“Colin Archer,” designer and builder of the Fram. Farthest North: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the ship Fram, 1893-96 and of a Fifteen Months’ Sledge Journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieutenant Johansen, 1897, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum


The Fram was built specifically for Arctic exploration, and Fridtjof Nansen took special care designing the hull, quarters, and supplying ship for the long and difficult arctic weather. Nansen chose Colin Archer as the builder and together they were able to meet all of Nansen’s requirements. The Norwegian Government, the King of Norway, the royal Geographical Society of London, and private subscribers funded the construction of the Fram and Nansen’s expedition to the Arctic.

Nansen and Archer used the information from past Arctic expeditions and found, “In the construction of the ship two points must be especially studied, (1) that the shape of the hull be such as to offer as small a vulnerable target as possible to the attacks of the ice; and (2) that it be built so solidly as to be able to withstand the greatest possible pressure from without in any direction whatsoever.” Their attention was also that the ship was, “a safe and warm stronghold while drifting in the ice, than to endowing her with speed or good sailing qualities.”

The Fram needed to have very sloping and smooth sides as well as be large enough to carry supplies for up to five years. The bow, stern, and keel were rounded so that the ice slipped by and could not “grip” the points. The goal was that, “ the whole craft should be able to slip like an eel out of the embraces of the ice.”

“Designs for the Fram,” Farthest North: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the ship “Fram,” 1893-96 and of a Fifteen Months’ Sledge Journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieutenant Johansen, 1897, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum

The ship’s hull was constructed of oak for strength. The planking on the stern was also covered with iron plate for resistance against ice. “The outside planking consists of three layers. The inner one is of oak 3 inches thick, fastened with spikes and carefully caulked; outside this another oak sheathing 4 inches thick, fastened with through bolts and caulked; and outside these comes the ice-skin of greenheart, which like the other planking runs right down to the keel.” The planks inside the Fram were four to eight inches thick, so the ship’s sides were from 24 to 28 inches thick.

  • Length: 128 feet
  • Keel: 102 feet
  • Breadth: 36 feet
  • Draught: 121/2 feet
  • Displacement: 800 tons
  • Sail area: 6,000 square feet
  • Engine: 220 horsepower
  • Speed (light load): 6-7 knots

The ship could carry five years worth of provisions for men and dogs, plus coal enough to steam full speed for four months. Since the Fram was to drift for months, they did not need much coal. The Fram was rigged as a three-masted fore-and-aft schooner. The mainmast was 80 feet high and the crow’s nest was 120 feet above the water line. They also carried some square sails for the moveable yards on the foremast that could be added when needed.

The engine was a triple expansion that would be economical on the consumption of coal. The engine was constructed so that if one of the cylinders went bad it could be switched out of the flow and the other cylinders would take over. The ship also carried two spare propellers and one spare rudder—which were never used.

The crew’s quarters contained a saloon in the middle of the ship, which served as the dining and recreational area. Surrounding the saloon were crew quarters. There were four staterooms with one berth and two rooms with four berths each. Nansen’s goal was to keep the quarters as warm as possible. The saloon would be the warmest. The rooms were insulated with various materials, including linoleum that covered the surface of the wall and was an air- and waterproof material. The sides of the walls were layered with tarred felt, cork, deal paneling, felt, linoleum, and finally, wood paneling. The ceilings of the rooms had layers of air, felt, deal paneling, reindeer hair stuffing and linoleum. If you added the deck planks, the ceilings were 15 inches thick. The floor in the saloon had six- to seven-inch thick cork, then a wooden panel, and finally linoleum. Nansen stated:

One of the greatest difficulties of life on board ship which former Arctic expeditions had to contend with, was that moisture collecting on the cold outside walls either froze at once or ran down in streams into the berths and on to the floor. Thus it was not unusual to find the mattresses converted into more or less solid masses of ice. We, however, by these arrangements, entirely avoided such an unpleasant state of things, and when the fire was lighted in the saloon there was not a trace of moisture on the walls even in the sleeping cabins.

The ship was also built with three sealed compartments with watertight bulkheads, and was fitted with electric lights. The engine while under steam power made the electricity, but for the time they would be drifting, a windmill was used, or a “horsemill” the men worked. They also took 16 tons of gasoline to use for cooking and heating the cabins.

“The Fram in the Ice, Midsummer, 1894,” With Nansen in the North: A record of the Fram Expedition in 1893-1896, 1899, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum

When put to the test in the Arctic, the Fram did what it was designed to do. When the ice pressed in, the ship lifted out of the ice. The insulated cabins kept the crew warm and dry. At the conclusion of the 1893 to 1896 expedition, the Fram was taken out of the water until Otto Sverdrup took it from 1898 to 1902 on an expedition around the Arctic Islands. This trip lasted from June 1898 to September 1902. Sverdrup’s goal was to explore the north east coast of Greenland by sailing through Smith Sound. The Fram was caught in the ice off of Cape Sabine and Sverdrup was forced to build winter quarters. He continued to explore the region by land and even encountered Robert Peary.

In 1909, Roald Amundsen asked the permission of Fridtijof Nansen to use the Fram in an attempt to reach the North Pole, and since Robert Peary beat him to it, to use her in an attempt to reach the South Pole. Amundsen had to refit the Fram, which had been in storage since Sverdrup’s expedition.


"The Fram’s plans," The South Pole: An Account of the of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the “Fram,” 1910-1912, 1912, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G850.1910.A5.

Amundsen had built a series of boards, fixed three feet above the deck so the sledge dogs could lie under the boards out of the sun and the rain. It also protected them from the wash of water over the sides of the ship. In addition to replacing the insulation on the ship around the saloons and the cabins, Amundsen also decorated the rooms with pictures and paintings to make it more comfortable in the long journey. He also had comfortable quarters built for the sledge dogs. Their kennels were insulated so that the cold arctic air did not affect the dogs during their voyage. While Amundsen was sledging to the South Pole, the Fram became the first ship to reach the farthest south.