There is reason to question the common use of the word "discoverer" - take America as an example: According to archaeology, man is continuously present on the continent since maybe 20,000 years and both vikings and the first Portugese met people there on their voyages. But nevertheless, usually Columbus (1492) or Bjarni Herjúlfsson or Leif Erikson (around 1000) are celebrated as the discoverers of the continent. Similar paradoxes can be found for most parts of the Earth: according to normal use, the expression "discoverer" is attributed to the person, for whom the earliest visit to a certain region is documented beyond doubt by descriptions or maps - and this usually even just from an occidental perspective. Quite often, these "discoverers" had already informations about the supposedly unknown new lands, maybe even from european predecessors, who had no real interest in making their knowledge generally known, for instance hunters or pirates, or they belonged to a different culture (chinese, indian, arabian), well known in their home areas, but ignored or mostly unknown in the occident. Such differences between official discoverers and the real first are common also in the Arctic.
The official discoverer of Franz Josef Land in the sense of being proved by sufficiently precise descriptions and maps is clearly the austro-hungarian TEGETTHOFF Expedition 1872-74 under the general leadership of Carl Weyprecht, with Julius Payer as the leader for land activities. Its original goal was the exploration of the Northeast Passage, but then, the expedition vessel was trapped in an icefield already in the North of Novaya Zemlya. and this ice never gave the expedition vessel free again for the next 2 years. Drifting helplessly in the ice mostly in fog, the mist suddenly opened partly up on August 30th 1873 and the crew could discern a dramatic unknown rocky coastline in some distance (today´s Cape Tegetthoff). In winter 1873/74, the icefield finally froze together as a continuous ice cover, at last, south of Wilczek Island. Across this ice, Wilczek Island was reached first already during the polar night, and then, Payer led several longer sledge parties into the unknown territory during spring 1874 across the ice cover of the sounds, to explore and map the new land. Without knowing it, the longest sledge tour reached even the northernmost point of the archipelago and of Eurasia on Rudolf Island. But Payer was convinced to have seen land masses stretching endlessly further to the North from there, which he named Petermann Land but was not able to explore further into this direction during his tour. This ominous Petermann Land stimulated a number of following expeditions, aiming for the North Pole and hoping to find an easier route northwards over this hoped-for land bridge and therefore chosing remote and newly-discovered Franz Josef Land as their starting base, until the return of Nansen and Johansen from their North Pole attempt touched nothing but ice between almost the Pole and Franz Josef Land in 1895.
As the ice did not open up also in the late spring of their second year trapped in the ice field, Weyprecht decided in spring 1874 to abandon his vessel. It took the expedition team weeks to drag the ship´s lifeboats across the uneven ice surface and minor cracks, mostly against the current, until they reached more open water and were finally rescued by a Russian hunting ship. Thanks to excellent planning, preparations and leadership, the expedition had only one casualty in 2 years.
As far as known, the TEGETTHOFF expedition had no prior hints about land in this area, except of some vague reports of land sightings east of Spitsbergen, so this discovery came very unexpected and Weyprecht named the new territory after the austro-hungarian emperor of that time: Kaiser Franz Joseph Land. Nevertheless, earlier human sightings or even visits are imaginable (see further down).
Motivated by the hope of an easier access road via the supposed land bridge stretching to the North, a number of following expeditions was attracted to Franz Josef Land, with the main goal of being the first to the North Pole - except of Leigh Smith and Jackson, who first of all wanted to explore the details of the newly discovered lands.
The mapping of the islands - at least the shore lines, to a much lesser extent also of the mostly glaciated inland - was then almost completed by the following seven expeditions:
Some of the more remote islands were charted only as late as during the soviet period, after the final annexation of the archipelago by the USSR in 1929. Because of its long coasts with winter ice, the USSR was for a long time the only European country with a fleet of icebreakers (KRASSIN, SEDOV, MALIGYN, etc.), which allowed also systematic research work during summers in the high arctic areas, where western expedition vessels at best were ice-strenghtened, but not built for actively forcing their way through heavier ice.
As mentioned above, there are no precise descriptions or maps, which could prove an earlier sighting or even visit of Franz Josef Land prior to 1873. However, there is a number of indications and theories that the islands might have been discovered before - but those discoverers either disappeared again unknown by today, or left no sufficiently precise descriptions, or were simply not interested in sharing their knowledge with others.
Discoveries and Climate Change in the Arctic:
In view of the rapid advances in ship construction and propulsion (steam engine instead of sails) in late 19th century, which nevertheless were shown their limits more than often enough during the period of heroic exploration in the Arctic, the idea of earlier advances into the most remote arctic regions with less developed vessels may seem strange - how should that have been possible ?
Apart from pure luck (unusually favourable conditions in single years), an obvious reason is climatic change, which is a big issue also today. The Arctic is especially susceptible to climatic change, because temperatures in the Arctic vary around the freezing point of water - small temperature changes lead to considerable changes in the ice cover of land and sea.
Currently, the arctic ice retreats, starting about 150 years ago, with increasing rates especially over the last two decades. However, assuming that the status 150 years ago was a kind of normality, as one might think in view of frequent media coverage ("warmest summer since 150 years", "least ice since 150 years"), is a popular misconception. In reality, these often quoted 150 years have a quite different double reason: first of all, systematic temperature recordings rarely date further back, and secondly, the so-called "little ice age" ended 150 years ago, as well.
The Little Iceage began around 1400 and lasted until about 1850 - as possibly the coldest period of the 10,000 years since the end of the last "big ice age" - and caused in the Arctic (and also in many other places, like the Alps), a massive growth of ice both as glaciers on land, and as ice cover on the Arctic Ocean. As mentioned before, arctic nature, with its climate oscillating around the freezing point, reacts very sensitively on climatic changes, on a warming (now) just as well, as on a cooling (during the little iceage), with a correspondingly strong change in ice cover. Before the Little Iceage, quite certainly extensive arctic land and sea areas were free of ice for some centuries, which then disappeared under ice covers. In many places, the retreat of the land ice during the last 150 years has by far not yet reached the minimum of ice cover during mediaeval times, and similarly, also the increase of sea ice cover during the Little Iceage locked off areas from navigation, which were accessible in principle (or even reached) in the centuries before. Quite likely, the sailors of mediaeval times had less ice problems in the highest North, and therefore could in principle sail further also with less advanced vessels, than their successors in 17th and early 18th century (and moreover, losses were more acceptable as fate then, than today). From a European perspective, the most obvious example for such mediaeval maritime expansion was the expansion of the Scandinavians to Greenland: Less sea ice faciliated the access and a warmer climate allowed the growing of grain in Greenland as a key precondition for the establishment of lasting viking settlements there, which would have been unthinkable without a certain local autonomy in food production in view of the limited and long transport routes for imports from Europe. The Little Iceage stopped agriculture in Greenland and accordingly, the vikings died out there around 1450 and only today, with the current warming, agriculture returns to Greenland (now with potatoes).
An even smaller ice cover of the high arctic archipelagos can be assumed for the so-called Atlanticum, an even warmer period of several thousand years following quite abruptly the last big ice age. During that period, the shores of northern Europe and Asia were thinly populated by neolithic tribes already, who partly were using simple small boats, or who followed the reindeers over ice in the winters. At that time, large parts of today´s arctic tundras were not even arctic, but covered with sub-arctic low trees and probably good conditions for both animals and for hunters depending on them.
Examinations on Franz Josef Land show that even low parts of the islands, have been continuously free of permanent ice for the last at least 8500 years, allowing the existence of tundra vegetation and animals depending on plants, possibly an even richer wildlife, than today. Numerous findings of old reindeer antlers in various places of Franz Josef Land, which could be dated to ages between 6400-1300 years, prove the periodical existence of reindeer stocks on the islands under more favourable climatic conditions, to which latest the cooling of the little iceage put an end. These reindeers must have immigrated from elsewhere over the winter sea ice, possibly followed by nomadic stone age hunters.
Another aspect are dramatic changes of the coastlines due to both variations of sea level and up and down moves of the land itself - pressed down by heavy ice loads in cold periods, rising slowly again after the melting of the ice in warm periods. In combination, these two effects have caused dramatic changes of coastlines especially in the Arctic, where huge continental shelf areas stretch far out into the Arctic Ocean - today as shallow coastal seas, and as dry land (or ice covered) during colder periods: during the peak of the last iceage, sea levels were more than 100 m lower than today, due to the enormous amounts of water stored on land as ice. The end of the last ice age seems to have come quite abruptly, the rapid ice melt probably causing a rise of sea levels by many metres per century, with a dramatic advance of the Arctic Ocean into the land areas that had fallen dry during the ice age. Accordingly, the Russian mainland and today´s high arctic islands may have been much closer together (and with more islands in between) during certain periods. As for Franz Josef Land, the distance from Graham Bell to the small Ushakov Island further east is about 250 km today. With a water level 50 m lower, Ushakov would grow to an impressive tundra island of 4000 km², while the distance to Graham Bell would sink to 150 km. Standing on a hill on a clear day, the tops of Graham Bell would be visible from such a big Ushakov Island on the horizon and clouds above the island and flying birds would be further signs for hunters familiar with nature, revealing the existence of land in that direction: surely a temptation for hunters, possibly also following reindeers at least temporarily over the winter ice.
From Severnaya Zemlya (which would become a peninsula of mainland Russia with a 50 m lower sea level and would extend quite a bit into the direction of a larger Ushakov) a migration (or shorter visits) to Franz Josef Land in neolithic times is therefore not as unlikely as it might seem today. If even a neolithic migration from Europe across the North Atlantic to North America during the last ice age (in addition to the main direction via the then dry Bering Strait) is discussed among historians, the distance from the Russian mainland via other islands or over the ice to Franz Josef Land is not that forbidding, anymore.
Therefore, a neolithic discovery of Franz Josef Land is less impossible as it may seem at first glance - but any archaeological evidence is missing so far (though traces may have been ruined by considerable sealevel variations and later glacier advances like latest during the Little Ice Age).
With this, I do not intend to out me as an ardent advocate of a possible stone age arrival of man on Franz Josef Land, but it is a thinkable possibility.
Another possibility is a discovery by Russians or other Europeans during late mediaeval times or later. Even during the warmest mediaeval periods, it was probably slightly colder than during the Atlanticum, with possibly a bit more ice as the result. But still, it is quite possible that the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean was still limited enough in good years of 15th to early 17th century to allow advances even with relatively weak sailing ships into remote waters, which then became inaccessible with the advance of the Little Ice Age. There are some vague reports from sailors of 17th and early 18th century about sightings of land in the far north of the Barents Sea east of Spitsbergen, which might refer to Franz Josef Land, but are to inaccurate for a localisation. The German cartographer August Petermann assumed already in late 19th century that such a report about a sighting by Baffin in 1614 might have referred to Franz Josef Land and in 1675, the Dutch navigator Roule reports a sighting of land in the north of the Barents Sea as far north as 85°N, though that phantastically northern position (where there is in reality only very deep Arctic Ocean) may just as well indicate an invented story. Latest in 18th century, the massive growth of sea ice as a result of the Little Ice Age put a stop to voyages into these remote waters.
Until mid 19th century, the waters east of Spitsbergen were regarded as unnavigable, inspite of legendary stories about earlier findings of land further East. But fitting to the end of the Little Ice Age around 1850, with a following warming, and a resulting gradual retreat of the ice, surprised reports from Norwegian hunters appear from about 1865 onwards who suddenly were able again to penetrate into these waters again in good years. The Norwegian shipper Rønnbeck from Hammerfest and his Sami harpooneer Aidijärvi told about a sighting of land far east of Spitsbergen in 1865, which might well have been today´s Victoria or Prince George Island, but without any coordinates or more precise description sufficient for a clear identification. Further sightings are quite imaginable, but often, these hunters had no interest in spreading such news, which would have invited unwelcome competition to new potential hunting grounds.
Massive consequences of climate changes are typical for the Arctic, not only today. Natural variations in climate during the relatively short time since the end of the last big ice age, and even since mediaeval times, have caused drastic changes of conditions, which make earlier discoveries of Franz Josef Land at least imaginable. But undisputed evidence of a discovery prior to the TEGETTHOFF expedition in 1873 is lacking. Still, the link between the typical strong variations of natural conditions and human history in the Arctic is a fascinating topic, where much research still remains to be done.
Differing names seem to be almost a principle in Franz Josef Land: even in the book "Nordpol Expedition", written by Julius Payer as one of the leaders of the TEGETTHOFF expedition, which gave the archipelago its name, we find 4 different ways of spelling: Franz Joseph Land, Franz Josephs Land, Franz Josef Land und Franz Josefs Land, and furthermore with "Kaiser" in front of the name, or without. And on early western maps, even the western names appear in differing spellings, as well, due to pronounciation differences and lacking extra letters. Cape Tirol thereby became partly Cape Tyrol.
In the first 40 years following the discovery of the archipelago, Russia played practically no role in the exploration of the islands, inspite of its vicinity. Therefore, all major islands and the main capes and mountains had mostly german, english, italian or norwegian names, until Russia started with some own activities in the archipelago just before World War I, as well.
After the gradual soviet annexation of the archipelago around 1929, the russification of names started. However, contrary to neighbouring Norway, which renamed Spitsbergen high-handed and for nationalistic reasons to "Svalbard" after having got souvereignty over the archipelago by the international Spitsbergen Treaty of 1925 to underline an alleged historic claim based on an eventual, unproved viking discovery, the Soviet Union abstained from any major ideological manipulations of names on Franz Josef Land, which otherwise are common in totalitarian regimes. The established western names were kept, except of partly deleting nobility titles in them. However, while transferring the latin spellings to cyrillic alphabet, some compromises were needed, as not all latin letters are matched by cyrillic ones - for instance, there is no real equivalent for "H", and furthermore, the names were adapted to Russian grammar. All in all, these were understandable adaptions, allowing Russians to read the names in their own language and writing on their own maps.
The story becomes more tricky only relatively recently, with the appearance of newer western maps and publications. Here, the transscribed former latin-western then cyrillic-russian names often were transscribed once again, to latin-western spellings, but seemingly in many cases without knowing the former western original. The results of these double transscriptions are often surprisingly different from the original names, even if the retransscription ended again in the language of the original name.
Example: Hayes Island, named by Payer in 1874 after the american polar explorer Isaac Israel Hayes, had to be transscribed approximatively (lacking an equivalent to the "H") as good as possible to Острор Хеѝса. Without knowing the historical background, this is then re-transscribed to latin letters in English to Ostrov Kheysa or Kheysa Island, and Ostrow Chejsa or Chejsa Insel in German. Would Payer still understand, what island is meant by this ? And Hooker in Hooker Island becomes on its way via Russian and back suddenly Gukera, Hoffmann ends up as Gofmana, Hall as Gallja, and so on.
As the russian transscription did not aim at a renaming of places but just at a way of spelling in Russian as close as possible to the original, there should not be any problem to continue on western maps with latin typing the use of the original western names in their original spelling - only that this would require some historic background on the side of the publishers, instead of mistreating the names twice in a way, which often leads far away from the original.
In any case: when dealing with maps and other Franz Josef Land publications, be prepared for a wide range of name variants for the same location.