Europe: Late Middle Ages
Further information: Spherical Earth § Medieval Europe
Picture from a 1550 edition of On the Sphere of the World, the most influential astronomy textbook of 13th-century Europe
Hermannus Contractus (1013–1054) was among the earliest Christian scholars to estimate the circumference of Earth with Eratosthenes' method. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the most important and widely taught theologian of the Middle Ages, believed in a spherical Earth; and he even took for granted his readers also knew the Earth is round. In Summa Theologiae he wrote: "The physicist proves the earth to be round by one means, the astronomer by another: for the latter proves this by means of mathematics, e. g. by the shapes of eclipses, or something of the sort; while the former proves it by means of physics, e. g. by the movement of heavy bodies towards the center, and so forth." Lectures in the medieval universities commonly advanced evidence in favor of the idea that the Earth was a sphere. Also, On the Sphere of the World, an influential astronomy textbook of the 13th century, commonly studied by students at Western European universities, described the world as a sphere.
Illustration of the spherical Earth in a 14th-century copy of L'Image du monde (c. 1246)
The shape of the Earth was not only discussed in scholarly works written in Latin; it was also treated in works written in vernacular languages or dialects and intended for wider audiences. The Norwegian book Konungs Skuggsjá, from around 1250, states clearly that the Earth is spherical – and that there is night on the opposite side of the Earth when there is daytime in Norway. The author also discusses the existence of antipodes – and he notes that (if they exist) they see the Sun in the north of the middle of the day, and that they experience seasons opposite those of people in the Northern Hemisphere.
However Tattersall shows that in many vernacular works in 12th- and 13th-century French texts the Earth was considered "round like a table" rather than "round like an apple". "In virtually all the examples quoted ... from epics and from non-'historical' romances (that is, works of a less learned character) the actual form of words used suggests strongly a circle rather than a sphere", though he notes that even in these works the language is ambiguous.
Portuguese navigation down and around the coast of Africa in the latter half of the 1400s gave wide-scale observational evidence for Earth's sphericity. In these explorations, the sun's position moved more northward the further south the explorers travel. Its position directly overhead at noon gave evidence for crossing the equator. These apparent solar motions in detail were more consistent with north-south curvature and a distant sun, than with any flat-earth explanation. The ultimate demonstration came when Ferdinand Magellan's expedition completed the first global circumnavigation in 1521. Antonio Pigafetta, one of the few survivors of the voyage, recorded the loss of a day in the course of the voyage, giving evidence for east-west curvature. No flat-earth theory could reconcile the daily apparent motions of the sun with the ability to sail around the world, and the loss of a day could make no sense, either.
Middle East: Islamic scholars
Further information: Spherical Earth § Medieval Islamic scholars
The Abbasid Caliphate saw a great flowering of astronomy and mathematics in the 9th century AD, in which Muslim scholars translated Ptolemy's work, which became the Almagest, and extended and updated his work based on spherical ideas. Since then, these have generally been respected.
The Quran mentions that the Earth (al-arḍ) was "spread out". To this 12th-century commentary, the Tafsir al-Kabir (al-Razi) by Fakhr al-din al-Razi, states "If it is said: Do the words 'And the earth We spread out' indicate that it is flat? We would respond: Yes, because the earth, even though it is round, is an enormous sphere, and each little part of this enormous sphere, when it is looked at, appears to be flat. As that is the case, this will dispel what they mentioned of confusion. The evidence for that is the verse in which Allah says (interpretation of the meaning): 'And the mountains as pegs' [an-Naba’ 78:7]. He called them awtaad (pegs) even though these mountains may have large flat surfaces. And the same is true in this case."
The 11th-century scholar Ibn Hazm stated, "Evidence shows that the Earth is a sphere but public people say the opposite." He added, "None of those who deserve being Imams for Muslims has denied that Earth is round. And we have not received anything indicates a denial, not even a single word."
Ming Dynasty in China
The Ming-Chinese Shanhai Yudi Quantu map in the Sancai Tuhui encyclopedia, published in 1609, with translations in English from Roderich Ptak's "The Sino-European Map".
A spherical terrestrial globe was introduced to Yuan-era Khanbaliq (i.e. Beijing) in 1267 by the Persian astronomer Jamal ad-Din, but it is not known to have made an impact on the traditional Chinese conception of the shape of the Earth. As late as 1595, an early Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, recorded that the Ming-dynasty Chinese say: "The earth is flat and square, and the sky is a round canopy; they did not succeed in conceiving the possibility of the antipodes." The universal belief in a flat Earth is confirmed by a contemporary Chinese encyclopedia from 1609 illustrating a flat Earth extending over the horizontal diametral plane of a spherical heaven.
In the 17th century, the idea of a spherical Earth spread in China due to the influence of the Jesuits, who held high positions as astronomers at the imperial court.Matteo Ricci, in collaboration with Chinese cartographers and translator Li Zhizao, published the Kunyu Wanguo Quantu in 1602, the first Chinese world map based on European discoveries. The astronomical and geographical treatise Gezhicao (格致草) written in 1648 by Xiong Mingyu (熊明遇) explained that the Earth was spherical, not flat or square, and could be circumnavigated.
Myth of the flat Earth
Main article: Myth of the Flat Earth
Beginning in the 19th century, a historical myth arose which held that the predominant cosmological doctrine during the Middle Ages was that the Earth was flat. An early proponent of this myth was the American writer Washington Irving, who maintained that Christopher Columbus had to overcome the opposition of churchmen to gain sponsorship for his voyage of exploration. Later significant advocates of this view were John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, who used it as a major element in their advocacy of the thesis that there was a long lasting and essential conflict between science and religion. Subsequent studies of medieval science have shown that most scholars in the Middle Ages, including those read by Christopher Columbus, maintained that the Earth was spherical. Some studies of the historical connections between science and religion have demonstrated that theories of their mutual antagonism ignore examples of their mutual support.
Flat Earth map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893. The map contains several references to biblical passages as well as various jabs at the "Globe Theory".
Main article: Modern flat Earth societies
In the modern era, the pseudoscientific belief in a flat Earth has been expressed by a variety of individuals and groups:
English writer Samuel Rowbotham (1816–1885), writing under the pseudonym "Parallax", produced a pamphlet, "Zetetic Astronomy", in 1849 arguing for a flat Earth and published results of many experiments that tested the curvatures of water over a long drainage ditch, followed by another called The inconsistency of Modern Astronomy and its Opposition to the Scripture. One of his supporters, John Hampden, lost a bet to Alfred Russel Wallace in the famous Bedford Level Experiment, which attempted to prove it. In 1877 Hampden produced a book, "A New Manual of Biblical Cosmography". Rowbotham also produced studies that purported to show that the effects of ships disappearing below the horizon could be explained by the laws of perspective in relation to the human eye. In 1883 he founded Zetetic Societies in England and New York, to which he shipped a thousand copies of Zetetic Astronomy.
William Carpenter, a printer originally from Greenwich, England (home of the Royal Observatory and central to the study of astronomy), was a supporter of Rowbotham. 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 A hundred proofs the Earth is not a Globe in 1885. He wrote, "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. A level expanse of this extent is quite incompatible with the idea of the Earth's convexity. It is, therefore, a reasonable proof that Earth is not a globe", as well as "If the Earth were a globe, a small model globe would be the very best – because the truest – thing for the navigator to take to sea with him. But such a thing as that is not known: with such a toy as a guide, the mariner would wreck his ship, of a certainty!, This is a proof that Earth is not a globe."
John Jasper, an American slave turned prolific preacher, echoed his friend Carpenter's sentiments in his most famous sermon "Der Sun do move", preached over 250 times, always by invitation. He claimed, "Low me ter ax ef de earth is roun', whar do it keep its corners? Er flat, squar thing has corners, but tell me where is de cornur uv er appul, ur a marbul, ur a cannun ball, ur a silver dollar."
In Brockport, New York, in 1887, M.C. Flanders argued the case of a flat Earth for three nights against two scientific gentlemen defending sphericity. Five townsmen chosen as judges voted unanimously for a flat Earth at the end. The case was reported in the Brockport Democrat.
Professor Joseph W. Holden of Maine, a former justice of the peace, gave numerous lectures in New England and lectured on flat Earth theory at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His fame stretched to North Carolina where the Statesville Semi-weekly Landmark recorded at his death in 1900: "We hold to the doctrine that the earth is flat ourselves and we regret exceedingly to learn that one of our members is dead."
After Rowbotham's death, Lady Elizabeth Blount (Elizabeth de Sodington Blount, née Elizabeth Anne Mould Williams) created the Universal Zetetic Society in 1893 in England and created a journal called Earth not a Globe Review, which sold for twopence, as well as one called Earth, which only lasted from 1901 to 1904. 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. Well-known members included E. W. Bullinger of the Trinitarian Bible Society, Edward Haughton, senior moderator in natural science in Trinity College, Dublin and an archbishop. She repeated Rowbotham's experiments, generating some interesting counter-experiments, but interest declined after the First World War.t The movement gave rise to several books that argued for a flat, stationary earth, including Terra Firma by David Wardlaw Scott.
In 1898, during his solo circumnavigation of the world, Joshua Slocum encountered a group of flat-Earthers in Durban, South Africa. Three Boers, one of them a clergyman, presented Slocum with a pamphlet in which they set out to prove that the world was flat. Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal Republic, advanced the same view: "You don't mean round the world, it is impossible! You mean in the world. Impossible!"
Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who in 1906 took over the Christian Catholic Church, a Pentecostal sect that established a utopian community in Zion, Illinois, preached flat Earth doctrine from 1915 onwards and used a photograph of a twelve-mile stretch of the shoreline at Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin taken three feet above the waterline to prove his point. When the airship Italia disappeared on an expedition to the North Pole in 1928 he warned the world's press that it had sailed over the edge of the world. He offered a $5,000 award for proving the Earth is not flat, under his own conditions. Teaching a globular Earth was banned in the Zion schools and the message was transmitted on his WCBD radio station.
In 2018, astronomer Yaël Nazé analyzed the controversy over a Ph.D. thesis proposed by a student at the University of Sfax, which defended a flat earth as well as a geocentric model of the solar system and a young Earth. The dissertation, which had not been approved by the committee overseeing environmental studies theses, had been made public and denounced in 2017 by professor Hafedh Ateb, a founder of the Tunisian Astronomical Society on his Facebook page.
Flat Earth Society
Azimuthal equidistant projections of the sphere like this one have also been co-opted as images of the flat Earth model depicting Antarctica as an ice wall surrounding a disk-shaped Earth.
In 1956, Samuel Shenton set up the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), better known as the Flat Earth Society from Dover, UK, as a direct descendant of the Universal Zetetic Society. This was just before the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik; he responded, "Would sailing round the Isle of Wight prove that it were spherical? It is just the same for those satellites."
His primary aim was to reach children before they were convinced about a spherical Earth. Despite plenty of publicity, the space race eroded Shenton's support in Britain until 1967 when he started to become famous due to the Apollo program.
In 1972 Shenton's role was taken over by Charles K. Johnson, a correspondent from California, US. He incorporated the IFERS and steadily built up the membership to about 3,000. He spent years examining the studies of flat and round Earth theories and proposed evidence of a conspiracy against flat Earth: "The idea of a spinning globe is only a conspiracy of error that Moses, Columbus, and FDR all fought..." His article was published in the magazine Science Digest, 1980. It goes on to state, "If it is a sphere, the surface of a large body of water must be curved. The Johnsons have checked the surfaces of Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea without detecting any curvature."
The Society declined in the 1990s following a fire at its headquarters in California and the death of Johnson in 2001. It was revived as a website in 2004 by Daniel Shenton (no relation to Samuel Shenton). He believes that no one has provided proof that the world is not flat.
Resurgence in the era of celebrity and social media
In the modern era, the proliferation of communications technology and social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have given individuals, famous or otherwise, a platform to spread pseudo-scientific ideas and build stronger followings. The flat-earth conjecture has flourished in this environment.
The solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, gave rise to numerous YouTube videos purporting to show how the details of the eclipse prove the earth is flat. Also in 2017, a scandal developed in Arab scientific and educational circles when a Tunisian PhD student submitted a thesis declaring Earth to be flat, unmoving, the center of the universe, and only 13,500 years old.
The term flat-Earther is often used in a derogatory sense to mean anyone who holds ridiculously antiquated views. The first use of the term flat-earther recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1934 in Punch: "Without being a bigoted flat-earther, [Mercator] perceived the nuisance ... of fiddling about with globes ... in order to discover the South Seas." The term flat-earth-man was recorded in 1908: "Fewer votes than one would have thought possible for any human candidate, were he even a flat-earth-man."
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