The Flat Earthby Donald E. Simanek
Early Ideas About the Shape of the Earth.
The ancients had many novel ideas about the shape of the earth. The Babylonians thought the earth was hollow, to provide space for their underworld. The Egyptians thought the earth a square, (with four corners) with mountains at the edge supporting the vault of the sky.
Aristotle argued for a spherical earth, for these reasons:
The early Christian Church accepted Aristotle's spherical earth. But a few malcontents within the Church pointed out that the Bible speaks of 'the four corners' of the earth. In the 5th century CE the monk Cosmas Indicopleustes, in his Christian Topography, described a square earth with a heavenly vault, much like the Egyptian model. Tertulian also was a flat-earther.
Science writer Robert J. Schadewald gave me permission to quote the following paragraphs in which he summarizes the Biblical evidence which flat-earthers use to justify their position. He wrote this to a geocentrist fundamentalist who was arguing that the Bible supports a fixed, non-moving earth, with the all the rest of the universe moving around us at about one revolution per day. Bob, of course agreed that the Bible does support that view, but wonders why this particular fundamentalist did not also accept the idea that the earth is flat, since that has basis in the Bible also.
The Biblical cosmos model derives from Egyptian sources, which had a flat earth covered by a rounded sky vault supported at the four corners of the earth by high mountains. The 'waters above and the waters below' in the book of Genesis refer to the Babylonian notion that the waters were divided, and some remained above the sky vault. The vault was like a leaky roof and some of that water falls down as rain.
Astonishingly, some present-day 'biblical creationists' now argue that this water above the sky was the source of the flood in the time of Noah. They realize that if the waters did cover the earth to the highest mountain tops, there just isn't any source of that much water in the earth or in the atmosphere! So it must have come from somewhere else, they argue, in their pathetic attempt to make creationism appear 'scientific'.
The Round Earth.
Eratosthenes (c 276 to 195 BCE) was probably the first to accurately measure the size of the Earth. He knew that at summer solstice the sun was directly overhead in Syene (now Aswan, Egypt). On that day, vertical sticks or poles cast no shadows, and sunlight fills the bottom of wells. The town of Alexandria is directly north of Syene (on the same meridian), and on that same day vertical poles do cast shadows, because the sun is then 7.2° from the zenith. Eratosthenes assumed this to be due to the earth's curvature.
Knowing the distance between these cities to be 5000 stadia (from land surveys), he calculated the earth's circumference to be 250,000 stadia. [1 stadium was 1/8 of a Roman mile, or 220 yards in modern measure.] That's a circumference of a little over 24,662 miles, which is nearly the modern value of 24,900 miles. This value was considered too large by most of Eratosthenes' contemporaries, who preferred the smaller value worked out later by Poseidonius (18,000 miles). The latter value was accepted by Ptolemy (and Columbus, much later).
Note that Eratosthenes made the assumption that the sun was far enough away from the earth that the incoming solar rays are parallel.
Popular histories give the impression that Columbus had to contend with flat earth believers who warned that he'd sail right off the edge of the earth. It is even said that he set out to prove the earth was round. That's myth.
Most educated persons in Columbus' day accepted a round earth. But there was difference of opinion about the earth's size. Columbus made the mistake of relying on Ptolemey's value for the size of the earth, which was much too small. Columbus therefore underestimated the length of the proposed voyage. (He wanted to reach the Orient, but America got in the way.)
There were even some who accepted a round earth, but misunderstood gravity. They thought that if you went too far you'd roll off. In fact, they had to postulate some sort of mountainous wall around the known world to keep the oceans from spilling off.
Revival of Flat Earth Theories.
Bob Shadewald, who researced the flat earth idea to a greater extent than I have, tells me that the flat earth idea was revived in the 18th century by the followers of a eccentric English sectarian and tailor, Lodowick Muggleton. I have been unable to independently confirm this. Origins of eccentric ideas are usually difficult to pin down. In any case, from the 18th century to the present day the flat earth belief is bound up with religious fundamentalism.
By 1800, Zetetic societies were flourishing in England. 'Zetetic' means 'seeker' or 'skeptic'. The flat-earthers took this name to symbolize their skepticism toward orthodox scientific views of the shape of the earth.
However, their skepticism was limited to science. Then, and now, the flat idea goes along with religious fundamentalism, and a literal interpretation of the Bible. I have yet to hear of a flat earther who is not also a Biblical literalist.
Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884), a 19th century religious fundamentalist, headed an Owenite colony, and promoted the flat earth philosophy. He's a shadowy figure for historians. He had a reputation of cynical dishonesty, and some think he didn't really believe what he promoted. He was an itinerant lecurer, and wrote under several pseudonyms: Tryon, S. Goulden, Parallax, and Dr. Birley. His major work was Earth Not a Globe written in 1849.
Rowbotham concocted the fiendishly clever idea of light refraction in curved paths to 'save the hypothesis' of the flat earth, to account for what he called the 'optical illusions' of sunrise and sunset. Rowbotham is the first flat-earther to give the size of the sun: 32 miles in diameter, a figure accepted by flat-earthers today. However, he gave the distance to the sun as 700 miles, a figure hard to reconcile with his value for its diameter.
John Hampden (1819-1891) vigorously promoted the flat earth idea in England. He founded the Truth-Seeker's Oracle and Scriptural Science Review in 1876. In 1870 Hampden made a bet with naturalist Alfred Wallace on the outcome of a test of the flatness of water in the Old Bedford Canal. Both sides claimed the test confirmed their view, and flat-earthers to this day assert that "water surfaces have been proved to be flat."
Hampden was known for his piety, and his abusive language. Feeling he had been wronged in the Bedford experiment, he buried Wallace in a blizzard of vitriolic pamphlets and letters to the editor. He even resorted to abusing by letter, as this letter to Mrs. Wallace shows.
Hampden thought the sun only 600 miles away, and 32 miles in diameter. These numbers derived from Rowotham, and added nothing new to flat earth theory.
After Rowbotham's death in 1884 his followers carried on the crusade. The Universal Zetetic Society (UZS) was founded in 1890, publishing a journal titled The Earth Not a Globe Review which had 1000 subscribers. The UZS remained active well into the early 20th century, but slowly declined after World War I.
Other flat-earthers were active at this time. William Carpenter emigrated to Baltimore and wrote One Hundred Proofs that the Earth is not a Globe in 1885. Lady Blount, wife of Sir Walter de Sodrington Blount, promoted flat earth ideas. She founded and edited a journal Earth from 1900 to 1904. Scotsman John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907) studied at Edinburgh University, then established a pastorate near Sydney Australia, and included flat earth dogma in his theology.
A digression on measurements.
In the last decades of the 19th century diverse models of the earth and heavens were actively promoted. Isaac Newton Vail proposed an annular theory to account for the formation of the earth and planets, but assumed a convex earth. The Gillespian theory put the earth and sun in fixed positions, allowing the earth to rotate. A "conic" theory modeled the shape of the earth as something like a cone, its base being the North polar region, and its apex at the South pole. There was even a small publication titled The Square World promoting an earth shaped as an inverted soup bowl, the Northern hemisphere being about as we know it, but with the Southern Hemisphere flaring out to a larger rim. It's a mystery why the author describes it as "square", but it has something to do with the Biblical reference to "the four corners of the earth".
The New Bedford canal experiment inspired others to measure the flatness of water surfaces. Alexander Gleason, a civil engineer from Buffalo, NY, tested the flatness of the surface of lake Erie. He published Is the Bible from Heaven (1890) and Is the Earth a Globe? (1893).
But not everyone who measured water's flatness got the same result. In 1896 Ulysses G. Morrow made such a test on the Old Illinois Drainage Canal, He found the water surface concave upwards. Morrow considered this "the most unmistakable evidence of the water's non-convexity." But he wasn't surprised, for he was already leaning to the view of Cyrus Reed Teed that the earth was hollow, and we lived on its inside surface, with the entire universe also inside.
Morrow made similar sightings in 1896 from the shore of Lake Michigan at the World's Fair Grounds. Seven other sightings were made from Roby, Illinois in 1896, with similar results. These experiments of both flat and hollow-earth advocates were easily dismissed by critics as simply due to atmospheric refraction. Morrow sought a more convincing method for measuring water surfaces, one that would not use light. In 1897 he did the famous Naples experiment in Florida, measuring a nearly 4 mile N-S water surface using a method that did not depend on light. He concluded that the earth was concave, with a radius of a bit over 4000 miles.
During the last decades of the 19th century the flat-earthers and hollow earthers paid close attention to each other's experiments, read their opponent's publications, and even corresponded, through the letters sections of their newsletters.
The earth was flat in Zion.
In 1888 Scotsman John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907) brought these ideas to America, where he founded the Christian Catholic Church in Chicago. Dowie was a faith healer, and the journal Leaves of Healing was the official publication of the church. The church grew rapidly, and Dowie realized his dream of founding a christian community in 1901, the Zion community located on the Lake Michigan shore, 40 miles north of Chicago.
As the community grew and prospered, Dowie moved away from the simple life he had earlier advocated. He resided in a 25 room mansion, and designed for himself magnificent ecclesiastical robes, modeled after those worn by Aaron, the High priest, described in Leviticus. Community members thought he was putting on too much 'style' and his wife was criticized as too extravagant. In 1906, after suffering a stroke, Dowie was forced to resign his position.
Wilbur Glenn Voliva (1870-1942) took over leadership of the Church, which became the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion.
Voliva kept tight control on his 6000 followers, which made up the community. The church schools taught the flat earth doctrine. His 100,000 watt radio station broadcast his diatribes against round earth astronomy, and the evils of evolution.
In its early years, Zion was a one-religion community. A Scottish lace industry and a bakery were established. Zion brand fig bar cookies and White Dove chocolates originated there.
In the town of Zion a strict code of morality was imposed, by law, on all persons who set foot inside city limits. Irving Wallace, in his book The Square Pegs, tells of his childhood memories of Zion. There it was unlawful for women to wear short dresses, high heels, bathing suits or lipstick. Ham, bacon, oysters, liquor and tobacco were banned, as were drugstores, medical buildings and movie theaters. A ten o'clock curfew was rigidly enforced. You could be arrested for whistling on Sunday. These laws were enforced by Voliva's police force, called the Praetorian Guard, whose helmets carried the word 'PATIENCE' and whose sleeves bore images of doves. Policemen wore Bibles and clubs on their belts.
Irving Wallace interviewed Voliva in 1932. Voliva declared that the Bible was his entire scientific library. Astronomers were 'ignorant fools'. The sun, he said, was only three thousand miles away, and only thirty-two miles in diameter. When asked why he thought the sun so near the earth, he said, "God made the sun to light the earth, and therefore must have placed it close to the task it was designed to do. What would you think of a man who built a house in Zion and put a lamp to light it in Kenosha, Wisconsin?"
The Zion communal industries were mostly ruined in the depression. Rival churches made special efforts to send missionaries to Zion to break Voliva's religious monopoly. His political control of the town of Zion was finally broken as well. Voliva died in 1942, and Zion now has pork, lipstick, pharmacies and physicians, and you can safely whistle on Sunday.
The church's power declined in the 40s and 50s, partly due to financial scandals. But the church itself still exists, a pale shadow of its former glory.
I visited Zion in the summer of 1992. It's a small lake shore community of middle class homes and pleasant parks and beaches. One immediately recognizes the town's history and heritage in the street signs, for the north-south streets are named for people and places from the Bible: Gideon, Jethro, Galilee, Gilead, Gilboa, Gabriel, Ezra, Ezekiel, Enoch. When I was there the police cars still carried the town seal, an emblem of the Zion church. A lawsuit had been brought against the town because of this inappropriate use of a religious symbol. Several residents and church members I talked to were very indignant about this attempt to separate church and state.
The original Zion church, a wooden structure, burned in 1937, and has been replaced by a church with modern architectural design. Also gone is the Elijah Hospice, built in 1901. It was considered to be the largest wood frame building in the world, with 350 rooms, dining rooms and parlors. It became the Zion retirement hotel and nursing home. Despite efforts to save it as a historical site, it was torn down in the late 1980s and replaced with a modern brick hospital. Zion now has over one hundred churches of an astonishing variety, including many one-of-a-kind churches. There's even a nuclear power plant adjoining city limits.
Shiloh House, the home of Alexander Dowie and later of Wilbur Voliva, still stands. It may be visited only on weekends, when the local historical society gives public tours.
The flat earth in the late 20th century.
Back in England, in 1956, Samuel Shenton, a sign painter and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Geographic Society, revived the UZS, changing its name to The International Flat Earth Society.
A brochure from the IFS forthrightly states its position.
The society received quite a bit of publicity when Shenton was shown photos of the 'round' earth taken from space. At first he wasn't impressed, saying "It's easy to see how such a picture could fool the untrained eye." [Indeed, a "bug-eye" wide-angle camera lens can produce a similar effect.] Later, some reports said he admitted that the Flat Earth Society might have to "reassess its position." But, after a brief period of uncertainty, he concluded that the space photos and the entire space program was faked by scientists desperately trying to save face by concealing the true nature of the shape of the earth.
Shenton died in March 1971. His wife helped choose a successor. The most enthusiastic potential leader within the organization seemed to be Charles K. Johnson of Lancaster, California.
So Johnson became president of the Flat Earth Society in 1971 and 'inherited' a large portion of Shenton's valuable library of books on flat earth history. Johnson put out a newspaper called The International Flat Earth News. Its masthead declares its purpose: 'Restoring the World to Sanity.'
Johnson used Biblical authority to assert that the earth is a flat disk with the North pole at the center and a wall of ice in the Antarctic regions, surrounding the whole perimeter of the earth disk. In his universe the sun and moon were about 32 miles in diameter and only 3000 miles away. They, too are flat disks. The stars are a mere 4000 miles away.
Where did Johnson get these figures? You won't find the calculations in his newspaper. They may have originated with Carpenter and Robotham in England, and are accepted without question as authoritative by flat-earthers today.
One can reconstruct the origin of these numbers by doing a little geometry, starting from a flat earth hypothesis. Remember the experiment of Eratosthenes, who measured the angular elevation of the sun at two latitudes in Egypt? He assumed that the sun was effectively infinitely far away (or at least so far compared to the earth's size that the actual distance didn't matter). Then he calculated the diameter of the earth using a second assumption: that the earth was spherical.
But suppose you abandon Eratosthenes' two assumptions, and adopt instead the assumption that the earth is flat. Then, triangulation from the same data gives the distance to the sun: 3000 miles! See how a simple change of assumptions can drastically alter the entire cosmos? However, the round earth was more than an arbitary assumption for Eratosthenes, for he and his contemporaries, had other very good reasons for knowing the earth was round. [Textbooks sometimes mislead by suggesting that his experiment was designed to prove the earth was a sphere. It was not, it was only intended to measure the size of the sphere.]
Finally, the angular size of the sun is 0.5°. Using this fact with a distance to the sun of 3000 miles, gives the sun's diameter: 32 miles. It therefore appears that the flat-earther's figures are based on sun elevation data at just two particular latitudes, perhaps even Eratosthenes' values. I speculate that flat earthers may have picked these out of some book, and when the calculation was finished, they looked no further. For if they had done the calculation with a variety of latitudes, including large latitude differences, conflicting results would have been obtained.
The left diagram below shows that for two towns having latitudes within about 30° of each other, reasonably consistent results are obtained. But when larger baselines are used, the triangulation gives a much smaller distance to the sun. For a 70° latitude difference the distance to the sun comes out less than half that for a 10° difference.
Still, one could save the hypothesis by assuming that light refracts in a peculiar way. Modern flat-earthers do indeed assume that refraction is at work. They attribute the disappearance of the ships over the horizon to a refraction effect, and even point out that with some atmospheric conditions, ships, icebergs, and distant mountains have been observed to rise above the horizon, and even turn upside down!
The diagram at the right shows how this works. The angle that the rays strike the earth's surface is correct, matching the left diagram.
To complete their path from the sun to the earth the rays must curve to strike the earth at the correct (observed) angle. The curvature of the rays for latitude differences of less than 50° hardly shows on the diagram. Of course this result can be obtained in various ways. The curvature could be confined to the region near the earth, even within the atmosphere. The diagram shows circular arcs, but other shapes might be used as well.
Answers to other objections to the flat earth idea.
And what about airliners going around the earth? What about earth satellites? They are merely traveling in loop orbits. What makes them do this? Johnson doesn't say. Flat-earthers shun any form of gravitational force. They consider gravity to be a mystical or occult idea. Things fall, they say, simply because they are heavyno other explanation is needed.
What about the moon flights and the pictures from space showing a round earth? Johnson wasn't about to be taken in by such nonsense. It's all a hoax, he proclaimed, an elaborate movie production written by Arthur C. Clarke, filmed on Hollywood sound stages and the Mohave desert. "Neil Armstrong stepped on a paper moon," Johnson asserted.
Johnson says his mission is to restore sanity to the world. He was proud that the United Nations accepts his idea, for they put a map of his flat earth on their flag. He rejected mystical forces like gravity, accepting the Aristotelian notion that things fall naturally downwardno explanation is needed. Who could be perverse enough to deny one's senses by doubting it?
Johnson also cited the testimony of his wife Marjory, who came from Australia. "She's sworn out an affidavit that she never hung by her feet in Australia. She sailed a ship over here, and she did not get on it upside down and she did not sail straight up. She sailed right straight across the ocean. We consider that a very important proof that the world is flat," Johnson says.
Johnson claimed his flat earth society had 1600 members worldwide, but admits some haven't kept up their dues. The society was always struggling financially. There were probably less than 100 hard core members.
By now you may be thinking that this is an elaborate joke. Not so. Read a few issues of his newspaper, and you will see that he is deadly serious. He put out the newspaper at a financial loss, and lived with his wife in isolation and poverty at the edge of the Mohave desert. He was quite sincere, and indignant at those who would make a joke of the flat earth idea.
A rival theory.
In particular Johnson was infuriated at any mention of the Canadian, Leo Ferrari, head of an organization simply called The Flat Earth Society. Ferrari taught in the philosophy department of St. Thomas University. I'll give you a few gems from his promotional brochure:
The cover of his brochure says "We're on the level." He once said, in an interview, that he had traveled to the edge of the earth, which he defines as the edge of what he can see: Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. There he gazed over the edge into the 'abysmal chasm'. "It was a horror," he said. "I managed to grasp a stone for support." He carried that stone back with him, which he calls 'The Sacred Stone'.
I do not know to what extent Ferrari's efforts were parody. But since the internet has made it so easy for people to reach a worldwide audience, several websites of flat earth organizations have appeard, almost certainly intended as satire.
Postscript, March 2006.
Much has changed since I wrote the above account. Bob Shadewald brought me up to date, by supplying the following information. In late September 1995, the Johnsons' home caught fire. Charles managed to pull Marjory, by then a semi-invalid on supplemental oxygen, to safety, but everything else in the house was destroyedtheir personal possessions, the Flat Earth Society library and archives, the membership list, everything. Having no fire insurance, the Johnsons were unable to rebuild. A dilapidated old house trailer, bought as a storage shed, survived the fire, and they took refuge there. A few months later, Marjory fell and broke a hip. She survived hip replacement surgery but never recovered her strength. On May 16, 1996, she died.
Charles Johnson immersed himself in rebuilding the membership roster. Publication of the Flat Earth News, in hiatus since 1994, was to resume with the December 1996 issue. But I have no confirmation that it did.
Charles Johnson died in 2001. I hear rumors that some efforts have been made to find a new leader to revive the organization, but I've seen no evidence that it has happened.
This document is a work in progress. Consider it a first or rough draft. Later versions will have more specific references and footnotes.
Note to Students.
I use the quotation mark style common in philosophy and linguistics. Words and phrases under discussion are enclosed in single quotes, and other punctuation is not included within the quotes. Quoted material from attributed sources is enclosed in double quotes. Lengthy quoted passages are set off by indentation, and retain the punctuation style of the original source. This may not be the style other professors wish you to use. Consult A Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press) to find out about acceptable styles. For work submitted in my courses, you may use whatever consistent style you feel appropriate to the purpose.
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