From the Arctic to the Equator

In 1959, a block of glacier ice was carried – without refrigeration – from the Arctic Circle, through Europe, across the Sahara, and all the way to the Equator. It was perhaps the greatest publicity stunt in history.

Ice block truck in the Sahara
Arne Palm [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It began as a radio stunt. Radio Luxembourg set out a challenge to bring 3,000kg of ice from the Arctic to the Equator without any refrigeration. They offered to pay 100,000 francs per kilogram remaining as a reward to the victorious party. They meant it as a joke, I assume, because in today’s money that’s more than five million US dollars. But not everyone took it as a joke.

Enter Glassvatt, a Norwegian company who specialised in glass fibre insulation. They thought they had a good chance at making this actually happen. As soon as Radio Luxembourg got wind of this, they withdrew the challenge. But Glassvatt decided to go ahead anyway, thinking that it would be excellent publicity.

Step 1: procure a glacier. They carved fifteen 200kg blocks out of the Svartisen glacier. I’m imagining the opening scene from Disney’s Frozen here. The blocks were melted together to form one big 3,050kg block.

Step 2: wrap it up. The block was covered in wood and Glassvatt-brand glass wool, then sealed up in an iron container and loaded on the back of a truck.

Step 3: drive drive drive. The truck went down to Oslo, then on to Helsingborg (in Sweden), Copenhagen, Hamburg, Cologne, the Hague, Brussels, Paris, and down to Marseille. This was not exactly the most direct route, but when you’re doing something for PR purposes it makes sense to show it off a bit. They were almost stopped in Belgium because they didn’t have a customs declaration form for the ice, which (I think you’ll agree) is pretty much Peak Belgium.

Step 4: Sailing to Algiers. When they arrived in Africa they opened up the case to see how they were going. Incredibly, only 4 litres of water had come off the glacier block at this point. But the next stage was going to be the most challenging: crossing the Sahara.

Step 5: Crossing the Sahara. The Sahara Desert is not a safe place for a block of ice. Among the hazards: no roads, oppressive heat, guerrilla fighters, and camels. The French Foreign Legion accompanied the truck, with the instruction to “drive for your lives, even if you get a flat tire.” The sixteen ton truck frequently became mired in the desert sand, so if any guerrillas cared enough they probably could have captured it and made the world’s best desert martini. It took fourteen days to get across the desert; the ice block lost 15 litres every day but remained otherwise intact.

Step 6: Schweitzer! The truck was also carrying medicine for Albert Schweitzer’s Gabon-based hospital, so it dropped that off and then proceeded to the final destination: Libreville. They opened up the iron box again, and weighed the remaining ice block.

2,714kg remained; only 11% of the glacier block had melted over the course of the month-long trip. If Radio Luxembourg had kept up their end of the bargain, Glassvatt would have won a prize of 4.8 million US dollars (in today’s money). But this victory was reported far and wide, so at least the company got some great press.

The ice itself was given to the people of Libreville. Some of it was carried back north and served at a reception in Oslo during the first showing of a documentary about the trip. You can watch the whole film (in Norwegian) at the second link below.

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