The theory of concentric spheres and polar voids was conceived by John Cleves Symmes (1780-1829) and best described in his own words: "I declare that the earth is hollow and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles twelve or sixteen degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in my undertaking" (from Circular Number 1, April 10, 1818).
Symmes was born in New Jersey (United States of America), received an ordinary education, and enlisted in the US Army in 1802. He distinguished himself as a captain in the War of 1812. Following his retirement from the army, he became a military provisioner. During this time he read books on geology and developed his theory, publishing the circular quoted above as well as seven more circulars over the following year. By observing hollow and concentric structures in plant stems, bones, and other natural materials, Symmes reasoned by analogy that the earth must also be composed of concentric spheres. He believed that the centrifugal force due to the earth's rotation would create a void along the axis of rotation, resulting in holes at the poles through which one could reach the inner spheres. He also believed that his theory could explain a variety of natural phenomena such as animal migrations and ocean currents. His ideas were roundly rejected by scholars, but Symmes persisted, launching a lecture tour of Ohio and Kentucky in 1820 to promote a polar expedition to test his theory. By 1822, he had enough popular support that the US Senate considered a proposal for such an expedition, but it was tabled. The following year the US House of Representatives tabled or struck down nine more bills aimed at funding an expedition. Finally, Symmes took his proposal to the Ohio general assembly, where it also failed.
One of Symmes's followers, Jeremiah Reynolds, persuaded him to tour the urban areas of the northeastern United States. Despite Symmes's ill health and stage fright, he set off with Reynolds in 1825. Their traveling show, which played to enthusiastic audiences, included a wooden globe with concentric spheres inside, and other gadgets to demonstrate the theory. As Symmes's health deteriorated, Reynolds took on more of the lecturing, but he also started omitting Symmes's hollow earth idea and simply promoted a polar expedition. They parted company, and Symmes's continued alone through New England and into Canada. In 1827, he was forced to call off the tour due to ill health. He spent two years in New Jersey trying to recover, then returned to the family farm in Ohio, where he died.
In the meantime, Reynolds had secured President Adam's approval for an expedition, only to have his successor, President Jackson, cancel it. However, Reynolds recruited a wealthy Dr. Watson of New York to fund an expedition to Antarctica. They set off from New York by ship in 1829. Upon reaching Antarctica, they were repulsed by icebergs and sea ice, and failed to find the polar void. On the return voyage, the crew mutinied and turned the ship to piracy, stranding
Reynolds in Chile. Eventually he signed on with another ship that took him around the world (1831-1834) before returning to the United States. He resumed lecturing on the hollow earth theory and polar exploration, capturing the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote a novel in which the narrator discovers an Antarctic island inhabited by natives of Symzonia. Jules Verne read the works of Symmes, Reynolds, and Poe prior to writing his famous Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864).
By the early 20th century, explorers had reached within a few degrees of the poles. Peary claimed the North Pole in 1909, and Amundsen attained the South Pole in 1911. No holes barred their way. Symmes's theory faded from memory. A monument to Symmes, erected by his son in the 1840s, stands in Hamilton, Ohio—a stone sphere with a hole drilled through the middle.
Harry L. Stern
Collins, Paul, Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who
Didn't Change the World, New York: Picador, 2001 Symmes, Americus, The Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres, Demonstrating that the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open About the Poles, Compiled by A. Symmes from the Writings of his Father, Louisville, Kentucky: Bradley and Gilbert, 1878 Symmes, John Cleves, Symmes's Theory of Concentric Spheres: Demonstrating that the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open About the Poles, Cincinatti: Morgan, Lodge & Fischer, 1826
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