Our Flat Earth Revisited (Snippets 46)


Jost Bürgi’s Celestial Globe, from 1594

One of the most popular “snippets” on Windows into History so far has been  Our Flat Earth (Snippets 21), which looked at some of William Carpenter’s One Hundred Proofs that the Earth is not a Globe (published 1885).  So here are some more of his ‘proofs’.  I have picked a selection that broadly fall into the category of “I can’t get my head around it, so that’s proof it must be wrong”.  I have discussed a few of the issues raised below.

1. The aeronaut can see for himself that Earth is a Plane. The appearance presented to him, even at the highest elevation he has ever attained, is that of a concave surface — this being exactly what is to be expected of a surface that is truly level, since it is the nature of level surfaces to appear to rise to a level with the eye of the observer. This is ocular demonstration and proof that Earth is not a globe.

Carpenter’s misunderstanding, as I pointed out in Snippets 21, is that he never quite grasped that the Earth is actually rather big.  A decade before Carpenter’s book, a balloon reached the height of 28,000 feet (8600 metres).  Two of the three occupants died.  Even that great altitude was probably not high enough to see the curvature of the Earth.  Even pilots flying at 40,000 feet often report not being able to see any curvature.

9. As mariners take to sea with them charts constructed as though the sea were a level surface, however these charts may err as to the true form of this level surface taken as a whole, it is clear, as they find them answer their purpose tolerably well — and only tolerably well, for many ships are wrecked owing to the error of which we speak — that the surface of the sea is as it is taken to be, whether the captain of the ship “supposes” the Earth to be a globe or anything else. Thus, then, we draw, from the common system of “plane sailing” a practical proof that Earth is not a globe.

12. As we have seen that there is, really, no south point (or pole) but an infinity of points forming, together, a vast circumference — the boundary of the known world, with its battlements of icebergs which bid defiance to man’s onward course in a southerly direction — so there can be no east or west “points,” just as there is no “yesterday,” and no “to-morrow.” In fact, as there is one point that is fixed (the North), it is impossible for any other point to be fixed likewise. East and west are, therefore, merely directions at right angles with a north and south line: and as the south point of the compass shifts round to all parts of the circular boundary, (as it maybe carried round the central North), so the directions east and west, crossing this line, continued, form a circle, at any latitude. A westerly circumnavigation, therefore, is a going round with the North Star continually on the right hand, and an easterly circumnavigation is performed only when the reverse condition of things is maintained, the North Star being on the left hand as the journey is made. These facts, taken together, form a beautiful proof that the Earth is not a globe.

17. Human beings require a surface on which to live that, in its general character, shall be level; and since the Omniscient Creator must have been perfectly acquainted with the requirements of His creatures, it follows that, being an All-wise Creator, He has met them thoroughly. This is a theological proof that the Earth is not a globe.

18. The best possessions of man are his senses; and, when he uses them all, he will not be deceived in his survey of nature. It is only when some one faculty or other is neglected or abused that he is deluded. Every man in full command of his senses knows that a level surface is a flat or horizontal one; but astronomers tell us that the true level is the curved surface of a globe! They know that man requires a level surface on which to live, so they give him one in name which is not one in fact! Since this is the best that astronomers, with their theoretical science, can do for their fellow creatures — deceive them — it is clear that things are not as they say they are; and, in short, it is a proof that Earth is not a globe.

20. The common sense of man tells him — if nothing else told him — that there is an “up” and a “down” in nature, even as regards the heavens and the earth; but the theory of modern astronomers necessitates the conclusion that there is not: therefore, the theory of the astronomers is opposed to common sense — yes, and to inspiration — and this is a common sense proof that the Earth is not a globe.

25. The surveyor’s plans in relation to the laying of the first Atlantic Telegraph cable, show that in 1665 miles — from Valentia, Ireland, to St. John’s, Newfoundland — the surface of the Atlantic Ocean is a level surface — not the astronomers’ “level,” either! The authoritative drawings, published at the time, are a standing evidence of the fact, and form a practical proof that Earth is not a globe.

The Transatlantic telegraph cable was completed in 1858, and functioned for a not-so-grand total of three weeks.  I am not quite sure how the Earth’s curvature would make any difference to laying a cable, or how one draughtsman’s failure to make any mention of it would prove the Earth is flat…

29. If the Earth were a globe, it would, unquestionably, have the same general characteristics — no matter its size — as a small globe that may be stood upon the table. As the small globe has top, bottom, and sides, so must also the large one — no matter how large it be. But, as the Earth, which is “supposed” to be a large globe, has no sides or bottom as the small globe has, the conclusion is irresistible that it is a proof that Earth is not a globe.

34. If the Earth were a globe, there certainly would be — if we could imagine the thing to be peopled all round — “antipodes:” “people who,” says the dictionary, “living exactly on the opposite side of the globe to ourselves, have their feet opposite to ours:” — people who are hanging heads downwards whilst we are standing heads up! But, since the theory allows us to travel to those parts of the Earth where the people are said to be heads downwards, and still to fancy ourselves to be heads upwards and our friends whom we have left behind us to be heads downwards, it follows that the whole thing is a myth — a dream — a delusion — and a snare; and, instead of there being any evidence at all in this direction to substantiate the popular theory, it is a plain proof that the Earth is not a globe.

35. If we examine a true picture of the distant horizon, or the thing itself, we shall find that it coincides exactly with a perfectly straight and level line. Now, since there could be nothing of the kind on a globe, and we find it to be the case all over the Earth, it is a proof that the Earth is not a globe.

This falls into the category of not understanding, or ignoring, that the Earth is very, very big, common to so many of the 100 ‘proofs’.  The horizon is not flat, but is such a gentle curve that it appears to be so to the naked eye.  Photographs showing large expanses of flat surface on the planet (e.g. lakes) can be mapped against a straight line and the horizon will curve very slightly above the line.

40. The Suez Canal, which joins the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, is about one hundred miles long; it forms a straight and level surface of water from one end to the other; and no “allowance” for any supposed “curvature” was made in its construction. It is a clear proof that the Earth is not a globe.

Allowance was not made because there is no need when building a canal.  However, in construction of very long bridges and tunnels it does have to be taken into account.

45. The Astronomer Royal, of England, George B, Airy, in his celebrated work on Astronomy, the “Ipswich Lectures,” says: “Jupiter is a large planet that turns on his axis, and why do not we turn?” Of course, the common sense reply is: Because the Earth is not a planet! When, therefore, an astronomer royal puts words into our mouth wherewith we may overthrow the supposed planetary nature of the Earth, we have not far to go to pick up a proof that Earth is not a globe.

Carpenter should have been aware of the relatively recent empirical test for the rotation of the Earth, Leon Foucault’s pendulum at the top of the Paris Pantheon, in 1851, which showed a shift in the pendulum’s plane of oscillation in accordance with the latitude of Paris.

54. The aeronaut is able to start in his balloon and remain for hours in the air, at an elevation of several miles, and come down again in the same county or parish from which he ascended. Now, unless the Earth drag the balloon along with it in its nineteen-miles-a-second motion, it must be left far behind, in space: but, since balloons have never been known thus to be left, it is a proof that the Earth, does not move, and, therefore, a proof that the Earth is not a globe.

If this did not happen we would be living in a very odd kind of world where the atmosphere stayed perfectly still while the earth moved around below it.  Gravity.

63. It is a fact not so well known as it ought to be that when a ship, in sailing away from us, has reached the point at which her hull is lost to our unaided vision, a good telescope will restore to our view this portion of the vessel. Now, since telescopes are not made to enable people to see through a “hill of water,” it is clear that the hulls of ships are not behind a hill of water when they can be seen through a telescope though lost to our unaided vision. This is a proof that Earth is not a globe.

The horizon is about 3 miles away from you.  How much distance needs to be added to that before a ship would disappear (with a telescope or not) would depend on the height of the ship, but the positioning of a crow’s nest at the top of a mast is not for the fun of it.  The higher you are, the further around the curvature of the Earth you can see (about 9 miles from a crow’s nest).  If this ‘proof’ were correct, you could of course turn it on its head, and a powerful modern telescope could be used to see antipodean countries.

There will be a couple more snippets over the next few days, and then a new journal article will begin soon…


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