Since as far back as Aristotle, cartographers and explorers suspected the existence of a Terra Australis - a vast southern continent to "balance out" the land masses of the north. Maps as early as 1513 include a continent that looks like Antarctica, though it is known for certain that no one from that era could have made it there with the ship technology at the time. It was not until 1820 that three expeditions all sighted the Antarctic mainland for the first time, within days or weeks of each other. It would only be a matter of time before someone made it all the way to the South Pole.
The first person who set foot on Antarctica is said to be the American John Davis, a sealer, who landed there on 7 February 1821. In 1840, Charles Wilkes, leader of an American Navy expedition, was the first to cross a substantial swath of land and realize that the new island was a continent rather than just a large island. The southeast quadrant of Antarctica was named Wilkes land in his honor. At the turn of the century, Britain sent forth the National Antarctic Expedition (1901 - 1904), led by Robert Falcon Scott, which established a base at McMurdo sound, and came closest to the South Pole yet.
Ernest Shackleton, part of Scott's expedition, led the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition (1907 - 1909), in an effort to be the first to reach the South Pole, and was only 180 km (111 mi) away before they had to turn back. Parties from that expedition were the first to discover the Magnetic South Pole, however.
After the magnetic south was discovered, the competition really got intense. Robert Falcon Scott, the Brit, and Roald Amundsen, from Norway, sailed their ships Terra Nova and Fram in an effort to be the first to the South Pole. Their expeditions took place throughout the year 1911 and early 1912. Roald Amundsen's party was first, reaching the South Pole on 14 December 1911. Their strategy involved taking 52 dogs with them and feeding the dogs to the others as they died. They returned with only 11, as this is how these expeditions were done in those days. Robert Scott reached the South Pole only a month later, but his party of five perished on the return trip across the Ross Ice Shelf. Today the Scott-Admundsen South Pole Station is named in honor of the two men.