen.

Das weitere ist gar nicht schwer: Man guckt von unten hinterher.

Und rechnet dann im Kämmerlein, wie wohl der Wind mag oben sein.

To the bitter end

When Alfred Wegener and his expedition comrades approached the end of the Greenland crossing of the west coast at the beginning of July 1913, the last remaining horse, Grauni, was extremely weak. However, the men had set their mind on saving this horse at all cost.

In his entry for 28 June Wegener wrote in his diary: … We covered about two kilometres in an original way, for which – as far as I know – we have priority: we put Grauni on the sled and tied him there and then we pulled the sled ourselves! … After this first attempt, as Wegener called it, Grauni was transported on the sled several more times on the following days.

However, the horse did not reach the west coast. The entry for 4 July reads: We haven’t eaten any bread in a long time now, but have given everything to Grauni; we made do with short legs each day though we could have gone further with the help of the sail; we put him on the sled and pulled ourselves – many miles – and now he dies on us a mile before the depot.