The Rim at the End of the World

Map of the flat earth

As long as I have my copy of Christine Garwood’s excellent Flat Earth (2007) at hand, having retrieved it from the bookshelf to consult it for details about the flat-earther Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who hoped to be called to testify for the prosecution in the Scopes case (see “Voliva!”), I thought that I might take the opportunity to address a weighty question for flat-earthers: what keeps the ocean from cascading off the earth faster than it can be replaced by rain?

The standard answer was proposed by Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816–1884), who, under the nom de plume of “Parallax,” launched the modern flat-earth movement back in 1849, with his book Zetetic Astronomy: A Description of Several Experiments which Prove that the Surface of the Sea is a Perfect Plane and that the Earth is not a Globe! “Zetetic” means pertaining to inquiry or investigation; in contrast, the idea that the earth is spherical is, in Parallax’s view, based merely on speculation.

“If then we adopt the zetetic process to ascertain the true figure and condition of the Earth,” Parallax wrote in the second, expanded, edition of Zetetic Astronomy (1865), we discover that the earth is a flat disk with the North Pole at its center. Garwood suggests, “The South Pole was naturally non-existent in this scheme, and the circular plane was bordered with an immense barrier of ice,” although perhaps it would be fairer to say that the South Pole was identified with the barrier.

The main evidence Parallax cites for the flatness of the earth involves, as the subtitle indicates, experiments. Well, actually, observations, variously showing that the surface of standing water is not convex, that the horizon is always horizontal, that the surface of the earth appears concave to balloonists, and so on. The main evidence he cites for the existence of a barrier of ice at the world’s rim, however, involves the inability of mariners to circumnavigate the Antarctic circle:

That the south is an immense ring, or glacial boundary, is evident from the fact, that within the Antarctic circle the most experienced, scientific, and daring navigators have failed in their attempts to sail, in a direct manner, completely around it. … But if the southern region is a pole or center, like the north, there would be little difficulty in circumnavigating it, for the distance round would be comparatively small. When it is seen that the Earth is not a sphere, but a plane, having only one centre, the north; and that the south is the vast icy boundary of the world, the difficulties experienced by circumnavigators can be easily understood.

Parallax acknowledged, however, that “How far the southern icy region extends horizontally” is a question “which cannot yet be answered” and that “there is no practical evidence as to the extent of the southern ice.” The existence of these outstanding questions and the non-existence of actual observations of such a convenient barrier notwithstanding, Parallax’s southern ice barrier became received wisdom among flat-earthers into the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Thus, for example, Parallax’s disciple John Hampden (1819–1891) agreed that the earth was a flat disk bordered by giant icebergs (although Garwood says that Hampden located Hell as beyond the ice barrier, a doctrine that I don’t see in Parallax). It was Hampden, by the way, who in 1870 issued a challenge to the British scientific community to prove the “rotundity” of the earth. No less a figure than Alfred Russel Wallace accepted, eventually winning ₤500 from Hampden, who nevertheless refused to acknowledge defeat.

In the early twentieth century, Wilbur Glenn Voliva (1870–1942) similarly believed in a southern barrier of ice, as revealed by a map used in the schools of Voliva’s home of Zion, Illinois, shown above. Garwood quotes a homely metaphor he used with reporters: the earth is like “a steak on a circular plate surrounded by a rim of mashed potato.” But there’s no hope of discovering the mashed potato, for “the weather is too cold and would stop any foolish travelers who want to go too far.”

I used to think that Samuel Shenton (1903–1971), who founded the International Flat Earth Research Society in 1956, was the exception. He thought that the earth floated at the bottom of a deep pit in an endless plane, and so I assumed that the walls of the pit, rather than a barrier of ice, held the oceans on the earth. But on investigation it turns out that Shenton, too, thought that there was a barrier of ice around the earth’s circumference, presumably between the earth and the walls of its surrounding pit.

And Charles K. Johnson (1924–2001), the president of the International Flat Earth Research Society of America, likewise accepted the existence of a southern barrier of ice. According to Garwood, Johnson thought that the barrier was “150 metres high,” while Robert Schadewald, in a profile of Johnson published in Science Digest in 1980, writes that it is “reputed to be a wall 150 feet high.” Either way, there have been tsunamis with higher waves (e.g., the Lituya Bay megatsunami), suggesting that it’s not high enough!

Of course, the underlying motivation of flat-earthery has generally been biblical inerrantism. In the final chapter of Zetetic Astronomy, Parallax urges Christians to “look at this matter calmly and earnestly. Let them determine to uproot the deception which has led them to think that they can altogether ignore the plainest astronomical teaching of Scripture, and endorse a system to which it is in every sense opposed.” Similar passages can be found throughout the flat-earth literature.

That’s been a bit embarrassing for creationists who share the biblical inerrantism but reject the flat-earth interpretation of people like Parallax and Johnson. In 1979, the young-earth creationist Duane Gish complained that a scientist with whom he debated had hit below the belt by comparing the Creation Research Society with the Flat Earth Society. “Not a single member” of the former was a member of the latter, Gish protested. A letter published in The Flat Earth News from a member of both set him straight.