Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres: The Earth is Hollow
Posted On: 05/22/2017 - 2:19pm, Posted By: Scott Gampfer, Associate Vice President for Collections & Preservation
Rear cover, The Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres, Americus Symmes, 1878
Capt. John Cleves Symmes was born in November 1780 in Sussex County, New Jersey. He was the nephew of his namesake, the well-known pioneer in the settlement of the Northwest Territory. He was well educated, demonstrating a great interest in mathematics and natural sciences and was an inveterate reader. Capt. Symmes served in the United States Army from 1802 to 1816, including combat during the War of 1812. During his army career, he was wounded in the wrist during a duel with a rival officer (upon whom he inflicted a hip wound) which left him with impaired function of the joint.
Captain John Cleves Symmes
He is perhaps best remembered, not for his military service, but for his passionate and determined defense of his curious hollow earth theory which he called the Theory of Concentric Spheres. Symmes authored a circular in April, 1818, in which he announced to all the world, “I declare 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 this undertaking.” He proposed an expedition of “one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to set out from Siberia in the fall season, with rein-deer and sleighs, on the ice of the frozen sea” on a voyage of discovery to the interior regions of the earth.
Symmes further believed that “Each of the spheres composing the earth, as well as those constituting the other planets throughout the universe, is believed to be habitable both on the inner and outer surface; and lighted and warmed according to those general laws which communicate light and heat to every part of the universe.” He believed that if one were able to make it to one of the poles, the lip of the opening would be so gradual that one might not even realize at first that they were entering the inner realm. He theorized that clouds would probably float in through the polar openings and produce rain and snow in the interior. He believed that the diameter of the northern polar opening was about two thousand miles and the south opening somewhat larger. He based much of his thinking on facts compiled from the accounts of Ross, Parry, Howe, McKenzie and others who had explored the Polar Regions by land and sea. The conclusions he drew from the study of those accounts however, were entirely his own.
CMC Printed Works Collection
Symmes moved from St. Louis to Newport, Kentucky in 1819 and then to Hamilton, Ohio in 1824. In both locations he continued to write and lecture on his theory and attempted to organize expeditions to the North Pole to validate his beliefs. Symmes’ son, Americus, later published a compilation of his father’s writings on the theory. Americus claimed that “Its reception by the public can easily be imagined; it was overwhelmed with ridicule as the production of a distempered imagination, or the result of partial insanity.”
CMC Printed Works Collection
Symmes had 500 copies of his circular printed and sent to colleges and universities, distinguished scientists, philosophical societies, major cities and towns, and scientific organizations in this country as well as in Europe.
The Academy of Science in Paris refused to give the theory any consideration and it was treated as a hoax by the scientific papers of Europe. In the United States it was generally lampooned by the newspapers. In 1826, an anonymous author, supportive of Symmes’ theory, wrote that “The newspaper scribblers, who have noticed the theory at all, have almost uniformly appeared to consider it as a fit subject on which to indulge their wit……But to deal in sarcasm is not always reasoning; and the truth is not to be ascertained by indulging in ridicule.” Despite all this, Symmes and a handful of adherents continued to advance the theory.
Desperate to prove his theory, Symmes petitioned Congress in 1822 to back a polar expedition, asking them to “equip and fit out for the expedition two vessels of two hundred and fifty or three hundred tons burden; and grant such other aid as Government might deem necessary to promote the object.” The petition was introduced in the Senate by Colonel Richard Johnson of Kentucky, but was tabled after a few remarks. Not to be deterred, Symmes petitioned both houses of Congress the following year, which met the same fate as his earlier attempt. In January 1824 he tried to get the Ohio General Assembly to pass a resolution approving his theory and recommending him to Congress. This effort met with indefinite postponement.
In 1825, he learned of a planned polar expedition being organized by the Russian Government. Having knowledge of his theory, Count Romanzoff, Chancellor to the Czar, apparently requested the participation of Captain Symmes. He and the Count attempted to negotiate the terms of his involvement, but in the end could not reach agreement. Symmes however, made use of his brief involvement with the planned Russian mission to advocate for an American sponsored expedition.
Symmes busied himself with lecture tours to promote his theory in the company of some of its supporters including his stepson, Anthony Lockwood and a young lawyer named J.N. Reynolds. They visited cities across Ohio and also lectured in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and as far north as cities in Maine and Canada.
The constant touring, writing, lecturing, promotion, and defense of his theory eventually took a toll on his health and his finances. Capt. Symmes reluctantly retired from lecturing and went back to New Jersey for a period of rest. When he felt better, he returned to his home in Cincinnati but once again his health declined gradually. He died at his home in Hamilton on May 29, 1829. He was only 49 years old. His son Americus, erected a monument to his father at the burial site which was topped by a hollow globe, open at the poles.
Soundly rejected by the scientific community, the Theory of Concentric Spheres might have been quickly dismissed and forgotten but for the strength of Symmes’ personality. His likeability and determination to convince others of the viability of the theory were what kept it alive. Even those who were convinced of the fallacy of his theory, and some who suspected him of being mad, often came away with respect for the man after meeting him and hearing him debate and defend his ideas. Although interest in the theory itself faded away with the death of Symmes, interest in polar exploration, and in the idea of government funded scientific exploration, continued after he was gone.