Newton's Principia Mathematica is rarely remembered today for having sparked speculation that we all go about our days traveling across the shell of what is a hollowed out planet -- but the devoted Edmond Halley improvised just such a theory in 1691 from the Principia as he pondered the mysteries of why the earth's magnetic field changes and the nature of such phenomena as the northern auroras.
Normally, in our surveys of the scientific revolution, we speak of a grand astronomical sweep from Copernicus through Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes that culminates in Newton's restoration of the broken Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmos by mathematically divining the universal laws of nature. Halley himself poetically proclaimed the same, and gets recognition for wrestling the Principia out from Newton's study and into publication before the world -- and is noted as well for his own heavenly insights into the nature of comets, recognizing their elliptical periodicity and precisely identifying the cyclical nature of the one that now bears his name. If you're here on earth in 2061 you can see it come round once again . . . about 1000 years after its 1066 appearance, which was recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry, an eleventh century blog. But I digress.
Hollow earth speculation doesn't typically come up when teaching the scientific revolution, even if Halley in his venerable old age points us in this sober portrait not to look above for evidence of his achievements but to look below our feet, perhaps believing at age 80 that it wouldn't hurt to remind attentive minds of some unfinished business that could be taken on. . . not that what he had in mind was students in a 21st-century class in science and popular culture as his epigoni. As I plan for next fall's scipop class (now in improved, hybrid form!), I've been thinking a lot about the ambiguity that attaches itself to nearly every historical and contemporary episode we've grappled with in that class. The official version of the history of science carries with it the aura of progress over time. Science in the vernacular fits awkwardly within that sober frame, and instead tends to be presumed to display degeneration over time: witness the hollow earth, from Halley's hallowed hands to Saturday morning kid's teevee.
In becoming acquainted with Halley beyond his normal orbit -- in his speculation on the interior physics of our terrestrial planet, and its possible habitation by hollow earth beings -- we followed along with the scheherazadean legacy of hollow-earth thinking as related by David Standish in his book The Hollow Earth. In contrast to the stern geometric proofs of the Principia, Halley's inner-space speculation appears as an eccentric footnote, but whether that's due more to 20th-century perspectives that encountered hollow earthism-primarily in the light of pulp fiction -- making Halley seem a bit too much like an early Edgar Rice Burroughs -- than to his arguments themselves is a fair question. But perhaps Halley can be indulged his hollow earth eccentricities, given his seventeenth-century context and his intrepid pursuit of the realities of magnetism, which was such a mysterious entity. As one present-day commentator suggests: "Today, of course, one can rather easily see the flaws with a hollow Earth theory, but no one can rightfully blame someone living in the seventeenth century for believing such nonsense, especially if it explained certain mysteries." Thus, with just a bit of well-placed condescension what might look like Halleyan nonsense remains respectable -- if a bit on the free-wheeling side of respectable -- and therefore a forefather of the scientific revolution can maintain his rational bona fides. Even still, I'm not betting any serious money on it turning up much in historical surveys of the scientific revolution.
Tales of a hollow earth persist through the next centuries in varying proportions of fact to fictionality (and despite little scientific support). Halley's idea of a race of rational beings populating the hollow space of the interior planet resonated with widely-current ideas up through the nineteenth century about God's omnipotence, in which it was presumed that planets that circle a sun must support sentient life, as does our Earth: God does nothing without purpose, and it is clear, therefore, that God would have placed life on other planets so that they would be inhabited in the same way as is our own -- "the plurality of worlds" hypothesis. (This idea can be seen in works that tackle scientific subjects such as The Christian Philosopher of 1721 by American Cotton Mather, the influential Puritan divine -- and Fellow of the Royal Society.) Mather's popularization of ideas about scripture and science were read well into the next generations, and is a likely source for sparking John Cleves Symmes, Jr.'s fascination with hollow earth theory. Symmes, a former U.S. army officer and frontier trader, began turning out circulars on behalf of hollow earthism in 1818 (with one sent direct to U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams), and spread the good news that the interior could be entered into via holes at the poles. He kept up a vigorous schedule of public talks across the young republic until his death in 1829. The mantle (so to speak ;-) for proselytizing the theory and drumming up support for polar exploration had fallen more and more to an acolyte of Symmes's, J.N. Reynolds, a gifted public lecturer, as was sketched in 1826 by a newspaperman in New York city:
A gentleman of this city, who, never having heard the theory of the concentric spheres properly explained, had always viewed it as the wild chimera of a half-disordered imagination, lately attended one of Reynolds' lectures. He went, as he himself confessed, in hopes of hearing something sufficiently absurd to give good exercise to his risibles; but soon felt more inclined to listen than to laugh, and by the time the discourse was finished, became a thorough believer in what he had lately derided. Such sudden conversions, perhaps, are not the most permanent; but they are sufficient to prove that the above theory is more worthy of investigation than ridicule. (Quoted in Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism, p. 125).
Reynolds would come to downplay the hollow earth / polar connection while becoming fired with even greater zeal for exploring the Antarctic regions as ends unto themselves, and he was so successful in selling the possibilities, that he convinced the Congress to fund an exploratory expedition to the regions of the southern polar seas, which set sail in 1838. Sachs sees Reynolds as a powerful embodiment of American Humboldtianism, and argues that it was Reynolds, "perhaps more than any other writer in the first half of the nineteenth century, [who] taught America the cosmopolitan value of seeing the world" (p. 21). But Reynolds's ideas would reverberate transatlantically as well, if somewhat circuitously -- picked up at home by Edgar Allen Poe in some of his tales, and then translations of Poe's fiction into French caught the eye of Jules Verne, who would write Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864, adding a popular new conduit for hollow earth lore: with it as a foundation of the new (or, to us, classic) genre of science fiction.
Puritan approval, Congressionally-funded voyages, one of the first works of modern science fiction -- the culturally-woven threads of the webs that gird the hollow earth lie not neatly laid out like longitude and latitude, but look something rather disorienting instead, a crazy-quilt line of Brownian motion. Once you get into the middle of this all, how do you determine "what's the bottom line"? Standish, takes a cool-kid kind of stance, introducing his book by stating nonchalantly:
There have been many books recently about important ideas or commodities that have changed the world. This one, I am happy to say, traces the cultural history of an idea that was wrong and changed nothing -- but which has nevertheless had an ongoing appeal (in his Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface, p. 13).
The cultural history of scientific ideas that were wrong and changed nothing: in my darker moments, this characterization does seem indeed to capture the historical hamster-wheel that marks my scholarly preoccupations with science and popular culture. And yet. . .
The hollow-earth history actually led me back to a novel I'd forgotten about, which had first appeared anonymously, in installments, in the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper in 1880, and was published about a decade later in book form as Mizora (when the author was revealed to be Mary E. Bradley Lane, about whom little is known). In Mizora, Lane fashions an alternate female-only reality that exists inside the Earth (discovered by adventuring through the northern pole) in which science and technology have done away with the biological need for men for procreation, and which supports a utopian society. In some ways, the hollow earth setting can be seen as just another variation on the ancient dodge of fictional utopian islands, the point being the existence of some other unknown place beyond our sight where an author's idealized world can flourish. Worlds had been turned upside down before by social critics, and a world turned inside out was perhaps nothing much different. And yet. . .
I suspect that imaginings about alternative realities were quickened in the last centuries as the strangeness of the terraqueous globe on which we live began to be better-known and to come under livelier scrutiny. The fact that geology holds a less glamorous place in the hierarchy of the sciences in our own time obscures the fascination that pondering the mysteries of the planet which supports our own existence held in ages past. The vigorous trafficking in hollow-earth speculation in the 19th-century might well provide fertile ground for historians to capture glimpses of the ways in which new visions of an active terraqueous globe fascinated a wide range of people, who then turned their curiosity to imagining what sorts of changed environments would support changed forms of human beings, or of the ways in which ancient subterranean life and contemporary terran life might be connected. That is, hollow-earth tales and their ilk may well represent a kind of hidden history of science, where non-specialists play with a protean set of evolutionary-like ideas in public, impinging on the official story in unrecognized ways. Such stories little-resemble the kind of hoary historical set-pieces about evolutionary debate that populate casual remembrance, such as the anecdote about Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce monkeying around about who was on Darwin's team and why or why not. What did evolution from the people look like? Maybe some of the answers are right beneath our feet.
For more: To delve back into the seventeenth-century debate on the plurality of worlds hypothesis, see Bernard de Fontenelle's charming introduction, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds from 1686, or satisfy your curiosity about what's known scientifically today about the earth's magnetosphere. For a quick explanation of the plurality of worlds hypothesis, see an essay from the Norton Anthology of English Literature. For a short explication of Halley and the hollow earth, see Patricia Fara, "Edmond Halley's last portrait," Notes Rec. R. Soc., 2006, 60:199-201. Professor Duane Griffin in the Geography Dept. at Bucknell has plumbed the scientific aspects of the hollow earth tales: see his "What Curiosity in the Structure: The Hollow Earth in Science" and "Hollow and Habitable Within: Symmes's Theory of Earth's Internal Structure and Polar Geography." Victorian science fiction as forgotten by historians of science is deftly described by Paul Fayter in "Strange New Worlds of Space and Time: Late Victorian Science and Science Fiction," in Victorian Science in Context, ed. Bernard Lightman. And yes, the Nazis had their own hollow-earth fantasies; that's a bridge too far for this post.
Images: The Halley portrait is from https://www.biographie.net/Edmond-Halley; the Bayeaux tapestry snip is from the wikipedia article on Halley's comet https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tapestry_of_bayeux10.jpg; the Burroughs Tarzan hollow earth cover was from David Standish's book for posting here: https://archive.coasttocoastam.com/gen/page1558.html?theme=light; the Christian Philosopher title page is from the Open Library https://openlibrary.org/books/OL13520105M/The_Christian_philosopher; the last one is by William Reed, a latter-day Symmesian from 1906, posted at John Lienhard's Engines of Ingenuity site at https://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2180.htm.
Note: Many of the links were updated and modified on September 4, 2018 | The entry was originally posted on June 12, 2011.