The Earth Beneath Our Feet


Christine Garwood. Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea. Macmillan, 2007.
David Standish. Hollow Earth. De Capo Press, 2006.

It is rather surprising that even today some very strange notions about the earth still persist. As Christine Garwood points out in her first chapter, it is a myth that educated people at least, thought the earth was flat until Columbus proved them wrong. Baring a few religious extremists everyone accepted that the earth was a globe, though there might be arguments as to its size and which portions were habitable. Biblical verses suggesting a flat earth were interpreted as allegorical.

It was not until the nineteenth century and its cult of the fact, that some of what would later become fundamentalist Christians began to argue that the earth was flat. Christine Garwood documents the rise of the these strange beliefs and the often stranger people that held them. The first of these was the Stockport born ex-Owenite socialist and medical quack Samuel Birley Rowbottom, who adopted the nom-de-plume 'Parallax'. He appears to have done so out of a spirit of pure contrariness, and possibly as a satire on religious fundamentalists.

If Rowbottom was at heart a joker, he soon obtained followers of who were distinctly serious, not least John Hampden, who was the centre of a notorious wager with the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution through natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace was himself an outsider and, with his promotion of spiritualism, an increasingly marginal figure in English scientific life. Being both short of money and wishing to educate the public he had taken a wager with Hampden was to whether the sphericiy of the earth could be proved by sightings along a stretch of canal. Needless to say Wallace won, and an infuriated Hampden engaged in a lengthy campaign of vilification of Wallace and his family which led to several libel suits and periods in prison. In the end however Wallace lost the case owning to gambling debts being unrecoverable at law, and the feeling in many circles that he was something of a cad for taking money off a poor deluded madman.

The inheritance of the flat earth doctrine passed through several curious hands, such as the eccentric evangelist and protofeminist Lady Blount the American freelance dictator Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who ran the town of Zion, where even the parochial schools taught the earth was flat, down to the English sign painter Samuel Shenton.

Where there is an English eccentric there has to be Patrick Moore, and Moore soon became a sort of promoter for Shenton. Indeed he appears to have invented some of the Flat Earth societies members such as Gerald St John Culdwart, his friend Septimus Herbage and their Russian correspondent Dr Popov! Rather amusingly Ms Garwood treats these people as though they were real individuals, but veteran Moore watchers will know otherwise.

In more recent times, Canadian philosopher Leo Ferrari and a group of artist friends set up a Flat Earth Society in much the same mood of semi-serious humour as the founders of the Rhinoceros Party. Ferrari used humour to make people take stock of how much they thought they knew was actually based on unthinking acceptance of the word of authority. American, Charles Kenneth Johnson however was in deadly earnest.

Forteans might wish that Charles Fort would have got an honorary mention or two in here. Perhaps he could be mentioned in some subsequent edition. Before doing so, however Ms Garwood would do well to revise her high school physics so she does not come up with howlers like that on p232 in which she says "..In fact, Leonov's weightlessness was to anticipated because gravity does not exist far beyond the earth" Of course this is nonsense, without the earth's gravity Leonov, his capsule and the moon would have flow off into space, Leonov's apparent weightlessness was due to him being a free fall around the earth.

If the flat earth was the preserve of a few cranks, the idea of a hollow earth, the subject of David Standish's book, attracted far more mainstream attention in times in which basic knowledge of geology was lacking. It was supported by none other the astronomer Sir Edmund Halley, and was the staple fair in science fiction/fantasy literature being featured in the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, Frank Baum, Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

In the real world, the theory was promoted by the eccentric American John Cleves Symmes (b 1780), who began publishing the idea in 1818. Various versions of the theory were presented, in some there were concentric rings of inhabitable worlds, in others there was a central "sun" illuminated an interior world on the opposite side of the earth's crust.

As geological knowledge grew the idea of a hollow earth vanished from mainstream thought, but was revived in an even more eccentric way be the American religious leader and fringe electrician Cyrus Teed. Like many before and after him he was to proclaim himself a messiah, 'Koresh', and set up his own commune/town, which he ruled as a freelance dictator for several years. In his vision of the hollow earth, we lived in the concave inside, and our sun was the central sun.

Unlike Garwood, Standish is clearly more concerned with the idea of the hollow earth in fiction, and much of its later development is squeezed into the final chapter. Here the central character is Ray Palmer, the science fiction editior/writer, who began to promote the stories of Ronald Shaver concerning the deros in the earth's interior who were responsible for all sorts of nasty things, mainly those happening to Shaver himself. Shaver clearly had mental health issues, but Palmer's motivations are more obscure. In the 1970s he pushed the idea of the hollow earth in his Flying Saucers magazine, complete with satellite photographs showing blanks at the poles. I rather suspect his motivations were similar to those of Rowbottom and Ferrari, taking delight in the difficulties people found themselves in when trying to prove the truth of anything we know to be true, but don't exactly know all the technical details of why.

Some of those who followed Palmer were probably more sincere in their beliefs, such as Brinsley le Poer Trench, the UFO writer, and Raymond Bernard. All of this got caught up with various kinds of unsavoury kinds of Nazi survival beliefs. Of these books, Standish's is perhaps the slighter, but it is engagingly written, and illustrated with excellent period illustrations.

Of course it might be asked, of what possible relevance to the real world have the meanderings of a bunch of the world's ultimate cranks. In the case the of the flat earth, the answer is that they are the most extreme example of the subjection of the empirical world to religious dogma. If the Bible says the earth is flat, the earth is flat, and all modern science has to be wrong. This is the ultimate expression of the creationist world view, one which our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, seemed quite content to allow in his much vaunted 'acadamies'.

The hollow earth is slightly more complex, but it clearly draws on notions of the earth as the womb, and as a place of spirits. For Shaver the underworld was simply a technological vision of hell and the dero its tormenting demons.

The flat earth and rather lesser the hollow earth are the sort of ideas that very small children often have of how the world works, in which case these are extreme examples of what we see in many fringe fields, they do not involve the promulgation of radical new ideas, but the holding on to old ideas and beliefs that the mainstream world has long abandoned.

There are also other similarities to different fringe topics, the constant attacks on "orthodoxy", the role of the autodidact, populist and anti-intellectual appeals, the use of wagers and the law for example. -- Peter Rogerson. This is an extended version of a review first published in Magonia 98, April 2008.

1 comment:

Rossome said...

Nicely researched, but poorly edited article. Also, flat earth and hollow earth theories are apples and oranges. While humans have conclusively proven that the earth is spherical, there is no such proof of the planet being either solid or hollow . . . just theories held as fact or not. There is evidence suggesting a hollow moon, how can the idea of hollow planets be ruled out without conclusive evidence?