The idea for the expedition had arisen after items from the American vessel Jeannette, which had sunk off the north coast of Siberia in 1881, were discovered three years later off the south-west coast of Greenland. The wreckage had obviously been carried across the polar ocean, perhaps across the pole itself. Based on this and other debris recovered from the Greenland coast, the meteorologist Henrik Mohn developed a theory of transpolar drift, which led Nansen to believe that a specially designed ship could be frozen in the pack ice and follow the same track as the Jeannette wreckage, thus reaching the vicinity of the pole.
Nansen supervised the construction of a vessel with a rounded hull and other features designed to withstand prolonged pressure from ice. The ship was rarely threatened during her long imprisonment, and emerged unscathed after three years. The scientific observations carried out during this period contributed significantly to the new discipline of oceanography, which subsequently became the main focus of Nansen’s scientific work. Fram’s drift and Nansen’s sledge journey proved conclusively that there were no significant land masses between the Eurasian continents and the North Pole, and confirmed the general character of the north polar region as a deep, ice-covered sea. Although Nansen retired from exploration after this expedition, the methods of travel and survival he developed with Johansen influenced all the polar expeditions, north and south, which followed in the subsequent three decades.