Looking for Lighthouses
Looking for Lighthouses
© 1992 by Robert J. Schadewald
Reprinted from Creation/Evolution #31 (1992)

The toolkit of the obscurantist is limited. As a result, a few themes and modes of argument tend to recur whenever well-founded views are systematically attacked. A 19th century argument about lighthouses illustrates this fact and illuminates a central apologetic method of modern creation science.

Sometime in 1868, an itinerant lecturer who called himself “Parallax” gave a series of evening lectures on “Zetetic Astronomy” in the ancient Roman city of York, 180 miles north-northwest of London. The lecturer's real name was Samuel Birley Rowbotham. Zetetic astronomy was a flat Earth system he had largely invented, and he had then been promoting it in public lectures for nearly two decades. Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe was also the subject of his 221-page book (Rowbotham, 1865). In his book and in his lectures, “Parallax” (Rowbotham) made a simple, basic argument: If the Earth is globe, you can throw out your Bible. He bolstered this claim with many arguments from the natural world, some of them involving lighthouses.

Reverend M. R. Bresher, vicar of St. Martin's in Coney-street, York, found out about the flat-Earth lecture series only after the fact. Reverend Bresher, who had an M.A. from Cambridge, knew some astronomy, and he was concerned because “many of those who listened to the Lecturer's fervid denunciations of the newtonian system as utterly absurd in itself, and subversive of all belief in the inspiration of the Bible, seem to have been carried away by his declamation, and to have become converts to his system.” Obtaining a copy of Zetetic Astronomy, Reverend Bresher studied it carefully and then wrote a detailed rebuttal entitled The Newtonian System of Astronomy; with a Reply to the Various Objections Made Against it by “Parallax” (1868).

As suggested previously, Rowbotham used the same tactics to sell zetetic astronomy that Henry Morris uses to sell creation science. He raised various objections against the conventional view to cast doubt on the competence, veracity, and motives of scientists and then hit listeners (and readers) with the Biblical hard sell. This was just as effective at a mid-19th century flat-Earth lecture as it is at a late-20th century “Back to Genesis” seminar. Moreover, unlike modern creation science, zetetic astronomy was not just smoke and mirrors. Rowbotham really did have a (relatively) coherent alternative to the conventional view, and he set forth his system in his book and his lectures.

The details of zetetic astronomy and Reverend Bresher's dissection of it need not concern us here. We will discuss only Rowbotham's arguments based on lighthouses.

Before the days of electronic navigation systems, lighthouses were vitally important to mariners. Standard navigation references (such as Bowditch) contained detailed descriptions of the locations, characteristics, and visibility of the most important lights. Navigation charts showed the exact positions of all lighthouses, and local pilotage guides listed all lights in a given area. Besides these, the standard English-language reference was known as Lighthouses of the World (Findlay, 1862). Rowbotham made extensive use of Lighthouses of the World, as the following quotation illustrates:

This conclusion [that the Earth is flat] is greatly confirmed by the experience of mariners in regard to certain lighthouses. Where the light is fixed and very brilliant it can be seen at a distance, which the present doctrine of the Earth's rotundity would render altogether impossible. For instance, at page 35 of “Lighthouses of the World,” the Ryde Pier Light, erected in 1852, is described as a bright fixed light, 21 feet above high water, and visible from an altitude of 10 feet at the distance of 12 nautical or 14 statute miles. The altitude of 10 feet would place the horizon at the distance of 4 statute miles from the observer. The square of the remaining 10 statute miles will give a fall or curvature downwards from the horizon of 66 feet. Deduct from this 21 feet, the altitude of the light, and we have 45 feet as the amount which the light ought to be below the horizon!

Rowbotham's calculation is correct, although he made no allowance for atmospheric refraction. But even deducting 1/7 of the dip for refraction (a generous correction) does not solve the problem for sphericity. Rowbotham went on:

By the same authority, at page 39, the Bidston Hill Lighthouse, near Liverpool, is 228 feet above high water, one bright fixed light, visible 23 nautical or very nearly 27 statute miles. Deducting 4 miles for the height of the observer, squaring the remaining 23 miles and multiplying that product by 8 inches we have a downward curvature of 352 feet; from this deduct the altitude of the light, 228 feet, and there remains 124 feet as the distance which the light should be below the horizon!

Again, Rowbotham's arithmetic is correct, and even a generous correction for atmospheric refraction cannot solve the problem for sphericity. Rowbotham gave about 20 such examples in Zetetic Astronomy, and he averred that “many other cases could be given from the same work, shewing that the practical observations of mariners, engineers, and surveyors entirely ignore the doctrine that the earth is a globe.”

Suspicious reader that you are, you probably wonder whether Rowbotham cited Lighthouses of the World correctly. Bresher wondered, too. When he consulted the work, however, he found that the published numbers were exactly as Rowbotham stated them. But that was not the whole story. Bresher noted:

I have carefully looked over the book alluded to, and find that out of above 2000 cases, the few selected by “Parallax” are nearly the whole that do not verify the truth of the doctrine in question. And what do these few, about thirty out of upwards of 2000, prove?

An excellent question. Before considering it, we should note another of Bresher's discoveries:

[W]hile “Parallax” was attentively scanning the “Lighthouses of the World” to find out some that could be seen farther than they ought to be seen, on the supposition that the earth is a globe of about 25,000 miles in circumference; he could not but find many more which cannot be seen as far as they ought to be, on the above supposition...

The proper conclusion from the above facts is, that either there is a misprint in the book at these places, or that the localities where these lighthouses are situated possess some peculiarities which, if known, would account for these deviations. For it is a monstrous assertion which “Parallax” makes ... that one single instance, like the one he mentions, entirely destroys the doctrine of the earth's rotundity.

Well said, Reverend Bresher!

Rowbotham, of course, was neither the first nor last to promote the 1.5% of the data that supported his position while ignoring the 98.5% that contradicted it. This technique is the common property of those determined to convince others of their position by whatever methods they find expedient. Thus, many creationist evangelists comb the scientific literature trying to find things that don't seem to fit the conventional view. Then they present these anomalies to the public as representative, just as Rowbotham presented his anomalous lighthouses.

Looking for lighthouses is, of course, easier than trying to construct a creation model. Despite assertions to the contrary, no predictive “creation model” of the biological world exists. For years, I have been asking prominent creationists to tell me what the creation model is and on what scientific basis it accounts for homologous structures, molecular phylogenies, and so forth. The silence has been deafening. Like a lonely child's imaginary friend, the creation model is much talked about but never actually presented for inspection. In this respect, flat Earthism is better science than creationism. The flat-Earth model is real (Schadewald, 1989), and no prominent flat Earther was ever struck dumb when asked to say what it is.

And what about Rowbotham's anomalous lighthouses? Beats me. Perhaps the reported observations were made under unusual conditions. Perhaps, for those lighthouses still operating, new observations would not confirm the reported anomalies. By now, however, some of Rowbotham's lighthouses presumably have been closed, torn down, or destroyed by the elements. For these, we will never know. One thing is certain; those who seek only anomalous lighthouses will never find light.


Bresher, M. R. 1868. The Newtonian System of Astronomy; with a Reply to the Various Objects Made Against it by “Parallax”. London: Whittaker & Co.

Findlay, Alexander G. 1862. A Description and List of the Lighthouses of the World. London: Richard H. Lawrie. Cited in Rowbotham, 1865.

Rowbotham, Samuel B. (“Parallax”). 1865. Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe. London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co.

Schadewald, Robert. 1989. “Some Like it Flat.” In The Fringes of Reason: A Whole Earth Catalog edited by Ted Schultz. New York: Harmony Books.

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