The Hollow Earth

The idea that the Earth is hollow has a long history that not only follows through advancing scientific theory to a modern understanding of geology but also through an increasingly bizarre and anti-intellectual path into new age foolishness. Of course, like so many other conflicts between myth and science, the 19th century is the confluence for both those paths.

It begins with the ancient and classical concepts of the underworld. Caves were well known and it should not be surprising that these glimpses into the bowels of the Earth hinted at larger realms even deeper beneath the Earth.


Anthanasius Kircher

On a visit to southern Italy in 1638, Jesuit scholar Anthanasius Kircher, hailed as “the last Renaissance man,” was lowered into the crater of Vesuvius, then on the brink of eruption, in order to examine its interior. From this and other studies, Kircher published “Mundus Subterraneus” in 1664 in which he envisioned the Earth being shot through with caverns, some empty, others filled with flames with connections and vents that eventually lead up to the surface to become volcanoes, and other filled with water with the tides being caused by the ocean’s waters moving into and out of these caverns.

In many ways, Kircher’s model was not unlike the way the Earth was assumed to be back to antiquity, merely codified in a more scientific form. This was also the model that persisted across the scientific consensus for the next several centuries until more modern instrumentation began to reveal the Earth beyond what one could observe suspended from a rope in the mouth of an active volcano.

But even observation sometimes does not match with the model. It had been observed that the magnetic poles of the Earth did not match with the geographical poles. Nor did it seem that there were only two poles with the Earth a simple magnet as there were anomalous readings that suggested that there were minor poles. Finally, it was noticed that those magnetic poles were not fixed but were drifting about the Earth.

Anthanasius Kircher's subterranian passages with oceans and furnaces. The Earth's interior a bit like a fiery sponge.

Anthanasius Kircher’s subterranian passages with oceans and furnaces. The Earth’s interior a bit like a fiery sponge.

To explain this, Edmond Halley, the man whose great mathematical work proved Kepler’s orbital laws and earned him periodic immortality by having a returning comet named after him, postulated in 1692 that the Earth was constructed of concentric shells, 500 miles thick at the surface, with roughly Venus and Mars sized shells within and with a core about the size of Mercury at the center. That each of these shells spun at their own rates and slightly off on the surface shell’s inclination explained the complex magnetic fields.


Edmond Halley

He also envisioned each of these shells as being separated by a space filled with an atmosphere and insisted that there was some sort of illumination and probably life because God would not let such a space be uselessly lifeless.

Now, one would think that a mathematician would be able to crunch the numbers of orbital mechanics and determine that the Earth could not be hollow because the density of the Earth did not support such a conclusion but you also have to remember that the mass of the Earth had to be calculated based on the orbital interactions of other things, most particularly the Moon. Assume that the Moon is the same density as the Earth (and in the 17th Century one would have no reason to think otherwise) and the ratio of masses would suggest a lighter, and thus possibly hollow, Earth. Well, that is unless you take gravity into account that would tend to crush all those spheres towards a gravitational center and there being no mechanism to account for how the Earth would have formed those distinct concentric spheres.

And here is where the myth of the Hollow Earth began. Even with science in its infancy, the known physics of the 17th Century was sufficient to crush Halley’s concentric shells. Without divine intervention, there was simply no mechanism to account for either the formation of shells or their continuation. This was recognized at the time and even with the support of a great mind like Edmond Halley’s, the Hollow Earth remained a fringe hypothesis.


Thomas Burnet

Thomas Burnet’s 1681 book “The Sacred Theory of the Earth” postulated that the crust of the Earth was a smooth scum that floated and solidified on the surface of a massive sphere of water. The earth spun upright on its axis and, because of that, the tropical sun beat relentlessly down upon the equator. Eventually, the heat grew to the point that the shell cracked and the subterranean ocean spilled forth to inundate the planet.

Noah’s flood.

Yes, literally Noah’s flood. The crust cracked and convulsed creating mountains and valleys, the axis tilted, the floating crust found equilibrium and the flood waters receded. Burnet explained it in scientific terms and attributed the flood to natural forces but used the Biblical narrative as if it were historical fact.

The Hollow Earth theory didn’t really float to the surface again until 1818 when John Cleves Symmes, Jr. stood on a street corner in St. Louis passing out fliers:

“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.”

John Cleves Symmes Jr.

John Cleves Symmes Jr.

He sent 500 copies of his pamphlet to philosophical societies, colleges, and governments officials in the US and Europe. In spite of attaching a certificate attesting to his mental soundness, he received no positive replies.

Symmes’ theory was a variation on that of Halley, with the Earth a hollow sphere with concentric spheres within. Unlike Halley, he added convenient 4,000 mile wide holes at each pole to afford access to the interior. Additionally, he added geography on the interior, concave surface of each sphere, complete with oceans and continents and its inhabitants held in place by a combination of gravity and centrifugal force.

The rails had been officially and thoroughly jumped.

Symmes traveled the US, giving lectures on the subject and soliciting funds to mount an expedition but he never had any success, in part because he was a very poor public speaker. His fortunes turned somewhat when he met Jeremiah Reynolds in 1824. Reynolds was a much better speaker and was much more convincing of not only the proposal that the Earth was hollow but towards mounting an actual polar expedition. In fact, Reynolds began to emphasize the practical knowledge and fame derived from polar exploration over the goal of proving Symmes theory, which led to a falling out between the two.

Reynolds continued his profitable lecture circuit independently of Symmes and was able to convince President John Quincy Addams to outfit an expedition. When Andrew Jackson became president the plan of the previous administration was canceled but Reynolds was undeterred, launching a privately funded expedition in 1829 (the year of Symmes’ death). Reynolds reached the Antarctic coast but was never able to penetrate to the interior to find Symmes’ polar hole.

John Cleves Symmes's Theory of Concentric Spheres was a recycling of Edmond Halley's conjecture.

John Cleves Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres was a recycling of Edmond Halley’s conjecture.

Symmes had never written anything more than his pamphlets but devotee James McBride compiled Symmes’ thoughts and lectures into the 1826 book “Symmes’ Theory of Concentric Spheres”. Illustrations in that book had reduced Symmes’ five concentric spheres to only two, reflecting Symmes’ own evolution of the theory. Symmes’ son Americus plagiarized McBrides book, almost word for word (same title as well), but reflected the final form of Symmes’ evolving model, the one we think of today, a single outer shell with a vast, empty interior and a central sun to light the interior space.

Emanuel Swedenborg

Emanuel Swedenborg

In 1734, Emanuel Swedenborg had offered the Nebular Hypothesis of planetary formation. In this, the stars and planets form from great clouds of dust and gas, coalesced by gravity. With some adjustments, this is not unlike the contemporary model we have today. What followed from this, in Hollow Earth theory, was that the outer crust of the Earth solidified while the interior continued to condense into a central star, ignoring what that would imply to the baked inhabitants of the inner surface.

With most of the Earth explored, mapped or on the verge of discovery, the Hollow Earth became fertile ground for adventure fiction, satire and the new genre of utopian fiction.

Nathaniel Ames wrote a satirical novel in 1820 based on Symmes theories called “Symzonia; Voyage of Discovery.”

Borrowing liberally from “Symzonia” and lectures of Jeremiah Reynold, Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pyn” in 1837. It wasn’t well received and Poe returned to his strength in the short story. It is still unclear why Poe invoked Reynolds with his dying breath.

William F. Lyons wrote the non-fictional “The Hollow Globe” in 1871 based on information channelled through clairvoyant M.L. Sherman. No reason to give Symmes any credit for an identical model.

In the same year, Edward Bulwer-Lytton published “The Coming Race” with the inner Earth more like Kircher’s with vast caverns enlarged by the omni-versatile and magical power of the vril. The first of a string of utopian Hollow Earth novels with a peaceful, perfect society with women as the rulers. However, this is not quite as feminist as it might first appear in that these women plan on invading the surface world and clense it of its inferior society.

William Bradshaw's version became something of the standard for those that were to follow.

William Bradshaw’s version became something of the standard for those that were to follow.

For a truly feminist take, Mary Bradley Lanes “Mizora: A Prophesy” 1881 has the perfect blond haired, blue eyed Ayrian women eliminating not only the darker races but the need for men altogether.

“Pantaletta: A Romance of Sheheland” came out the next year and while it was pseudonymously written by one Mrs. J Wood, it was the complete opposite of “Mizora”, a comic dystopia with all the gender roles and norms reversed, and transvestitism universally enforced by the rule of law. Apparently some guy was frightened by the prospect of women’s suffrage.

The Goddess of Atvatabar” by William Bradshaw was published in 1892. By that time, the American frontier had been filled up and Manifest Destiny had been fulfilled. No matter. The Hollow Earth had plenty more land available for Anglo-saxon imperialist ambitions.

Jules Verne

Jules Verne

And, of course, there was Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” published in 1864. It is the most loved and best remembered of the hundreds of Hollow Earth novels, in no small part because it was Verne writing. I also tend to think it was one of the novels with the fewest pretensions. An adventure for adventure’s sake and not fitting out the Earth’s interior for some overarching political or social message. Professor Otto Lidenbrock and his companions descend into a volcano searching for the vast Kirchian underworld. Along the way, they reveal the entire geological history of the Earth, encounter a few monsters along the way, and make their escape and triumphant return to academic acclaim. And, that’s it. No utopian visions, no advanced civilizations bent on our destruction or wildernesses ripe for conquest, just a scientific travelogue with a few dinosaurs thrown in. This simplicity has allowed Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to withstand the test of time.

But we’re not done with Hollow Earth theories yet.

In 1869, Cyrus Teed, an eclectic physician and alchemist, was playing with the medicinal uses of electricity and accidentally electrocuted himself. When he regained consciousness, his said that a goddess had come to him and revealed the true nature of the universe, a new set of scientific and religious ideas he called Koreshanity which included the proposition that the Earth was not a sphere, or even a hollow sphere but a spherical, spinning rocky shell in the void of the beyond and that all of existence existed within this space. Any perceived convexity of this cellular cosmogony was the result of an optical illusion. The sun was a giant mystical battery at the center. The planets were fragments floating on magnetic winds. The starts and moon were merely refractions.

For the world is hollow and I have touched the sky.

For the world is hollow and I have touched the sky.

He and his religious followers set up a commune in Florida and set about proving the concavity of the Earth with a series of poorly constructed wooden t-squares set up along the beach. It shouldn’t be surprising that all their data perfectly confirmed his conclusions.

“To know of the Earth’s concavity and its relation to Universal form, is to know God; but to believe in the Earth’s convexity, is to deny God.”

The later half of the 19th Century saw science actually given the tools necessary to determine the inner structure of the Earth. Italian Dilippo Cecchi built the first seismometer in 1875 and a little more than a decade later, the detection of an earthquake in Japan by a seismometer in Germany essentially disproved the idea that the Earth was hollow. Subsequent refinement over next half century had mapped out the true inner structure with a rocky outer crust and various layers of the molten interior.

 This sort of drove a wooden stake into the heart of the Hollow Earth theory. It’s last hurrah was Edgar Rice Burroughs 1914 novel “At the Earth’s Core” and several subsequent Pellucidar novels. Burroughs didn’t care that science had already disproved the various Hollow Earth theories, he was just writing an adventure story. In some ways, his story was successful in spite of reality and has stood the test of time for the same reasons as Verne. A story endures.

And endures in spite of reality. We are not done with the Hollow Earth yet. There are, to this day, those who still follow Kircher, Symmes and Teed in believing that the world is a hollow sphere. Rumors persist that Admiral Byrd never flew over the north pole in 1947 but instead traveled into Symmes’ hole. The NPIEE (North Pole Inner Earth Expedition) is still attempting to raise the $3.5 million necessary to rent a Russian icebreaker and travel to the north pole to prove Symme’s theory once and for all. The film company that was supposed to be helping fund this disappeared under suspicious circumstances and their Indiegogo fundraising campaign only raised $2,000, so that doesn’t look like it’s happening any time soon. “The Hollow Earth Insider” still publishes, insisting that alien spacecraft emerge from secret government caverns. In fact, their website seems to put forward every Hollow Earth theory imaginable, even when one theory contradicts another. Everything is true.

So, take a deep breath, point your toes, Google “Hollow Earth” and you will find a vast cavalcade of fiction and pseudoscience, bad photoshops and other lies, and even a few links to stories from a time when it was possible that the Earth maybe, possibly, might have been not the way we think of it today.

This map helpfully shows you where to find the stolen saucers. You know it's accurate because it's to scale.

This map helpfully shows you where to find the stolen saucers. You know it’s accurate because it’s to scale.

Adventure awaits in the Hollow Earth.


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