The Hollow Earth Expedition
This is the story of what may have been the first major Hollow Earth Expedition organized and financed in a major fashion.
Even though European scientists were the first credible observers to float the idea of a hollow earth to the general public, it was an American who first brought international attention to the idea of a world within the earth. He came to be the most enthusiastic supporter of the concept of a Hollow Earth Expedition.
He was a hot-tempered American, a career soldier and man of action from the state of New Jersey.
The son of a judge, John Cleve Symmes was born in 1780 and was named after an uncle who had fought in the American Revolution. Symmes hardly led the cloistered life of a scholar, although he enjoyed a solid early education and was intensely interested in the natural sciences. In 1802, at the age of twenty-two, he entered the United States Army as an ensign.
Symmes did not begin to pump for an expedition to explore Hollow Earth entrance until he had been wounded in a duel, fought in the 1812 War and left the Army to open a trading post in St. Louis.
There, he researched his lifelong passion for the natural sciences. Symmes was fascinated by speculation about the formation of the earth, and he began to elaborate with growing enthusiasm and conviction on a theory about the possibility of a hollow earth.
By 1818, Symmes began to share his ideas on the international lecture circuit. He did so in a most spectacular manner. In a letter addressed, “To All the World” and sent to politicians, publications, learned societies, and heads of state throughout Europe and America, he wrote: “I declare the earth is hollow and inhabited within; containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles or 16 degrees; I pledge my life,” he continued, “in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.” He had a keen desire to organize the first Hollow Earth expedition.
Symmes wanted a crew of “one hundred brave men, companions, well-equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with reindeer, and sleighs, on the ice of the frozen sea; I engage we find warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.”
But instead of the support and aid as Symmes had requested, the public responded with derision; his audacity was ridiculed in newspapers and scientific journals the world over.
Hollow Earth model by Symmes
Undeterred, Symmes launched a vigorous campaign with newspaper articles, more open letters, and countless lectures around the country. Over and over, he argued that a mass of spinning, unformed matter–such as the earth had once been formed from–could not have organized itself into a solid sphere. Centrifugal force throws rotating matter away from the axis of rotation; gravity pulls it inward. When the forces balance, he reasoned, the result is a belt of material with the densest matter outermost and the axis open. In this way, Symmes claimed, the materials of the earth were organized as concentric, hollow spheres open at the poles.
Symmes marshaled all kinds of evidence, from the astronomical to the commonplace, to support his scheme. Furthermore, he insisted, God would not have created a vast inner world only to have it barren and empty.
Symmes spoke relentlessly to all who would listen to him, pouring out great, disorganized jumbles of his thought. His fervent speeches drew large crowds of the curious but, for the most part, elicited only amusement or mild interest instead of cash for his arctic expedition.
He did make a few converts, however, among whom the most significant was an Ohio newspaper editor named Jeremiah N. Reynolds. Reynolds began giving his own lectures in support of Symmes’s theories.
Born in Pennsylvania, Reynolds moved to Ohio when young. A precocious lad, he taught school while in his teens and early twenties. He diligently saved, allowing him to attend Ohio University in Athens, Ohio for three years. On graduating, he bought and edited the Spectator newspaper in Wilmington, Ohio, but sold his interest around 1823.
The next year, Reynolds began a lecture tour with John Cleves Symmes, Jr. Reynolds had become a convert to Symmes’ theory that the earth was hollow. Symmes’ idea was even accepted as a possibility by some respected scientists. After Symmes died, Reynolds continued the lectures, which attracted full houses in Eastern U.S. cities (at a cost of 50 cents for admission).
Over time, Reynolds became willing to accept the possibility that the theory was wrong.
His arguments swayed members of President John Quincy Adams’s cabinet, and speaking before Congress, Reynolds succeeded in fitting out a national expedition to the South Pole. But Andrew Jackson opposed the project, and after he became president it was abandoned.
Reynolds garnered support from private sources and the expedition sailed from New York City in 1829. With much danger, the expedition reached the Antarctic shore and returned north, but at Valparaíso, Chile, the crew mutinied and set Reynolds and another man on shore.
Another adherent was a wealthy Ohioan named James McBride. It may well have been McBride who requested Kentucky senator, Richard M. Johnson, who later served as vice-president in the Martin Van Buren administration, to introduce in Congress a petition for funding the proposed expedition. It was tabled. McBride then compiled a book summarizing, in a more concise and logical fashion than Symmes ever did, the theory of concentric spheres (which was more popularly and rudely referred to as the Theory of Symmes’s Hole). But it was all for naught. The strain of ten years of vigorous proselytizing broke Symmes’s health, and he died in 1829 without seeing his theory accepted or his expedition mounted.
After his death, Symmes’s vision of a hollow earth was nearly forgotten. The polar expedition he had so long espoused, however, was soon given another life.
In fact, Congress authorized such a voyage in 1828, the year before Symmes’s death. This was in part the result of vigorous lobbying by Jeremiah Reynolds, who instead of appealing to scientific curiosity, shrewdly stressed the trade to be opened and territory to be claimed. The idea gained support of President John Quincy Adams but not of Andrew Jackson, who succeeded Adams as president in 1829. The expedition would not sail for another decade.
Meanwhile, the impatient Reynolds joined a sealing and exploration expedition to the South Seas aboard the Annawan. Reynolds returned to renew earlier calls to sealers and whalers to clamor for an expedition, now proposed to Antarctica.
In an 1836 speech given in the US Capitol’s Hall of Representatives, Reynolds conjured a stirring vision of American ships casting anchor at the South Pole,
“that point where all the meridians terminate where our eagle and star-spangled banner may be unfurled and planted and left to wave our axis of the earth itself!” If he still believed in Symmes’s theory at that point, Reynolds kept it to himself.
Swayed by such patriotic appeals to the whalers and other commercial interests. Congress approved the expedition and set aside $300,000 for it. However, two years dragged by before it actually departed. By that time, the Reynolds earned the ire of the Secretary of Navy for dawdling. Reynolds was struck from the expedition roster when the ship finally sailed in 1838.
The Wilkes Expedition was named after its commander, Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. It took four years to complete the Wilkes expedition. This was the first to marry up civil engineers and scientists with naval crews. The Wilkes Expedition made no important discoveries, certainly none that Symmes had anticipated.
There was no charting of a polar opening. Nevertheless, the crew returned, having mapped thousands of miles of Antarctic coastline. They also discovered that this little-known landmass was much larger than previously considered, big enough to be named the earth’s seventh continent.