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The Telecom Inventor Island Mystery

January 12, 2011 - 0 Comments

By Steven Shepard, Contributing Columnist

What a wonderful thing maps are. As a child I would pore over them, sometimes for hours, looking for the silliest names, the most intriguing locations, the most exciting geographies. I was particularly taken by maps of the Canadian Shield, a place so vast and forbidding that even today large swaths of it remain unexplored.

This is the home of the world’s largest remaining arboreal forest — it is huge. I also like the fact that on the maps of northern Canada, even today, roads meander northward from the reasonably populated cities near the US border, and then, inextricably, end. As a kid I longed to go there, to see what lay beyond the end of the road. I still do.

I still take aimless ambles through maps today when I have time. The nature of my work is such that I have had the pleasure of driving to the end of some of those roads, and in some cases, creating roads of my own. I have visited places with exotic names like Timboctou (we call it Timbuktu), Ouagadougou, and Zanzibar. The joy of map-gazing, however, still burns hot for me.

Recently, while faced with a temporary mental slowdown (call it writer’s block), I gave the globe in my office a spin, and as I often do, reached out and randomly stopped it with my index finger. And, also as I often do, I looked under my finger to see what fanciful place I had trapped there. Sure enough, it was a new place, one I’d never noticed before: A globular cluster of 191 islands, 900 miles from the North Pole, between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, a Russian territory called Franz Josef Land.

The islands are closely grouped like wrist bones, and all have worthy names: Zemlya (the word means ‘land’ in Russian) Aleksandry. Ostov (means ‘island’) Rudolfo. Zemlya Georga. And my favorite, the one on which my finger had randomly landed, Ostrov Greem Bell: Graham Bell Island.

Arctic Tribute to a Famous Inventor

Needless to say, it intrigued me that there was an island — a Russian island, no less — named for Alexander Graham Bell. Why? Of all places, why would a virtually invisible cluster of islands in the northern reaches of the planet, a place where few look and even fewer visit (most of the islands are at least partially glaciated and therefore not all that hospitable) have one of its own dedicated in name to the inventor of the telephone? I had to know.

First discovered by Norwegian sealers in 1865, and claimed as Russian territory in 1926, Franz Josef Land became a military outpost that was actually visited by the Graf Zeppelin in 1931 when it arrived bearing supplies for the few hardy souls who were posted there.

Ostrov Greem Bell is the eastern-most island in the chain, and one of the largest. It is home to a former Cold War outpost and to Greem Bell airfield, the largest airfield in the island cluster. Since the early 1950s, Russian cargo and fighter planes have regularly landed there, servicing the research and military installations on the island. But why does it bear Bell’s name? Well, I wish I could tell you.

I called the Russian embassy in Washington, and after being handed off to various cultural attachés (or whatever they really were) and explaining repeatedly where the islands are located, I came up with nothing. So I called the map room at my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. No joy.

One more possibility. I called the US Air Force and got in touch with their public affairs office. No one knew much about the place, other than to tell me that (1) it is Russia’s northern-most airfield, (2) it was built in the 1950s to provide a staging base to reach the US, and (3) it is not believed to be operational any longer.

One last point. It was the telecommunications industry that pretty much invented the concept of a fault-tolerant redundant architecture. How fitting, then, that just to the west of Ostrov Greem Bell lies another island – Ostrov Bell – named after the same man. Can you help us solve this mystery?

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