Bedford Level Experiment: The 19th Century Experiment That Laid The Foundation of The Flat Earth Society

Jan 31, 2024 0 comments

In 1838, English writer and socialist, Samuel Rowbotham, set out to disprove what the ancient Greeks as well as modern scientists had long established—that the earth was round.

A flat-earther from his youth, Rowbotham saw that the ideal place to test out his stupid theory was on the Old Bedford River, an artificial canal dug in the early 17th century to partially divert the waters of the River Great Ouse in the Fens of Cambridgeshire. The canal runs perfectly straight and unobstructed for a distance of about six miles, making it an ideal location to directly measure the curvature of the Earth.

A "flat-Earth" map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893.

“The water is nearly stationary—often completely so, and throughout its entire length has no interruption from locks or water-gates of any kind; so that it is, in every respect, well adapted for ascertaining whether any or what amount of convexity really exists,” Rowbotham wrote in Zetetic Astronomy.

Rowbotham waded into the river and used a telescope held 8 inches above the water to watch a boat, with a flag on its mast 3 feet above the water, row slowly away from him. He reported that the vessel remained constantly in his view for the full 6 miles, whereas, it should have disappeared if the water surface been curved. Armed with this experimental evidence and a long list of scriptures, Rowbotham attempted to impose upon the Cambridgeshire community the doctrine that the earth is flat. He published his observations in 1849 in a pamphlet titled Zetetic Astronomy, writing under the pseudonym "Parallax". Rowbotham argued that the earth was flat based on such everyday observations such as the earth does not appear convex when viewed from a balloon, and that lighthouses are seen at distances impossible on a sphere.

Rowbotham later expanded these ideas into the book Earth Not a Globe, proposing the Earth is a flat disc centered at the North Pole and bounded along its southern edge by a wall of ice, Antarctica. Rowbotham further held that the Sun and Moon were a mere 3,000 miles above Earth and that the "cosmos" was 3,100 miles above the Earth.

A figure from Rowbotham’s 1849 pamphlet “Zetetic Astronomy”.

Rowbotham’s claims gained little traction until, in 1870, a supporter by the name of John Hampden offered a £500 wager that he could show, by repeating Rowbotham's experiment, that the Earth was flat. The naturalist and surveyor Alfred Russel Wallace thought that was easy money and accepted the wager. Wallace knew that density gradients in air just above water can cause light to bend back down towards the ground allowing an observer to see objects beyond the horizon. To show the curvature of the Earth, Wallace put up a series of disks up on poles along the water. When viewed from one end, the disks towards the middle of the canal appeared slightly higher than the rest of the disks, and the disk at the far end looked slightly lower.

In spite of the available evidence, Hampden adamantly refused to acknowledge the demonstration. Nevertheless, the referee, John Henry Walsh, editor of The Field sports magazine, directed Hampden to fulfill his wager payment to Wallace. Despite complying with the agreed-upon bet, Hampden pledged to destroy Wallace and initiated a relentless two-decade-long campaign of harassment, threats, and libel. At first, Hampden took him to court, and claimed that two people were not qualified to settle whether or not the world was round or flat. Hampden then started publishing insulting letters accusing Wallace of cheating. Eventually, he started sending Wallace death threats. The torment only ceased with Hampden's demise.

Rowbotham's flat Earth map

Meanwhile, Rowbotham continued to further his ideas. His lectures alarmed men of science and concerned citizens addressed letters to the Astronomer Royal seeking rebuttals for his claims. A correspondent to the Leeds Times observed that “One thing he did demonstrate was that scientific dabblers unused to platform advocacy are unable to cope with a man, a charlatan if you will (but clever and thoroughly up in his theory), thoroughly alive to the weakness of his opponents.”

Rowbotham died in 1884 but his pestilent notions continued to fester. In the United States, Rowbotham's ideas were taken up by the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church and were promoted widely through the church own radio station. His work in the United States was continued by William Carpenter, a printer originally from Greenwich. Carpenter published Theoretical Astronomy Examined and Exposed — Proving the Earth not a Globe in eight parts from 1864 under the name “Common Sense”. He later emigrated to Baltimore, where he published One Hundred Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe in 1885 where he wrote such rubbish as “There are rivers that flow for hundreds of miles towards the level of the sea without falling more than a few feet – notably, the Nile, which, in a thousand miles, falls but a foot.”

Old Bedford River at Welney Looking upstream from the road bridge at Welney. Photo credit: Bob Jones/Wikimedia Commons

In 1893, Lady Elizabeth Blount, an English pamphlet writer and social activist, established the Universal Zetetic Society, whose objective was "the propagation of knowledge related to Natural Cosmogony in confirmation of the Holy Scriptures, based on practical scientific investigation". She held that the Bible was the unquestionable authority on the natural world and argued that one could not be a Christian and believe the Earth is a globe.

In 1904, Lady Blount repeated Rowbotham’s infamous Bedford Level Experiment with similar results. She hired a photographer with a telephoto-lens camera to take a picture from Welney of a large white sheet, which she placed near the surface of the river at Rowbotham's original position 6 miles away. The photographer, who mounted his camera 2 feet above the water at Welney, was surprised to be able to obtain a picture of the target, which he believed should have been invisible to him, given the low mounting point of the camera. As with Rowbotham, Lady Blount failed to take into account the effects of atmospheric refraction but the photographer noted a mirage which he described as "an aqueous shimmering vapour [appearing] to float unevenly on the surface of the canal".

The modern Flat Earth Society, or the International Flat Earth Research Society, as it was originally known, was established in 1956 by Samuel Shenton. The English conspiracy theorist lectured tirelessly on this to youth clubs, political and student groups, and was frequently seen on television and in newspapers promoting his views. When the Soviet launched Sputnik in 1957, he claimed that satellites simply circled over a flat disc-world: “Would sailing round the Isle of Wight prove that it were spherical?”, he demanded.

Shenton died in 1971, but the society he founded continued to thrive, reaching 3,500 members three decades later. The birth of the internet and the proliferation of message boards and social media have sustained the growth. The number of flat-earthers today is probably in the millions.

# Robert J. Schadewald, The Plane Truth: A History of the Flat-Earth Movement
# A Historic Experiment Shows Why We Might Not Want to Debate Fanatics, Gizmodo


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