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Remembering a Towering Figure in the School of Engineering Annals and Naval History

A Memorial Day Tribute

The tale of the USS Jeanette, a Navy ship that set out to reach the North Pole in 1879, includes all the elements of an epic adventure: brutal forces of nature, unspeakable hardships, clashes of will, almost unimaginable bravery, and the thin line between death and survival. It also includes one of our alumni, George W. Melville.

When the ship set sail from San Francisco through the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean, Melville, who had graduated from what was then known as Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute in 1861, was aboard as its chief engineer.

“He was certainly a larger-than-life character,” Hampton Sides, the author of The Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, has asserted. “He could fix anything — the kind of guy that usually had a welding torch in his hand. He would take machines apart and rebuild them, or cannibalize other machines for parts.”

Melville’s mechanical skills — along with his strength of character and leadership abilities — would be sorely tested during that ill-fated expedition.

The ship became mired in the polar ice pack, where it remained for almost two harrowing years before sinking just north of the 75th parallel and the remote New Siberian Islands. Captain George Washington De Long ordered the crew to abandon ship, and the ragtag band of 33 men set off across the slush and ice dragging three lifeboats and scanty provisions until, after three months, they finally found open water that might take them to Siberia and safety.

Borrow In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette from NYU Libraries

Melville, whom Sides described as “stoic and tough as nails,” was placed in command of one boat, which managed to reach the delta of the Lena River and was rescued. With the others presumably dead, he then led an expedition that recovered records from the Jeanette as well as the remains of De Long and several other seamen. (Amazingly, Melville was undaunted by his ordeal and returned to the Artic in 1884, aboard the USS Thetis.)

Melville, who was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his actions during the Jeanette expedition, was appointed Engineer in Chief of the Navy in 1900, and he retired from that post with the rank of rear admiral three years later. Over the course of his time in the military, he supervised the designs for 120 new ships, greatly modernizing the fleet with such innovations as the water-tube boiler, the triple-screw propulsion system, vertical engines, and floating repair ships, and among his other important contributions was the establishment of the Engineering Experiment Station (EES) in Annapolis, where machinery and equipment designed for Navy ships could be tested thoroughly before installation. (Multiple sources have detailed how hard he fought to win the $400,000 appropriation to build the facility.)

Melville died on March 17, 1912. He has been honored with a statue at the Philadelphia Naval Base, and two ships have been named for him, a destroyer and an oceanographic research vessel. He still stands as an exemplar of bravery, engineering know-how, and service to his fellow man.