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Star Wars, UFOs and visitors from a Galaxy far, far away… Considering the impact of the sci-fi saga on the UFO phenomenon

George Lucas’s 1977 feature Star Wars had a massive cultural influence. Released at the end of a turbulent decade for the West, it was a space age fairy tale filled with visual spectacle and feel-good escapism. Star Wars exploded into the perfect pop-cultural storm; it was a refreshing distraction from a decade tired of serious issues and scandals: a messy war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, a recession, and the energy crisis. The 1970s was a decade greatly defined by somber and serious cinema – The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, The French Connection, The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Chinatown – although all great movies, they don’t exactly fit the ‘Fun for all the Family’ market. The 1970s film previously closest to capturing the buzz of Star Wars was probably Steven Spielberg’s 1975 feature Jaws, a tension-filled monster-movie featuring an exaggeration of a real world shark terrorizing a small community and eating several inhabitants (including children) in the process. It’s no wonder audiences devoured the bubble gum escapism of Star Wars

Lucas’s film takes as inspiration the 1930s and ’40s sci-fi serials such as Commando Cody and Flash Gordon (he initially wanted to produce a re-make of Flash Gordon, but couldn’t acquire the rights). It also borrows liberally from several comic book sources, most notably Jack Kirby’s New Gods, with its all-encompassing power ‘the source’, which Lucas copied and re-named ‘the force’. Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, first published in 1963, also provided a strong source of inspiration for Lucas’s Star Wars saga. Herbert himself took as inspiration Shakespeare, Greek tragedy like Oedipus Rex, and the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Star Wars displays its fairy tale template gleefully; the opening caption ‘A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…’ is an obvious play on the ‘Once Upon a Time…’ phrase often found at the start of children’s stories. Its use of a Princess held captive by a Black Knight (Darth Vader) in a castle (in this case the Death Star) plays with classic fairy tale motifs. Dashing young peasants (like the farm boy Luke Skywalker) must rise to become noble Knights (or Jedi in this instance). Magical old wise men (like mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi) have supernatural powers, as do the evil villains of the Dark Side. Although such conventions are often subverted, adapted into a science fiction language, or used playfully, the fairy tale influence upon Star Wars is strongly evident, and indeed intentional. 

The period around 1977 ushered in a new phase in the exploration of space: by 1975, the United States and the Soviet Union had achieved the first international human spaceflight with the Apollo-Soyuz Project, 1977 saw the launch of Voyager 2, and 1981 saw the launch of the space shuttle, the first re-useable spacecraft. Star Wars clearly fit the mood of the time and soon became the most financially successful film of the decade, spawning an almost unprecedented wave of imitators, with an influence that spread beyond cinema into everything from toys, games, books, clothing, music, political speeches and breakfast cereals. Pop culture went space crazy. The aesthetic of Hollywood was fundamentally changed as a new emphasis was placed on spectacle and increasingly impressive special effects. Movies with a space theme remained dominant for a number of years after the release of Star Wars, including films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Black Hole, Moonraker, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Flash Gordon, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator and the first of the Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back.

It is not a surprise such a phenomenon had an impact on UFO sightings. The rise in popularity of triangular-shaped UFOs following the release of the film and into the 1980s probably has more to do with the general shape of spacecraft depicted in Lucas’s movie as it does sightings of any advanced military aircraft. The Imperial Star-Destroyer, the main transport of the evil Galactic Empire, was designed to be a visual combination of weaponry and military prowess. The resulting model was based on a combination of a dagger and a World War II era battleship, creating an iconic triangular looking craft quite different from the traditional space rockets often seen in previous science fiction movies. Triangular UFOs quickly became a more common occurrence following the summer of 1977.

As early as July that year, three young boys, all aged around twelve, witnessed what they described as a triangular shaped craft in the skies above Connersville, Illinois. Their account reported the UFO to have a military-like appearance and to produce a loud low-toned hum as it passed over them. Another case from November 1977 involved a couple from Plymouth, New York, who spotted a huge triangular shaped craft. Moving slowly overhead it made a loud noise like a rocket and had four glowing engines at its rear. Such descriptions match the iconic opening scene of Star Wars, as a giant triangular-shaped Star-Destroyer passes menacingly overhead, eventually filling the screen with a number of bright, roaring engines. 

Again, in 1978, brothers Gary and David Oickle observed a huge triangular UFO with large windows moving very slowly above Patapsco State Park, Maryland, and in January 1979, Albert Chop witnessed a triangular UFO moving slowly over the mountains southeast of Palm Desert, California. The object was described as extremely large and much brighter that the stars in the background, much like the large, light grey Star-Destroyer designed to stand out vividly on screen against its dark space backdrop. 

Other distinctive designs, characters, motifs and scenes from Star Wars had also begun to creep into UFO accounts from the late 1970s. A series of sightings involving white suited men that, again, began appearing following the summer of 1977, resemble many features that can be attributed to the Stormtroopers of Star Wars, with their distinctive white armour, helmets and featureless black eyepieces. In July 1977 near Minley Manor Woods in England, Hannah Green and other members of her family observed what she described as a group of tall men, all dressed in white, with matching headgear, who she saw as some sort of alien ‘troops’. In September that year, again in England, but this time at Hainault Forest near Essex, a number of otherworldly figures in white one-piece suits, white helmets and full-face visors were spotted. 

Over in South Middleton, Massachusetts, a spate of sightings concerning mysterious figures clad in white, complete with matching white helmets with dark eyeholes where spotted in November and December 1977 and then again in January and April 1978. A month later, in Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil, a witness claimed that he was grabbed by two humanoids that had disembarked from a metallic craft. The aliens wore shiny white suits with head enclosing helmets with closed visors. 

Another example, often known as the Spanish-Turis landing case of July 1979, describes a sighting of alien beings dressed in shiny white suits with helmets featuring protruding black spectacles. Though these sound very much like the Star Wars Stormtroopers the drawings provided by Spanish farmer Frederico Ibáñez make the beings look more like the movie’s Jawa traders, however, the source is clear: these are Star Wars-inspired creatures.

These Jawa traders, dwarf-like desert hermits who deal largely in the sale of second-hand ‘droids, again feature in a case from September 1977. In Caserta, Italy, a student claims that he passed a tall figure in a metallic outfit, which he thinks may have been a robot, being followed by a number of short dwarf-like humanoids. Such a description seems to strongly reference a scene from Star Wars when a group of Jawa traders parade a number of robots, including the tall metallic figure of C3P0, along a patch of wasteland ready for auction. 

The iconic cantina scene from Star Wars, which features a host of fantastical aliens partaking in drinks in a spaceport bar is also paralleled in a report from July 1977, when an account of aliens drinking in a local bar emerged from Thoissey, L’Ain, France. Another scene from the movie is evoked in a case from June 1978. In Middlesbrough, England, Mike Burley was struck on the head by a rugby ball, when he came to he found he was being cared for by a mysterious figure wearing a brown monk’s cowl, he was then dazzled by a bright light and found himself back on the rugby field. His account somewhat mimics the scene in Star Wars when protagonist Luke Skywalker is knocked unconscious through an encounter with several Tusken Raiders, only to be revived by a mysterious figure in a brown monk’s cowl, who is then revealed to be Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Several more distinctive motifs from the movie also relate to a number of other UFO related accounts. In February 1978, near Braintree, England, a bright light was spotted in the sky, a witness observing it shooting above him described it ‘like something out of Star Wars, with the same type of light as the light saber would make’. Light sabers may have appeared again in March 1978 in a case from Petrozavodsk, Russia, when a strange pair of suited figures were spotted, each brandishing some sort of powerful flashlight that they were able to manipulate into energy beams. Another light saber wielding character may also be at the root of an encounter from September 1977, in Colares, Brazil, when a young man by the name of Luis apparently witnessed a figure descending from a craft. Described as muscular, wearing dark clothing, with a large headpiece, the figure proceeded to produce a red beam of light from one hand which then illuminated the surrounding area; a most Darth Vader style entrance indeed.

In the same month, a different character may have been seen, this time in Cadogan, Pennsylvania, when reports of a tall creature, covered in brown hair with broad shoulders and no neck was seen on a road near woodland. The similarities in description between Bigfoot and Chewbacca, the large hairy companion to smuggler Han Solo, may be obvious, but the connection that some now see between sightings of UFOs and sightings of Bigfoot or other similar cryptoids may be as a consequence of such a similar creature serving as first mate onboard the Millennium Falcon. Indeed beyond some retrospective speculations, no real connection was made between UFOs and Bigfoot encounters until after Star Wars was well established within the popular consciousness. 

Although with diminished frequency after the late 1970s the Star Wars franchise continues to influence UFO sightings and related encounters. The Millennium Falcon itself, another iconic Star Wars spaceship, makes occasional appearances as a UFO. One example, often known as the Tether incident, involves the debris spotted around Space Shuttle 75 during a February 1996 mission, which included a sort of Millennium Falcon shaped UFO, providing you allow a liberal dose of artistic licence.

In June 1999 in Sydney, Australia, a witness described seeing some non-human entity moving over the fence of his property. The entity was some sort of rounded blob, but specifically the witness described it as shaped like Jabba the Hut, the large rotund alien gangsta from the third Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi, who looks like a cross between a giant slug and a toad. A distinctive character, Jabba had recently made a cameo appearance in the first of the Star Wars prequel trilogy films, The Phantom Menace, released just a month before the sighting. 

Anticipation for The Phantom Menace was especially high, and it may have been responsible for a small flap of alien related reports following its release. An encounter during the autumn of 1999 in Roslindale, Massachusetts, concerned a strange hooded figure spotted moving un-naturally fast through Arnold Arboretum. Much like the robe wearing Obi-Wan Kenobi and his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn as they force-dashed away from a pack of Droidekas in the opening battle of the movie. 

A new villain introduced in The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul, wears a black hooded robe, has a distinctive red and black patterned face with red eyes and a circle of horns around the top of his head, and is known too for wielding a double-ended lightsaber. Such a character may well also be related to several otherworldly sightings. In summer 1999, in Portland, Maine, a witness claimed he was abducted by a human-like figure who had a black handheld device which produced multiple energy beams, much like Darth Maul’s multi-blade lightsaber. Again in December 1999, in South Windsor, Connecticut, Debbie Summer reported seeing a tall humanoid, with spikes on his head, glowing red eyes and wearing a black cape. 

Cultural phenomena like Star Wars superficially influence other things for purely commercial reasons, but also indicate a wider appetite from a society hungry to engage with the themes of that same cultural trend. Society feeds pop cultural trends, but equally fashionable pop cultural trends influence inclinations within society. This concept relates to what is known by some as cultural tracking. This broadly means that the beliefs, customs and folklore that people hold tend to follow the culture in which they are immersed. As cultures change, so do customs and beliefs, and vice versa. As a result, philosophical, ethical, and social customs and beliefs inform the culture produced and consumed during any particular era and, in turn, that same cultural product can impact on beliefs and customs.

The designs that frequent Star Wars and its sequels often reference or draw heavy inspiration from other things in Science Fiction, history, foreign cultures or folklore. It is a very postmodern assemblage approach to story making. For example, the design for Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers resembles, amongst other things, the designs used for the villain The Lightning and his henchmen in the 1930s Republic movie serial The Fighting Devil Dogs. The Millennium Falcon is in part a reference to The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of private investigator Sam Spade being a primary influence on the character of Han Solo, and the parallels between elderly Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi and the wizard Gandalf from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are numerous.  

Culture repeats itself by assimilating ideas from the past and reinterpreting them for a contemporary audience. Star Wars is a prime example of this, and the similarities that can be found between it and various aspects of the UFO phenomenon is another example of society reusing existing cultural references in new contexts. Referencing imagery from science fiction is an ongoing pattern in UFO and related alien sightings and abduction accounts, and there are numerous examples that can illustrate this beyond the Star Wars franchise. 

As a brief example, another influential science fiction film released at a similar time to Star Wars was Steven Speilberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Again a series of UFO accounts relate to ideas and motifs presented within the movie. A large ‘mother-ship’ type UFO was spotted in the skies above New Zealand during December 1978. Often known as the Kaikoura lights incident, the description of the UFO craft, with its bright large flashing lights, parallels the design shown in Speilberg’s film. The sighting described by Constable Jim Blackwood at Clarenville, Canada, in 1978, borrows a method of communication used between earthlings and aliens seen at the end of the movie, as Jim claims he used the lights of his patrol car to converse with a UFO. The following year a Mother and Son from Krugersdorp, South Africa, re-enacted the final act of the movie, when they claimed an encounter with a group of human-like entities standing beside a spacecraft, who then encouraged the mother to depart with them permanently. 

Spikes in UFO reports often parallel releases of thematically relevant movies. For example, in December 1996, a few months after the release of Independence Day (a movie that featured huge UFOs hovering over North America), claims of a huge UFO mothership were reported by a number of witnesses over the skies of Yukon, Canada. The report by Allison Reed, first documented in 1998, concerns her abduction by aliens, during which time she was shown tanks containing bodies showing various stages of alien-human hybridization. Her account is very similar to a scene in the film Alien: Resurrection, released the year before.

In 2010, all six Star Wars movies were re-released in theatres in a 3D format, and rumours began to circulate about the possibility of further installments to the series. Later that same year, UFO enthusiast Scott Waring claims to have found what looks like a Millennium Falcon-shaped craft partly obscured by a hangar in part of Area 51. The image was obtained by a study of Google Maps, and can only be viewed by following specific instructions allowing the viewer to travel ‘back in time’ through the viewer to 1989.  In June 2011, an account was made of a UFO shaped like the Millennium Falcon discovered at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Claims made by the Swedish Ocean X Team who discovered it, Peter Lindberg and Dennis Åsberg, include its ability to disable any electronic equipment when divers approach within 200 feet. Geologists have suggested it most likely is a natural formation or sediment dropped by a fishing trawler. 

Following the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, and the subsequent release of new Star Wars movies from 2015 onward, predictably there has been a new wave of UFO related claims particular to the series. Even before the first of the new films was released, trailers for the upcoming seventh installment in the series seemed to have had an impact. In April 2015 the second trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, which opens with a panning shot of a Star-Destroyer crashed into a desert landscape. By August that year Russia Today had published an image captured on Mars, featuring a rather Star-Destroyer shaped rock, supposedly an alien spacecraft crashed into the Martian landscape. In the month that The Force Awakens was released a witness in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, claimed to observe a solid triangular object with a number of non-blinking lights. Again in August 2016, a couple in New York filmed a UFO that they claimed looked just like the Millennium Falcon.

Mimas, one of the moons of Saturn, has upon its surface a huge crater making it look similar to the design of the Death Star when photographed from certain angles. The details of such a crater were originally discovered in November 1980, just a few months after the first Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back had hit theatres in America, cementing the comparisons. Such associations began to resurface in 2016 in the build up to the release of the spin-off movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; itself based around the backstory of the construction of the original Death Star and the band of rebels who steal its plans. By early summer this year another of Saturn’s moons, Iapetus, was compared to the Death Star, due to a distinctive central ring that again parallels design of the fictional space station. Rather than just a quirk of coincidence, some now believe such moons to be genuine alien space technology. Conspiracy theorists, such as Tyler Glockner, have suggested Hollywood is simply drip-feeding the masses through movies such as Star Wars and its sequels, in a bid to prepare humanity for the reality of alien civilizations.

With Star Wars: The Last Jedi set for release December 2017, and at least three more movies planned for the successful franchise over the coming years it will be interesting to see if future installments influence any further aspects of the UFO phenomenon or such related experiences.

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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.