Posted on Leave a comment

Zetetic to Zeitgeist: a very brief history of the Modern Flat Earth

Generally speaking, very few people, and certainly not many with a decent education, have considered the concept of the Earth being a flat plane (rather than a spherical ball), for a very long time. The understanding that Earth is a large, roughly round-shaped object can be dated back to the 6th Century BCE. However the idea that many during the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat is a myth that seems common even today. Much of the belief that those 500 years ago believed in a flat Earth comes from two sources. One is the 1828 work A History of The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving, an early example of historical fiction, aimed at retelling the adventures of the famous explorer. Irving claimed Columbus’s incentive to navigate the globe was to prove that it was in fact a globe, and not flat as many at the time allegedly believed. The other source is the 1919 edition of Boy’s and Girl’s Reader, which began with the line: ‘When Columbus lived, people thought the Earth was flat’. American national myth-making was highly active during the first half of the 19th century, and a trend to suggest that the founding of the New World represented not only new opportunities, but also a break from outdated ideas. The birth of the Modern Age was popular amongst many writers, even if such concepts were not always accurate. 

Such ideas seem to have seeped somewhat into the popular consciousness, suggesting that the understanding of Earth as a globe is a far more recent idea. The discovery that Earth is in fact orbiting around the Sun may be a more recent revelation traced back to the Middle Ages, but the general shape of the planet was not really in question. Parts of rural China held belief in the Earth being a flat square (with four distinct corners), until modern astronomy began influencing common knowledge there in the 17th century. For the most part you really need to go back to 8th-century BCE and sections of early Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought to find the concept of a flat Earth being widely accepted.

Type ‘flat earth’ into YouTube, however, and you will find a whole wealth of videos attempting to prove that the Earth is flat. Many are a melting pot of 9/11-inspired anti-government conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, new-age pseudoscience concepts, and far-right ideologies. The general message: the government is lying to you, NASA is a scam, and all of the scientific community is involved in an international conspiracy to get easy payouts through fabricated research grants. There is more to the recent proselytizing of the flat Earth, in all its variations (there are many), but that is for another time. Here is an attempt at a very brief history of the concept of the flat Earth in its more modern incarnation. For a far more detailed account, it is worth exploring Flat Earth: History of an Infamous Idea (2007) by Christine Garwood.

The modern considerations around the flat Earth can most likely be traced back to the mid-17th century, when a pair of London tailors, Lodowicke Muggleton (1609-1698) and John Reeve (1608-1658), founded a small Protestant Christian movement. Muggletonianism, as it was called, was essentially a splinter group of the Ranters, a nonconformist religious sect who positioned themselves in opposition to the early Quakers. The founding of Muggletonianism came, according to Muggleton and Reeve, after a direct commission by God, announcing them as the two witnesses described in the Book of Revelation. The pair and their followers were Bible-literalists, taking particular interest in the Bible’s description of the immovable Earth. As a result Muggleton and Reeve began to create their own unique cosmology to support God’s scripture. They began making claims such as Heaven being located around six miles above Earth’s surface, that the Moon shines by its own light, and that a lunar eclipse is caused by some unseen planetary body. Later members of the group produced a number of writings to support the idea of their founders, such as Two Systems of Astrology by Isaac Frost, published in 1846. Here Frost compares the Newtonian system with one based in accordance with the Holy Scriptures, the emphasis being on providing legitimacy to the latter. 

Arguably the most influential individual to the early modern development of the flat Earth concept was English inventor and writer Samuel Rowbotham (1816-1884). He is probably best known for his writings under the pseudonym ‘Parallax’, such as the 1849 pamphlet Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe and its expanded book form of the same name from 1881. In his model, Earth is really an enclosed flat plane, centered on the North Pole, and surrounded by a wall of ice on its outer edge, with the Sun, Moon and Stars circling above, only a few hundred miles up. Although he never made any reference to it in his writings, it seems quite likely that Rowbotham was influenced by a 38-page pamphlet published in 1819, titled The Anti-Newtonian: Or, a True System of the Universe, with a Map of Explanation, Proving the Sun to be a Moveable Body and Central Circulating Equator of Equal Time, etc. This pamphlet, by an anonymous author, describes a model of Earth as a vast circular plane surrounded by a wall of ice in a very similar manner to Rowbotham’s writing.

Rowbotham was born on the outskirts of Manchester, into a moderately prosperous middle-class family. From a young age he questioned the authority of teachers, gradually becoming unsure if what they had to tell him held any validity. A period spent with his grandfather, a mathematician and scientist, did not help his studies; for example, when the pair explored the Moon through a telescope, Rowbotham demanded proof that it was as far away as claimed, as it looked so close. Young Samuel began to find the poetic universe of the Bible a more seductive narrative than the cold hard facts of science. By the 1840s, now in his twenties, Rowbotham began to write his own scientific literature, generally under pseudonyms, such as ‘Tryon’ and ‘S. Goulden’. Here he rejected the conventions of modern science. Rather, starting from scratch with his own observations, he began to draw wild conclusions on a range of topics. In 1842 he produced the 64-page pamphlet called An Inquiry into the Cause of Natural Death, which speculated that the body naturally hardened over time from birth, beginning with the bones and spreading to the whole body, which would result in death. Such a process, according to Rowbotham was not an inevitability, and could be controlled with a suitable diet: eating lots of fresh vegetables would prolong the process, eating salt or white bread would speed it up. 

Additional influences upon Rowbotham’s concepts can be seen in the emerging idea of self-education, popular in Britain following the economic upturn of the 1840s. Rowbotham began to greater educate himself, possibly inspired by the reform-minded social philosophies of those such as Welsh philanthropist Robert Owen (1771-1858), who had invested greatly in workers living conditions and prosperity close to the area of Manchester where Rowbotham grew up. He also seized upon the idea of promoting himself as a travelling scholar, a common form of income for scientists unable to gain employment within the scant university departments of the time. A distinguished academic career was not a requirement for such pursuits, just ideas and bravado. Taking ideas from Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1719-1796), who rejected any abstract scientific speculations, arguing instead for facts needing to be self-evident, Rowbotham found a vehicle from which to reject many ‘scientific theories’. The Earth looks flat, and so self-evidentially, in the view of Rowbotham, it is. He gave talks at Trowbridge Mechanics Institute and Burnley Workingmen’s Club, though became known for fleeing talks when faced with rebuttals he could not counter.

To add weight to his theories, he went about developing experiments to prove that the Earth was flat. Most famous is his Bedford Level experiment, a series of observations that attempted to demonstrate that there was no observable curve over the surface of the Earth. The Bedford Level is a six-mile long stretch of slow-flowing drainage for the Cambridge Fens canal network that runs more or less in an uninterrupted straight line. Rowbotham argued that by positioning himself at one end of the level with a telescope, and sending a small boat with a flag to the far end, the supposed curvature of the Earth would render the flag non-visible due to the boat curving away to 11ft below his line of sight. He reported that the boat remained visible to him for the full six-mile stretch, therefore disproving the notion of a curved globe Earth. Such experiments gained little attention until a supporter of Rowbotham, John Hampden, offered a wager to anyone if they could counter such findings. Hampden’s wager was met by naturalist, biologist and anthropologist Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), who also happened to be a qualified surveyor. Wallace realized that Rowbotham had, amongst other things, largely not accounted for atmospheric refraction, and he went about re-designing the experiment to produce more accurate results. When Wallace was independently awarded the bet, by the editor of The Field sports magazine, Hampden alleged there had been cheating, and attempted to sue Wallace, later threatening to kill him. 

Another avid follower of Rowbotham was William Carpenter (1830-1896). A printer by trade, Carpenter produced many of Rowbotham’s works. Already open to unconventional thought, Carpenter had launched The Spiritual Messenger: A Magazine to Spiritualism, Mesmerism, and Other Branches of Psychological Science in September 1858. Following his partnership with Rowbotham, Carpenter became a passionate advocate of the flat Earth, producing his own works on the subject, such as Theoretical Astronomy Examined and Exposed – Proving the Earth not a Globe (1864) and One Hundred Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe (1885). By 1879 Carpenter had set his sights on America, relocating there with his family to teach shorthand. Here he found comfort in the admiration of Dr. George Davey, president of the Ocean Express Steam Navigation Company, who after coming across Rowbotham’s Zetetic Astronomy work promptly ordered 1000 copies through its printer. In 1885, on release of his second book, Carpenter sent copies of One Hundred Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe to anyone influential he could think of, and as a result the book was widely reviewed in the American press. 

The writings of Rowbotham and Carpenter became a likely influence on Albert Smith, an obscure aristocrat from Leicester, who produced the book Is the Earth a Whirling Globe as Assumed and Taught by Modern Astronomical ‘Science’? (1887), and also became editor of Earth – Not a Globe! – Review, with William Carpenter later contributing to several editions before his death. Smith also had the ear of the affluent but eccentric Lady Elizabeth Anne Mould Blount (1850-1935), who, encouraged by her own research into after-death experiences and ideas around the flat Earth, helped form the Universal Zetetic Society along with Adventist John Williams in 1892. The Society never managed to grow to a size that allowed it to become self-sufficient, relying instead on the ongoing funds given by Lady Blount. Most of the publicity for the Zetetic Society happened through religious publications, such as Christian journal The Torch, whose editor was sympathetic to flat Earth ideas. Lady Blount’s social status gave her access to society’s elite, and membership of the Zetetic Society soon included Archbishop Isaac Stevens (1835-1917), William Thomas Wiseman (1876-1962), and several other scholars and aristocrats. Blount also funded the publication of a flat Earth journal, Earth: A Monthly Magazine of Sense and Science, which ran from 1901 until 1904. Despite the focus of the group, several influential members, and several publicity stunts—including a re-creation of the Bedford Level experiment—the Society failed to gain much attention. By 1897 interest in the Universal Zetetic Society had peaked, and it eventually fizzled out during the first decade of the 20th century. In 1923 Lady Blount remarried, and her interest in the flat Earth subsided, her final contribution being the 1914 book Our Enclosed World.

The efforts of those such as Lady Blount and William Carpenter had done enough to spread the concept of a flat Earth, so that pockets of interest began appearing in seemingly random places. Carpenter’s influence in America was noted by the formation of the Baltimore Zetetic Society, and writings such as Is the Bible from Heaven? Is the Earth a Globe? (1890) by New York-based Seventh-day Adventist Alexander Gleason. A small flat Earth movement sprung up in New Zealand in the 1890s, encouraged by correspondence with an aged William Carpenter. A missionary in Australia, Wilbur Glenn Voliva (1870-1942), returned to Illinois in 1906 to become leader of The Christ Community Church in Zion, and brought with him several ideas from Zetetic astronomy and also Muggletonianism. Another Bible literalist, Voliva had gradually become convinced that the Earth was flat, going on to calculate that the Sun was only 32 miles across, and no more than 3000 miles from the surface of the planet. From 1914 onward Voliva began preaching the flat Earth gospel to his congregation, gradually gaining notoriety for his tirades against astronomy and science. One of his number, Apostle Anton Darms, was tasked with finding evidence in the Bible to refute the globe, which he did to a tune of fifty so examples. Voliva had hymns re-written to emphasize the flat Earth, and wrote lesson plans for the local schools regarding the shape of the world. By this point Voliva’s Theocratic Party, the political offshoot of the Christ Community Church, was in control of several school boards, and effectively paying the salaries of a number of teachers. In order to keep their jobs, the new curriculum was observed. Voliva’s efforts to spread his message intensified in 1923 when he became the first American evangelist to have his own radio station, WCBD Radio, allowing greater spread of his flat Earth ideas. The voice of Zion, broadcasting with 5000 watts of power, sent his flat Earth sermons across not just America, but as far as his early missionary base in Australia. Preaching about the evils of astronomy, and equally evolution, garnered him support from other religious fundamentalists, including the Reverend George H. Dowkontt, pastor of a popular Brooklyn church, and Father John Dumich, a priest of the Serbian Rite Orthodox church, who held parishes in Minnesota and Ohio.

In Britain, arguably the birthplace of the modern flat Earth concept, the subject maintained a rather subdued presence during the war years, but was eventually resurrected by a sign writer from Dover. In the 1920s Samuel Shenton (1903-1971) had begun researching a design for a new type of aircraft, one that rose to remain stationary, allowing Earth to rotate below to bring the craft to its destination. Amazed that no one else had come up with such a simple idea before, Shenton began to scrutinize the validity of his idea through material at the British Library. It is here that he discovered Zetetic Society member Isaac Stevens had previously suggested a similar idea, which also alerted Shenton to the writings of the Society (if he got as far as discovering his aircraft idea wouldn’t work is another matter). Impressed by Rowbotham’s writings, particularly the Zetetic Astronomy works, Shenton soon became a flat Earth convert, and began constructing ideas to develop his own cosmology, based partly on the Zetetic Society writings and partly on his own interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Dropping out of school at the earliest opportunity he enjoyed lecturing about the flat Earth to youth clubs and student groups. In 1956 after finding a relative of a past Zetetic Society member, William Mills, the pair founded The Flat Earth Society, with Mills as President and Shenton as Secretary. Essentially a re-launch of the Universal Zetetic Society, the Flat Earth Society amassed few members and had little influence. It did briefly manage to attract Ellis Simon Hillman (1928-1996), who became a British politician for the Labour party, and later Mayor of the London Borough of Barnet, as president. In 1966 Shenton produced the pamphlet The Plane Truth, which argued that modern astronomy and space flight were insults to God. As the space race developed, media interest viewed Shenton as an amusing curio, with his views on manned spaceflight featuring in the Coshocton Tribune and even The New York Times. NASA’s Lunar Orbiter program, and its subsequent Apollo program, led all but a very few to consider Shenton’s ideas as anything but fantastical nonsense.

After Shenton’s death in 1971 the Flat Earth Society entered a new phase. Acquaintance Charles K. Johnson (1924-2001) inherited part of Shenton’s library, and became president of his own version of the group, The International Flat Earth Research Society of America and Covenant People’s Church in California. Under his leadership this new Flat Earth Society grew in membership, briefly peaking at 3500 members. Johnson also began publication of a quarterly tabloid, Flat Earth News. As a teenager Johnson had come across Wilbur Glenn Voliva’s radio broadcasts, with the pair exchanging letters in 1942, shortly before Voliva’s death. Although Johnson did little to develop the actual models of the supposed flat Earth, he did plenty to embrace the anti-government mentality that has been a staple ever since. Johnson believed that the leaders of all major governments understood that the world was flat, but kept this information hidden to better control the general masses. He was convinced that the United Nations was primarily developed to announce to the world that the Earth was flat, its symbol, in Johnson’s view, was a Rowbothom inspired flat Earth map, but after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, there were, apparently, second thoughts. Johnson became one of the first to embrace Moon landing conspiracy theories; after all, photographs depicting Earth from space did not help his general argument. The Flat Earth Society’s main contribution through the 1980s was to feed space program-themed conspiracies, mostly about the space shuttle being a hoax and the Moon landings actually being filmed within a secret Hollywood studio. By 1995 Charles Johnson was old, an invalid, and when his home caught fire he could only watch as his collection of flat Earth literature went up in smoke.

The 1990s embraced many conspiracy theories, often involving aliens and UFOs. Fueled by a popular culture busy devouring science fiction, the concept of a flat Earth fell full out of fashion. An abrupt change came on 11th September 2001, when coordinated terrorist attacks resulted in passenger airliners crashing into, and subsequently destroying, the World Trade Center towers in New York and part of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Conspiracy theories soon became dark and paranoid: UFOs were out, government cover-ups and sinister New World Order groups were in. A noted difference to years past was the Internet, with its ability to disseminate information at a previously unimagined rate. As the 9/11 conspiracies grew, the theorists embraced the new medium, especially Internet messaging forums and video sharing platforms. In 2003 Dylan Avery (b.1983) began production on a fictional screenplay centred on the 9/11 attacks. Based on researcher Paul Thompson’s 2002 website, which collated a timeline of events before, during and after the attacks, Avery’s screenplay began to change from fiction to conspiracy-themed documentary. The result, Loose Change, was released in 2005, with subsequent revisions released up until 2009. The film found favour online, and its style of selective news clips and out-of-context statements, along with an ominous hip-hop-inspired soundtrack, became the standard format for conspiracy videos.

Others soon followed the formula. Most similar is Zeitgeist: the Movie, a 2007 film made by Peter Joseph (b. 1979), that embraces a whole host of conspiracy theories, not just those concerning 9/11 but also the Jesus myth hypothesis, the international banking conspiracy and the steps towards a single world government. Its modus operandi seems to be a desire to make viewers question everything that they know, and to insinuate as a consequence that most, if not all, accepted mainstream narratives are false. By 2013 Zeitgeist had passed 5 million views on YouTube; increasingly, by this stage anything that questioned accepted truth was open to acceptance from some conspiracy fringe. Whilst Joseph has publically stated that he sees no validity in the flat Earth argument, his brand of the grand over-arching conspiracy, in which all conspiracy theories come together in a paranoid mega-mix, creates the potential for anything to be thrown into the narrative.

Back in 2004, just before the release of Loose Change, Daniel Shenton (b.1977) resurrected the International Flat Earth Society via a web-based discussion forum. Shenton, originally from Virginia, but now based in London, became interested in the flat Earth after hearing Thomas Dolby’s 1984 new wave synth album The Flat Earth. The impact of the revived Flat Earth Society was remarkably underwhelming, but in 2009 the Society was officially re-launched and by 2014 had attracted around 500 members. Specifically what influence Zeitgeist had on interests like the flat Earth is hard to quantify, yet it, and other videos like it, did send enough people out searching for the next piece of the grand conspiracy puzzle. Nevertheless, by 2014 there was also some dissatisfaction with Shenton’s flat Earth revival. Perhaps it lacked a certain amount of paranoia, or an unwillingness to embrace other conspiracies – Shenton himself has stated he sees no issue in the official narrative of 9/11 and believes much of the science around things like climate change. Splinter groups began to emerge, confusingly one also calling itself the Flat Earth Society, and another the International Flat Earth Research Society.

The current wave of flat Earth enthusiasts, who seem to be creating a near constant output of YouTube videos, do not hold with Shenton’s reluctance to explore other conspiracies. As suggested in Zeitgeist, everything is connected, and so seemingly unrelated ideas, such as chem-trails, free energy, global micro chipping and Bigfoot all sit comfortably, in the eyes of some, within the logic of a flat Earth cover-up conspiracy. Like Samuel Rowbotham, they seek to question much of what has been told to them as fact. Take, for example, Eric Dubay, a highly vocal flat Earther who has made countless videos on the subject, most notably his ‘200 Proofs Earth is not a Spinning Ball’ series, as well as producing his own book The Flat-Earth Conspiracy (2014). In addition he also made videos announcing dinosaurs a hoax, the existence of giants, and support for Holocaust denial. Another is Mark Sargent, who has been producing flat Earth-themed content since 2015. In his ‘Flat Earth Clues’, a 12 part video series, he provides his evidence for a flat Earth, such as stars being a giant projection onto some sort of dome or screen, and allusions to an enclosed dome in Hollywood movies such as The Truman Show (1998). Jeranism, the video pseudonym of Jeran Campanella, is another who moved from making Moon landing conspiracy videos to focus on a flat Earth narrative. Campanella has also suggested that the Stonehenge monument is fake, that George H. W. Bush was an accomplice in the assassination of JFK, and that even mathematics may be a hoax established by the fraudulent scientific elites. Beyond the rhetoric of the videos, Campanella has also been involved with a number of attempted experiments to demonstrate the shape of the Earth. One involved launch of a high altitude balloon while another was a laser level test that effectively is an update of Rowbotham’s Bedford Level experiment. While he and his supporters see a growing body of evidence in favour of a flat Earth that cannot be refuted, academics, and indeed most others, see nothing of the sort. These three examples alone have amassed close to 200,000 subscribers on YouTube, and are but a sample of the many others who produce similar content. Contemporary flat Earthers are out to re-design established reality into a new myth for modern times, in this case one that is not always about the actual shape of the Earth, but rather about a distrust for authority and a quest to create a wisdom of their own. Perhaps this time the focus is not on the birth of a New World, but on an unraveling of an existing one. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.