Top 10 Expeditions of Scientific Discovery

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A society willing to mount explorations reaps the benefits of discovery. Throughout history, while many such expeditions had conquest or riches in mind, a different sort of voyage emerged around the time of the Renaissance — travel with the stated objective of geographic or scientific discovery. Our ventures into space aside, here are 10 famous terrestrial expeditions that provided insight into the physical and natural world.


10. Hernando De Soto Explores the Southeastern U.S.

Hernando De Soto explored a vast portion of what is now the Southeastern United States.

Photo credit: Heironymous Rowe

In the 16th century, much of North America remained unexplored by Europeans. That changed with an expedition led by Spaniard Hernando De Soto, a three-year journey that began in 1539 near present-day Bradenton, Florida. Though primarily interested in discovering gold, De Soto surveyed and explored a large portion of what is now the Southeastern United States and became the first European to cross the Mississippi River. Although De Soto and more than half of the almost 700 men who began the journey died en route, survivors returned to Europe with journals that provided vast knowledge about the geography and Native American culture of the mysterious continent.


9. Ibn Battuta Travels Several Continents

Ibn Battuta is relatively unheralded today, despite traveling more than 75,000 miles across several continents in the 14th century.

Map of Ibn Battuta’s travels from 1325-1354.

Born in Morocco in 1304, Ibn Battuta became the most travelled man of his time, traversing what are now Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia while making the pilgrimage to Mecca three times. His journeys were not scientific expeditions per se, but his meticulous journals from his 30 years of travel provided a fascinating look into the geography and everyday life of the 14th century world, including the scourge of the Bubonic plague. He covered more than 75,000 miles of the Arab world, far surpassing the travel mileage of the better-known explorer Marco Polo.


8. Burke and Wills Explore The Australian Outback

Robert Burke and William Wills became the first white men to cross Australia.

Burke and Wills start their ill-fated journey across Australia.

In 1860, an expedition led by Robert Burke and William Wills set off from Melbourne, Australia, in a bid to make the first crossing of interior Australia. The expedition was well equipped for its time, and even imported camels to help traverse the harsh interior. In addition to geographical survey work, the team was spurred on by recent gold discoveries on the continent. The expedition successfully completed the 2,000-mile journey northward to the Gulf of Carpentaria, but all but one man died on the return trip due to starvation and harsh conditions. It has been suggested that Burke and Wills perished from a vitamin deficiency resulting in Beriberi.


7. Stanley and Livingstone Explore Central Africa

David Livingstone and Henry Stanley contributed greatly to European knowledge of Africa.

David Livingstone was the first European to see Africa’s Victoria Falls; Liz F. Smith/

From 1871 to 1877, Henry Morton Stanley explored the Central regions of Africa, building on the work of Burton and Speke (see below) and solving the riddle of the source of the Nile as well as establishing the separate source of the Congo River. Despite accusations of inhumane treatment of the natives, Stanley’s travels were pivotal in opening up Africa for trade. He is best known for his search for missionary David Livingstone, and his legendary meeting with the other man, where he is popularly believed to have uttered the famous phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Although Livingstone’s early focus was missionary work, his travels in Africa from the 1840s until his death in 1873 revealed much about the continent. He became the first European to encounter Victoria Falls, along with one of the African Great Lakes, Lake Malawi.


6. Magellan Sets Sail Around the World

Ferdinand Magellan launched the first successful voyage around the world.

Replica of Magellan’s ship Victoria, in Punta Arenas, Chile; Juan Matassi

Setting sail under the Spanish flag in 1519, Portuguese-born Ferdinand Magellan famously led the first voyage to circumnavigate the world. But this landmark voyage also made several scientific and geographical discoveries en route, which were detailed in the journals of Antonio Pigafetta who accompanied him. Magellan documented several new species and languages as well as the satellite galaxies of our Milky Way, known as the Magellanic Clouds, which are visible only in the Southern Hemisphere. Pigafetta was one of only 18 men who successfully completed the trip out of the 275 that set sail; Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines. Only one of the five vessels that set sail, the Victoria, completed the three-year voyage.


5. Lewis and Clark Explore the Louisiana Territory

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were instrumental in opening the American West to settlement.

Lewis and Clark Expedition route, 1804-1806; Wikimedia

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out from Camp Wood, Missouri to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Instead of discovering volcanoes and “salt mountains,” the Lewis and Clark expedition cataloged scores of unknown plants, animals and tribes as well as mapping the American West for settlers. Remarkably, campsites used by the Lewis and Clark expedition have been traced today by the presence of mercury (used in laxatives in that era) found in latrines used by the party. For more on this epic journey, National Geographic offers a fascinating interactive page.


4. HMS Beagle Voyage Inspires Darwin’s Evolution Theory

Charles Darwin's voyage aboard the HMS Beagle inspired his theory of natural selection.

Map of the HMS Beagle’s voyage;  Semhur

In 1831, the HMS Beagle set sail from England for surveys of South America, Tahiti and Australia. Aboard was one Charles Darwin, a young geologist who seized the opportunity to see the world. His five-year journey as a naturalist to South America and the Galapagos gave him key insight into forming his theory of evolution, which he later incorporated into his landmark On the Origin of Species.


3. Burton and Speke Search For Source of Nile

Sir Richard Burton and John Speke made important discoveries on the African continent.

Photo of J.H. Speke, circa 1860, National Portrait Gallery, London.

One of the most colorful tales of exploration in the Victorian era, Sir Richard Burton and John Speke traced the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers and searched for the Nile’s fabled source on multiple expeditions. Sir Burton is a colorful character in his own right, and his cultural awareness and ability to “go local” (he was the only Westerner to make and recount a dangerous pilgrimage to Mecca) were singular in their day. Burton was also pivotal in bringing the books Kama Sutra and One Thousand and One Nights to Western eyes. The Royal Geographic Society funded Burton and Speke’s journey to find the Nile’s source, making it one of the best-equipped expeditions of its day. The expedition was the first to spot Lake Tanganyika, in 1858, and Burton also kept detailed logs of the various cultures they encountered. Burton and Speke later became involved in a lengthy and very public quarrel over the true source of the Nile, and Speke died in a hunting accident under controversial circumstances in 1864.


2. Marco Polo Travels the Far East

Marco Polo's journeys to the Far East inspired future explorers.

The travels of Marco Polo.

At 17 years of age, Marco Polo set off on a journey across the old Silk Road to Cathay, the European name for modern-day China. His exploits during his 24-year journey provided a rare glimpse into the world of the Mongols in the 13th century, as well as influencing several cartographers of the day. Ironically, Polo was not greeted as a hero upon his return, but was instead imprisoned, as his native Venice and Genoa were at war. Most of what’s known of Polo’s travels comes to us by way of his fellow inmate and surreptitious biographer Rustichello da Pisa, leading to some controversy as to the accuracy of his later work, The Travels of Marco Polo. Nevertheless, the account of Polo’s 15,000-plus-mile journey sparked a new Age of Exploration eastward for European merchants and explorers.


1. Captain Cook and Crew Sail the World

Captain James Cook and his men made countless important contributions to the field of science.

Captain James Cook’s expeditions covered much of the planet; Jon Platek

From 1768 until his death in 1779, Captain James Cook led several ocean voyages that were notable for being some of the first expeditions in which science was the main stated objective and not an afterthought. Cook searched for the Northwest Passage, made meticulous records of the peoples of Australia, Alaska, Hawaii, Tahiti and numerous other locales, and initiated peaceful contact with many island cultures for the first time. A first-rate sailor and geographer, Cook surveyed and completed some of the most meticulous maps of the day. Men on his crew where even pre-screened for venereal disease to the extent possible in the 18th century, and his practice of adding fresh fruit to the shipboard diet (hence the term “limies” as slang to describe British sailors) was the first effective prevention of scurvy. Cook also observed a transit of the planet Venus across the face of the Sun in 1769 from what became known as Point Venus, Tahiti, a crucial measurement to gauge the solar parallax and the scale of the solar system. Cook’s legacy is well preserved today, with his name on geographical features (the Cook Islands, Cook Inlet in Alaska), as well as a hospital, university and other institutions.


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Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at