A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Testing Terra Cava: Science in Symzonia


ST. LOUIS, (Missouri Territory,)
NORTH AMERICA, April 10, A. D. 1818.    

I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentrick spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 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 the undertaking.
Jno. Cleves Symmes.
Of Ohio, Late Captain of Infantry

This announcement, distributed at ‘Circular Number 1,’ set off a century of hollow earth theories, scientific inquiry, exploration, and literature in the United States. The relationship between this nineteenth century pseudo-science (a term applied only with retrospective knowledge of the Earth’s structure) and the literature it inspired builds a case for hollow earth novels engaging in the first didactic speculative fiction based upon scientific theory. More than utilizing hollow earth science as a model for storytelling, there is also the authorial push in several of these texts to explore the Polar Regions more thoroughly to verify the theory of openings at “12 or 16 degrees” latitude. Literature, influenced by the scientific writings of proponents of the Symmes Theory, was a mode of popular engagement with the masses to build support for and disseminate information about the hollow earth.

Before John Cleves Symmes’s declaration in 1818, theories of a hollow earth based on science (and not superstition or mythology) had been in existence since Edmund Halley’s 1692 paper proposing that the Earth was constructed of a series of concentric spheres beneath the surface. His reasoning for this stemmed from his work on Newton’s Principia, in which Newton had calculated the density of the moon to be significantly greater than the Earth:

Now if the Moon be more solid than the Earth, as 9 to 5, why may we not reasonably suppose the Moon, being a small Body, and a Secondary Planet, to be solid Earth, Water and Stone and this Globe to consist of the same Materials, only four Ninths thereof to be Cavity, within and between the Internal Spheres; which I would render not improbable.”[2]

Because of this miscalculation, Halley felt the need to account for the Earth’s larger size yet smaller density, and a series of hollow, concentric spheres fit the bill. Into all of this Halley includes explanations for gravity, magnetism and hydrodynamics. The entire world system must be made cohesive in order to succeed as a scientific theory.

Symmes and his followers enacted this same attention to detail, but they substituted observations of natural phenomena for mathematics in their construction of a hypothetical terra cava. The reason for supposing the interior portions of the world to be habitable – and inhabited – did not change in the 126 years separating the publication of Halley’s paper and Symmes’s declaration: Providence wills it to be so. “Why may not we rather suppose that the exceeding small Quantity of solid Matter, in respect of the fluid Ether, is so disposed by the Almighty Wisdom as to yield as great a Surface for the use of living Creatures as can consist with the conveniency and security of the whole?”[3] The whole of Creation must be given to life and useful purpose as a matter of theological parsimony. Whereas Halley proposed that there must be some other internal structure to provide light besides the sun to provide for life, Symmes’s theory allows for the geometry of reflected light to illuminate the interior of a world that is open at the Poles.

Symmes’s work was undoubtedly influenced by both Halley, and by the American religious leader and scholar Cotton Mather, who published The Christian Philosopher, stating, “We may reckon the external Parts of our Globe as a Shell, the internal as a Nucleus, or an inner Globe included within ours.”[4] Unfortunately, Symmes left little information as to all of the sources of his argument, but he and those who followed became part of what Charlotte Sleigh describes as “The American Situation” when it came to science in America in the nineteenth century, and that was science performed as an act of imagination.[5] Existing on the sideline of science in the nineteenth century and reduced to second hand information from Europe, there was a desire in the US to develop a distinctly “American science,”[6] and Symmes’s theory certainly met the requirements. (Some went so far as to call him the “Newton of the West.”[7]) Sleigh cites Edgar Allan Poe as a proponent of this idea of imaginative science, and Poe, interestingly, was a follower of Symmes’s work.

After the publication of his “Circular Number 1,” Symmes took his proverbial show on the road, petitioning politicians to support his expedition to the Arctic, and joining forces with one Jeremiah Reynolds to travel the country giving public lectures on his theory: ‘Audiences packed halls expecting high amusement from a madman. They went home wondering if Symmes might not be right after all.’[8]  Symmes inspired fellow Ohioan James McBride to write Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres: Demonstrating that the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open About the Poles (1826), a 168-page treatise detailing every facet of the theory. Another Ohioan, Alexander Mitchell, wrote a smaller, 24-page pamphlet in the same year: A Treatise on Natural Philosophy, in Vindication of Symmes’s Theory of the Earth Being a Hollow Sphere. Between Symmes’s popular public lectures, and these publications, Symmes’s name and ideas became a part of the common vernacular. Though the legislature of Ohio and the US Congress both turned down Symmes’s petitions for federal funding of an expedition to verify his theory on several occasions[9], he found a friend in President John Quincy Adams, who pushed for the creation of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1828. Unfortunately, worn down by his constant travelling and lecturing, Symmes fell ill and died in 1829, and due to multiple delays (including being cancelled, and then recommissioned in May of 1836) the US Ex. Ex. did not launch until 1838. In its four years exploring the world, two of the six ships were lost, and while a great deal of scientific specimens were collected that would become the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection, no holes in the Poles were discovered, though 1,500 miles of the Antarctic coast was mapped and named Wilkes Land in honour of the US Ex. Ex. leader, Lt. Charles Wilkes.

The majority of works about the hollow earth in the first half of the nineteenth century were non-fiction and scientific in nature, but there were two notable exceptions: Symzonia (1820) and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). The former, published under a pseudonym, has been contentiously debated to be the work of Symmes himself, while the latter is the product of Poe’s affiliation with Symmes’s lecturing partner Jeremiah Reynolds. Though the novels that should stand on their own merit as the product of American imagination at a time when only 30 percent of books sold in the US were by American authors,[10] they were a new type of literature uncommonly seen either in the US or Europe, a fiction based upon scientific thought.

Symzonia, A Voyage of Discovery was published under the pseudonym of Captain Adam Seaborn, but many literary historians believe it to be a product of Symmes himself because of its intense engagement with his theories only two years after the first circular and before many of the details had been published. (Even the Library of Congress lists the author as Symmes in the catalogue.) Symzonia has been considered by some scholars to be the first American science fiction/utopian novel.[11] The premise is that of a rich young American explorer who believe in the Symmes theory and leads a voyage to the southern reaches of the world (Antarctica not being a known continent at the time) to find an entrance  to the interior.

The novel starts out in the vein of a voyages extraordinaire – though decades before Verne – an exotic voyage that starts in the known, mapped world, and move to the unknown to discover the previously unimagined, in this case a utopian land populated by a small, pale, brilliant race. While there are certainly other theoretical sciences found in this technologically advanced world, it is all premised upon the carefully detailed science of Symmesian geology. There is a single illustrated plate that demonstrates how the sun and moon reflect light into the earth’s interior (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Sectional world view of the concentric spheres and angles of light entering the Polar openings.

Fig. 1: Sectional world view of the concentric spheres and angles of light entering the Polar openings.

Like travel literature of the past and present century, Seaborn/Symmes sets down a map for readers to follow, but this one alters dimensional perception t o reflect a hollow earth, rather than a flat one. Symmes’s hypothesis of how light and warmth from the sun would enter the interior are explained in the figure’s key, as well as a speech by Seaborn to his crew demarcating the reasons to suppose that the high latitudes are not frozen:

  • 1st. We know that the rays of the sun, uninflected by the atmosphere, would rest upon the pole for sic successive months.
  • 2d. That a dense medium refracts, or bends the rays of the sun.
  • 3d. That the amount of that refraction depends upon the extent of the dense medium through which it has to pass.
  • 4th. That at the pole, the rays of the sun coming to it in a very oblique direction, must necessarily pass through our atmosphere a great distance than on any other part of this globe, and consequently must there be refracted in a greater degree than elsewhere…[12]

There is, instead, an ‘icy hoop’ at the lower latitudes that is not dissipated due to insufficient warmth from the sun.[13] We in retrospect, of course, know this scientific reasoning to be inaccurate, but as explorers in 1820 had not reached beyond 71° 10′ S in 1774, attained by Captain James Cook. (In the same year that Symzonia was published, though, several islands near the Antarctic mainland were discovered, and in the years that followed, several sealers reached the mainland, though did not know they were standing on an unnamed continent.) Symzonia, in its desire to maintain realistic continuity, has followed the geography of the known world up to that 71° 10′ S latitude; from here, the author’s imagination and deduction take over.

Seaborn, our narrator, makes frequent references to Symmes’s theory and its justification for his voyage, claiming to have included all the works of Symmes in his ship’s library; the only flaw in this plot device is the anachronous mention hat Seaborn set sail in 1817,[14] a year before Symmes published his first declaration. This lends to the thought that Symmes ‘Adam Seaborn’, having a clearer perception of his theory in his own mind than any other writer would, often flattering himself with phrases such as ‘Capt. Symmes in his sublime theory.’[15] Seaborn fills these pages of the journey with observations of latitude, the sun’s position, and the reactions of the compass to changes in magnetic direction. While this may not make for the most exciting storytelling, its purpose is to present the reader with a retraceable trail of breadcrumbs, moving them almost imperceptibly from the known world beyond the verge into the unknown of terra cava. Upon meeting the Symzonian inhabitants, further details explaining the hollow earth geological structure are put to page, including the distribution of sunlight across the earth’s surface and ‘the innate warmth of the earth’ actually being the absorption and equal distribution of that heat across the world, ‘in the same manner as a glass globe full of water, when set before a fire, will absorb and diffuse heat throughout the contents of the vessel equally.’[16] The purpose of using this type of homespun analogy is to help readers imagine – and perhaps recreate for themselves – visualise the proposed science from their limited experiences. This mode of home-science relatability is used in several later texts as well to make the science as easy as possible for popular consumption.

There is other science that fills the pages of Symzonia, from flying ships to massive weaponry, but for the most part, the story turns to political analogy, utopia and condemnation of certain socio-political practices of the outside world. Due to various accidents, Adam Seaborn returns to the US without a shred of evidence of his travels and discovery, and is forced to write his tale from debtor’s prison.[17] This form of narrative framed by necessity to reveal truth, without the benefit of physical proofs, only logical deductions and analogies, would continue to be emulated throughout the century of hollow earth novels that followed.

[1] David Standish, Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastic Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface. (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006), pp. 40-1.

[2] Conway Zirkle, “The Theory of Concentric Spheres: Edmund Halley, Cotton Mather, John Cleves Symmes.” Isis (Vol. 37, No. ¾, July 1947), p. 158.

[3] Zirkle, “The Theory of Concentric Spheres.” p. 158.

[4] Zirkle, “The Theory of Concentric Spheres.” p. 156

[5] Charlotte Sleigh, Literature and Science. (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), p. 97.

[6] Sleigh, Literature and Science, p. 95.

[7] David Standish, Hollow Earth, p. 62.

[8] Duane A. Griffin. “Hollow and Habitable Within: Symmes’s Theory of Earth’s Internal Structure and Polar Geograhy.” Physical Geography (2005, 25, 5), p. 390.

[9] Griffin. “Hollow and Habitable Within.” p. 383.

[10] Sleigh, Literature and Science, p. 95.

[11] Victoria Nelson. “Symmes Hole, Or the South Polar Romance” in Raritan; Fall97, Vol. 17 Issue 2, pp. 137-67.

[12] John Cleves Symmes (a.k.a. Adam Seaborn), Symzonia, A Voyage of Discovery (New York: J. Seymore, 1820, reprinted by Moonglow Books, 2009), p. 25.

[13] Symmes, Symzonia, p. 28.

[14] Symmes, Symzonia, p. 15.

[15] Symmes, Symzonia, p. 44.

[16] Symmes, Symzonia, p. 81

[17] Symmes, Symzonia, pp. 135-6.


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