Chapter 2.  Earth not a Globe!

In the history of the flat earth movement there can hardly have been a more colourful character than its virtual founder member, Samuel Birley Rowbotham.

Born in 1816, Rowbotham grew up to become something of a medical man. We use the expression “something of” because his practice seems to have been a queer blend of orthodox and quack medicine, with a dash of misguided religious fervour to boot.

For the purposes of peddling a cure-all nostrum called “Birley’s Syrup of Free Phosphorus”, he called himself Dr Birley, in spite of being, by all accounts, a bona fide M.D.

In 1842 he published a book called Biology, Hygiene and Hydropathy, under his real name for once, but a few years later, he turned to the dubious pen-name of Tryon to push his latest thesis, Biology: An Inquiry into the Causes of Natural Death.

In it he claimed that natural death is brought about by “a general ossification of the system” induced by the bodily absorption of “earthy matter” from its intake of food and drink. In short, Rowbotham was what we today would call a health food fanatic. He wrote:

The more we partake of those articles which contain the largest amounts of calcareous earthy matter, the sooner shall we choke up and die.

And in those days, as now:

To enumerate all the filth and deleterious articles combined in artificially prepared food and drink would not only be tiresome but extremely disgusting.

Fish, milk, eggs, fruit, berries and leaves were good for the body in that they contained relatively little earthy matter. Dates, however, were very bad for the system, and as for bread made from wheaten flour, well that was positively dangerous. So much so that Rowbotham insisted on calling it “the Staff of Death” rather than “the Staff of Life”!

This curious thesis of bodily ossification was rounded off with the gory details of the dissection of defunct gouty subjects, whose tendons, ligaments and bones were literally covered in a sort of fine chalky powder.

No-one today remembers Rowbotham’s quasi-medical ideas, which, incidentally, he later contrived to link up with the longevity of the Biblical Patriarchs, not to mention socialist politics. But that is another story, as is his positive refusal, under any circumstances, to travel on the railway. Even today there are some who share his views on the latter, but the less said about that, the better!

Anyway, it was under yet another pen-name, Parallax, that Rowbotham achieved notoriety, for it was under this pseudonym that he peddled his flat earth views, or “Zetetic Astronomy” as he preferred to call it.

“Zetetic Astronomy” means, literally, “Investigative Astronomy”, as opposed to “Orthodox Astronomy”, the stuff peddled by Patrick Moore et al., which was, in Rowbotham’s view, unfounded theoretical codswallop.

Parallax seems to have begun his flat earth campaign in about 1850 with the publication of a fifteen-page pamphlet entitled: Zetetic Astronomy – a description of several experiments and observations tending to prove that the Earth is not a Globe, but an Extended Plane. A long title for such a little book.

In it Rowbotham raised the ticklish problem of curved water. Basically he argued that if the Earth was round, then so were the oceans.

Now, the authorities were always boasting in the newspapers about how far out at sea their latest lighthouses were visible, so Rowbotham set out to test if the quoted figures were consistent with a curved Earth. They weren’t. The way Rowbotham figured it, if the earth and its oceans were curved, all those lighthouses just could not be seen from where the authorities said they could.

Again, if the Earth was round, not only the oceans but any extensive stretch of water would have curvature, and this meant that the flat earth issue could be easily and conclusively tested. We quote Rowbotham:

Across the Bedford level, in the County of Cambridge, there is an artificial river or canal 20 miles long. The greatest part of it is a straight line, without locks, and, except at the ebb tides of the German Ocean, the water is stationary; so that, if the Earth is a globe, any part of this river must be an arc of a circle.

To ascertain this, two small boats were obtained, and each provided with a flag staff. A theodolite was placed upon a bridge, and levelled, as at point T in Fig. 2.1.

Sighting-points aligned if Earth is flat

Fig. 2.1

The flag staves were so adjusted that the flags N and S were equal in altitude to the field of the telescope T. The boats were then sent out, one to the right, and the other to the left, each to a distance of 4 miles. On making an observation, the flags S and N still intercepted the line of sight TS and TN.

Conclusion: That the surface of the water WW was parallel to the eye-line NTS, and, therefore, horizontal!

Rowbotham’s Fig. 2.2 shows what would have happened had the Earth really been round:

Sighting-points not aligned if Earth is round

Fig. 2.2

The above summarises the theme of Rowbotham’s first fifteen-page production, a seed which was destined to grow into something altogether bigger.

As time went on, the flat earth became entangled with other issues – the stationary Earth at the centre of the Universe, the nature of the Sun and Moon, the real truth behind gravity, and a fistful of Bible Fundamentalisms from the Garden of Eden onwards.

By the 1880s that fifteen-page pamphlet had grown into a 430 page tome with a very grandiose title indeed. We give it in full: Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe: An Experimental Enquiry into the True Figure of the Earth, Proving it a Plane, without Orbital or Axial Motion, and the Only Known Material World; its True Position in the Universe, comparatively recent formation, present chemical condition and Approaching Destruction by Fire.

By this time, too, Parallax was peddling his New Map of the World, on a Zetetic Projection (Mercator’s having been abandoned as a fictional heresy!) It even came with a moveable disc to illustrate the true causes of various phenomena such as sunset and lunar phases. He was also working on his Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ Zetetically Considered, but he never actually published this, which we feel is a great pity. If any of our readers knows the whereabouts of a manuscript of it, then we would be more than delighted to hear from them!

But we’re forging ahead a little bit. Parallax’s flat earth boating trip on the Bedford Canal, some time before 1850, was the precursor of one of the most curious wagers ever made, the outcome of which was a flat earth talking point for many years to come. But before going into details, we should introduce a couple of other characters in the drama.

First, William Carpenter. He was a London printer and proprietor of what we today would call an occult bookshop. He was also, incidentally, the sole London agent for “Birley’s Syrup of Free Phosphorus”, a real snip at ten shillings for a pint bottle.

In the 1880s, having been converted by Rowbotham to the faith, and writing under the pseudonym of “Common Sense”, Carpenter published his own booklet, The Earth Not A Globe.

Though he wrote mainly in prose, one of Carpenter’s peculiarities was a tendency to break into second-rate flat earth verse, of which the following is a sample:

Astronomers who say the Earth’s a Globe must prove it,
Or else for ever from the books for youth must they remove it.
More, then, we have a riddle to the wise to be propounded;
And let it not be cast aside till its depths be fairly sounded.
Come, tell us, first, then, how it is, whatever else betide,
That WATER can be LEVEL and yet CONVEX beside.

That, of course, is a McGonagallesque reference to the curved water problem, a mainstay of the flat earth case. Elsewhere Carpenter waxed semi-lyrical about another flat earth favourite:

If the Earth’s a Globe with people living ’round it
I’d like to know what keeps ’em on, confound it!

Moving on from Carpenter now, we introduce the principal of the flat earth wager, John Hampden. He was the son of a Dorset clergyman and at the time Parallax was beginning his Zetetic Crusade, Hampden was busy studying Britain’s coastal defences, with a view to improving them.

It was in 1869, when Hampden was fifty years old, that he became converted to Rowbotham’s theories. Within a year his enthusiasm had run riot and he laid down a wager of £500, a great deal of money in those days, that no-one could conclusively prove that the Earth was a globe. The challenge was taken up by Alfred Russel Wallace, the famous naturalist.

As referee, Wallace chose J.H. Walsh, at that time editor of The Field, and Hampden, our old friend William Carpenter. Rowbotham appears to have stayed well clear of the whole affair for some reason, which is odd, because, of course, he had been directly responsible for converting both Hampden and Carpenter to the true faith.

The bet was to be decided by a repeat of Rowbotham’s own Bedford Canal experiment.

The first idea was to set up a series of markers at various points along the canal, each marker being fixed at exactly six feet above the water level. At one end of this line of markers, and at precisely the same height, there was erected a telescope. Everything hinged on the view through this telescope. If all the markers were hidden behind the first in line, then the Earth was proved flat. On the other hand, if the markers appeared one below another, the more distant ones falling progressively below their predecessors, then the Earth was proved round.

The first experiments were not satisfactory, largely on account of complaints from Carpenter. Also, Walsh had to return to London on business, and his place as referee was taken by a local doctor called Coulcher.

For the second experiment, two tall poles were set up on canal bridges nearly six miles apart. Markers on top of each pole (A and B in Fig. 2.3) were fixed at a height of 13 feet 4 inches above the water level of the canal.

Sighting-points with round and flat Earth

Fig. 2.3

Next, in the middle of the canal and half way between the two bridges, they set up another marker at the same height above the water (C in Fig. 2.3).

Finally, a telescope was set up at B and carefully aimed along the line of sight AB.

The position of C as seen in the telescope was to decide the issue. If C appeared above A, the Earth was round. If C obscured A, the Earth was flat.

After some problems in levelling the telescope it became clear that A did indeed appear below C. Wallace and Coulcher believed the matter proved – the Earth was round – but there was one tiny loophole. Carpenter noticed that A was below C, but that C was also below the central cross-hair of the telescope field. That, claimed Carpenter, by a deft last-minute change of logic, showed the Earth to be well and truly flat, and, in addition, confirmed Parallax’s theory of perspective.

It must have been a priceless moment. Wallace and Coulcher believed that the fact of the matter had been proved beyond doubt, and yet here was Carpenter arguing precisely the opposite on the same data! Hampden, incidentally, declined even to look through the telescope!

What made matters even worse was that later that same day, Hampden was actually claiming to have won the bet, and was virtually accusing Wallace of being a poor loser! Even the referees had fallen out with each other!

Coulcher couldn’t make head or tail of Carpenter’s reasoning in the matter, and Carpenter wouldn’t make head or tail of his.

Eventually they called in Walsh again to act as arbitrator. Why it took Walsh two whole weeks to settle the matter is something of a mystery, but in the end, predictably, he judged Wallace to be the official winner.

Hampden was furious and demanded his money back. When that failed, he began an unparalleled campaign of denunciation and libel aimed at poor old Wallace. A series of court appearances and no less than three jail sentences failed to silence the irate Hampden, and it was only when Hampden died of bronchitis in January 1891 – twenty years after the wager – that Wallace was finally free of the matter.

But then as our good friend the late Robert J. Schadewald once pointed out to us, even with Hampden’s death, Wallace couldn’t be absolutely sure it was all over. He was a firm believer in spiritualism, which was, of course, all the rage at that time!

The earthly libel was over, but the Bedford Canal issue certainly wasn’t. A Mr Dyer wrote a little book called The Spherical Form of the Earth in which he defended both Wallace and the spherical Earth. On the other hand, a Mr Naylor, in his Bedford Canal Not Convex – the Earth Not a Globe, came out firmly on Hampden’s side.

Carpenter himself went on to write The Delusion of the Day, which was a reply to Dyer’s reply to Parallax’s reply to the orthodox astronomers (!), and Wallace’s Wonderful Water, which claimed Hampden as the true winner of the Bedford Canal wager in no uncertain terms:

Wallace’s experiment was chiefly for the end of gaining £500 from J. Hampden; and it is tolerably well known that Mr Wallace succeeded in doing so. But it is not by any means tolerably well known in what manner this was effected. To supply this deficiency is the subject of the author. He was an eye-witness of the experiment for the whole of the week that was occupied with it, and is, consequently, able to say what he knows of the subject and not merely what he imagines.

By 1885 Carpenter had emigrated to America (we presume that the voyage was all plane sailing!) and was still vigorously promoting the flat earth theory in the umpteenth edition of his classic book One Hundred Proofs that the Earth is not a Globe.

Carpenter was a great one for the application of common sense in these matters – hence his early nom de plume of “Common Sense” – and many of his proofs depend upon apparent, intuitively felt, absurdities in the notion of a round earth.

Common sense tells us that there is an up and a down in the universe; it tells us that people living on a giant ball would tend to slide off it, or be literally thrown off it if that globe were spinning on its axis as all the scientists claimed. As for the notion of the Earth hurtling round the Sun at an incomprehensible speed, well, common sense tells us that our hats would surely be continually blown off our heads if that were the case! Certainly we ought never to be free of tempestuous gales howling about our ears. Finally, common sense tells us that a water surface is level, and that the idea of the Atlantic Ocean forming a hill of water, over a hundred miles high, is a monstrously absurd one.

As was pointed out to Carpenter by one Ebenezer Breach, if the Earth was round and rushing through space at impossible speeds, would an All-wise God have implanted in his children a faculty of common sense that dictated the opposite? Surely here was a theological proof that the Earth was flat!

We leave our readers to sort out that conundrum for themselves. Meanwhile, here are four interesting little puzzles raised by Carpenter in the course of his book. We slip them in mainly so as to prevent our more globally inclined readers from getting too cock-sure of themselves.

First: The river Nile in the course of several hundred miles falls only a foot in vertical height. How could this happen on an Earth which is supposed to curve eight inches in every mile?

Second: The rivers and streams of the Earth flow in all directions – some north, some south, some east, some west. Therefore, if the Earth is a globe, it follows that some of those rivers must flow literally uphill!

Third: When next out at sea in a boat, look at the horizon. You will see that it looks dead level and flat. If the Earth is round, why isn’t the horizon curved?

Fourth: Astronomers claim that the Sun appears to rise in the east and set in the west because the Earth rotates in the opposite direction. But is this not the same as saying that “the man goes up the street” is equivalent to “the street goes down the man”?

But let’s come forward from Victorian flat earthism to its present day counterparts.

In 1914 and on into the 1920s the banner of flat earthism was carried forward by William Edgell, who wrote a marvellous little book called Does the Earth Rotate?

As the title suggests, Mr Edgell was not so much concerned with the Earth’s flatness – though he entertained no doubts at all that it was flat. What really got him going was the absurd claim of orthodox astronomers that the Earth was spinning on its own axis as well as hurtling round the Sun at breakneck speeds. He just couldn’t see how it was that we didn’t all end up in one dizzy heap on the ground, with hurricane force winds howling about our ears. Nor could he understand why, when the astronomers said that the Earth was at its closest to the Sun in January, his English country garden was covered in snow.

Thirty years study and experimentation, most of it from the confines of his own back garden, had taught Mr Edgell that the Earth is flat and stationary at the centre of the universe. In common with other flat earthers, he believed that the alternation of night and day, as well as the course of the seasons, was regulated by the movements of the Sun above the Earth, and not by the movements of the Earth itself.

One of his basic proofs of the flatness of the Earth relied on the common sense fact that any water surface must be dead level. We saw this argument in the Bedford Canal experiment, of course. Here is Mr Edgell’s variation on the theme:

It is an old saying and a true one, that water always finds its level of its own accord. If so, the surface of the water at the landing Sea-port of Bristol and London are on an absolute level less the few feet on height of tides, with New Zealand.

The school book gives the highest point of land above Sea level in England and Wales as 3000 feet, and that of New Zealand as 5000 feet. Instead of New Zealand being underneath England, you will see that it stands higher by 2000 feet. May I ask, should not these heights of land above sea level of England and New Zealand convince you without a shadow of doubt, that the Earth to all intents and purposes is flat and not the shape of an orange or globe?

Nor was Mr Edgell very keen on the distances of millions upon millions of miles so freely bandied about by conventional astronomers. They were just too big to be true – so he set about cutting them down to size.

The Sun, he said, was a mere ten miles in diameter and never more than about 9500 miles above the surface of the Earth. The Pole Star, meanwhile, hung comfortably above the centre of the stationary Earth at a height of 4500 miles.

In fact, the Pole Star was very important to Mr Edgell because it afforded him absolute proof that the Earth was both flat and stationary.

In Fig. 2.4 we present, diagrammatically, the orthodox view and the Edgell view of why it is that the Pole Star appears to hang at different angles above the horizon in different parts of the world.

Angle of the pole star with round and flat Earth

Fig. 2.4

The way orthodoxy sees it (Fig. 2.4a) the Pole Star is so far away that its altitude is governed solely by the latitude of the observer. At high latitudes (A), it appears well above the horizon. Nearer to the equator (B), its altitude is much less.

But for this explanation to work we require a spherical Earth, and every self-respecting flat earther knows that if the Earth were a sphere, everyone in New Zealand would fall off it, and the oceans would just drip off into space.

The situation becomes simpler, and the distance of the Pole Star not so forbidding, if one assumes the Earth to be flat (Fig. 2.4b). The altitude of the pole star then varies because of the observer’s distance from the point P vertically below the Pole Star. It all makes perfect sense, and it leaves the pole Star at a comfortable 4500 miles above a flat Earth, off which neither New Zealanders nor anyone else need ever fall!

Now, how to prove that the Earth is stationary using the Pole Star and a cardboard tube three feet six inches long. Ready? Set up the tube on a stand of some sort so that when you look through it you get a clear view of the Pole Star. Now, aside from the obvious fact that if the Earth were hurtling around in space we’d surely feel it moving, consider this. The Pole Star being at a height of 4500 miles, if the Earth were charging through space at many miles a second, it stands to reason that within a very short time the Pole Star would cease to be visible down the cardboard tube. It would be like trying to keep a tree in view down the tube whilst travelling on a very fast express train. Yet Mr Edgell assures his readers that he kept just such a cardboard tube set up in his garden for two whole years and that not once did the Pole Star step out of line!

Mr Edgell had a great regard for practical common sense and very little patience for new-fangled astronomical clap-trap. Great truths could be clearly demonstrated in the privacy of one’s own back garden, as he never tired of telling his readers:

It is a mistaken idea, and a very prevalent one, to suppose that without great observations and complicated mechanical devices one cannot study and experiment on these subjects.

I contend that the most reliable sources of proofs and arguments will be found in one’s own garden and with the aid of a tube such as I have mentioned in previous pages, it is quite simple but very reliable.

Because his approach was so practical, some of his ‘proofs’ are decidedly strange to modern theoretical eyes. At the drop of a hat Mr Edgell instructs his readers to face north-east and hold the book flat, or to face due south with the book held upright. Fans of Sellar and Yeatman will thrill with delight to learn that on p. 25 of Does the Earth Rotate?, Mr Edgell instructs his readers to, “Please hold the book upright when reading.”

One of the highlights of this delightful book comes when someone is trying to drop a bomb on the Edgell household (Fig. 2.5). Nothing malicious, you understand – it is all in the cause of demonstrating the absurdity of a spinning Earth:

Aeroplane dropping bomb on house

Fig. 2.5

The diagram on the next page depicts an airman bombing a building from his aeroplane at a great altitude. This is another illustration of the unreasonable theory of a rotating globular Earth. Readers will remember it takes about ten seconds for the bomb to reach the building from the aeroplane one mile up. Multiply eighteen miles by ten and it will give you the distance which the house has travelled with the Earth according to astronomers, as readers will observe, the bomb would pitch 180 miles distant from the house. Is the rotation theory compatible with reason?

And if that doesn’t convince you, well, if the Earth were really spinning on its so-called axis, what keeps it spinning, pray, and why doesn’t it slow down and topple over like a child’s spinning top?

Among modern or near-modern flat earthers, mention should be made of Rudolf Steiner, the eccentric educationalist, and President Kruger of South Africa. Of more immediate importance, though, are Wilbur Glenn Voliva in America, and Samuel Shenton in England.

Voliva was an evangelist, and presiding genius and absolute ruler of a fundamentalist Christian community in Zion, Illinois. He and his followers believed the world to be shaped like a pancake, with the North Pole in the middle and a wall of ice all around it. There is no South Pole, but the icy wall prevents ships from tumbling over into Hades, which lies below and is a sort of bargain basement inhabited by the spirits of a race of men who used to live on Earth before the arrival of Adam and Eve. Nor did Voliva think much of the astronomers’ idea that the Sun was 93 million miles away from the Earth: if God in his wisdom had made the Sun to light and heat the Earth, why would he have put it so very far away? It would be like building a house in one town and putting the lamp to light it in another town, several miles away! No, said Voliva, the Sun can be no more than 3000 miles away from the Earth. Such were the ideas taught in the schools of Voliva’s community in Zion. (Incidentally, Voliva once offered a $5000 prize that no-one could prove that the Earth was a globe, spinning on its own axis and revolving around the Sun. Needless to say, though many tried, none actually managed to win it!)

When Voliva died, in 1942, his colony seems to have faded away; but in England the cudgels were taken up by Samuel Shenton, who lived in Dover and founded the Flat Earth Society in 1956. (There had been a flat earth society – known as the Universal Zetetic Society – founded by some of Rowbotham’s followers in about 1890, but it had fizzled out sometime after World War I.) Originally, Mr Shenton maintained, the Earth was heaved up out of the waters, and he agreed with Voliva about the central North Pole and the non-existence of the South Pole. When pressed, he was evasive about what lay on the underside of the flat Earth, but, like Voliva, he maintained that the Sun’s distance was less than 3000 miles. The entire universe consists of the Earth, but there may be a series of ‘heavens’, made up of enclosed spaces and perhaps even inhabited.

When Apollo 8 went round the Moon, in 1968, and sent back pictures of the Earth from space, Mr Shenton’s faith was only temporarily shaken. He concluded that the astronauts had followed a spiral path, and could not go very high; if gravity ends at a mere 9 miles above the ground, as some scientists had claimed (we are not sure just who), then a parachutist coming down from a great height would be in danger of missing the Earth altogether – and what would happen to him then?

Pictures taken from space showing the curvature of the Earth were, of course, fakes, propagated by ‘globalists’ in a final, futile attempt to halt the progress of true science. And it was true that during the Apollo 8 circumlunar flight, the mission commander, Colonel Borman, did refer to Mr Shenton and his beliefs. (Not, of course, that the Colonel believed in a flat Earth; it would have been rather difficult for him to do so, particularly at that moment!)

Mr Shenton died in 1971. Apparently the British branch of the Flat Earth Society died with him; but many of its documents were passed on to Mr Charles K. Johnson of Lancaster, California, who set up the International Flat Earth Research Society. (Apparently, though, a lot of Mr Shenton’s papers ended up in a Flat Earth Society Archive in the University of Liverpool!)

In the late 1970s the society boasted over 1500 members, largely professional people, Mr Johnson claimed, and in running it he was helped by his wife, Marjory, who was living proof that the Earth was flat: she hailed from Australia and could testify that over there people just did not feel as if they hung upside down. She felt exactly the same in America as she did ‘down under’, she said, and was quite prepared to sign an affidavit to that effect.

The Society’s equivalent of The Daily Globe was The Flat Earth News, a periodical devoted to erasing the lies put forth by orthodox scientists – a cartel of arch-criminals, as Mr Johnson used to call them.

Many of the points of issue, as well as their proofs and disproofs, stood essentially as they had in Rowbotham’s day: the Earth is flat and stationary at the centre of the universe. The Sun and Moon are both about 32 miles in diameter and they circle above the Earth, but below the dome of the sky, which, incidentally, is about 4000 miles above us. Sunset and the changes of the seasons are, of course, illusions of perspective. Finally, gravity is a “religious hoax” and the Moon shines by its own phosphorescence rather than by the reflection of sunlight.

Mr Johnson even repeated the Bedford Canal experiment on Lake North, near Fort Worth in Texas. The results proved conclusively that the Earth is as flat as Hampden had proved it just before he got swindled out of his £500.

But of course, there was one brand of spherical ‘evidence’ that Mr Johnson, like Mr Shenton before him, had to contend with that Mr Rowbotham and his cronies had never had to face: photographs taken from artificial satellites.

“Hoaxes one and all!” was Mr Johnson’s simple answer to this one. The photos were merely the desperate propaganda of a decadent, atheistic science. Every so-called photograph of the Earth from space was a laboratory mock-up, and the entire series of so-called lunar landings were film-set concoctions written, produced and directed by Arthur C. Clarke!

Was Mr Johnson serious? He was asked just such a question in a newspaper interview in 1978. His reply was: “I’m on the level!”

Unfortunately, our good friend the late Bob Schadewald, an expert on the history of flat earthism, was definitely not “on the level” as far as Mr Johnson was concerned. He showed so much scepticism about the flatness of the Earth that in the end Mr Johnson expelled him from the Society for his “spherical tendencies” and his “inability to face the plane truth.”

Alas, Mr Johnson died in 2001, without achieving his avowed aim of “restoring the world to sanity.” The world, like Mr Schadewald, still fails to see “the plane truth”. But the battle continues, only now on the Internet. We refer our readers to the web-site at, and tip-toe quietly away.…