Peter W. Sinnema, “10 April 1818: John Cleves Symmes’s ‘No. 1 Circular'”


This essay revisits the infamous publication of American trader and soldier John Cleves Symmes’s “No. 1 Circular” from St. Louis Missouri in 1818, tracing the roots of Symmes’s thought to late seventeenth-century England. Symmes’s declaration of belief in an accessible and habitable hollow earth had its ideological origins in a 1691 hypothesis proposed to the Royal Society of London by the great English astronomer, Edmond Halley, whose attempt to solve the riddle of magnetic variation led him to argue for the existence of “a much more ample Creation” beneath our feet. Halley’s hollow-earth idea—which also served as the point of genesis for a vital literary subgenre, the hollow-earth romance—was eulogized in Cotton Mather’s Christian Philosopher (1721), which transferred to an American audience important insights from early-Enlightenment natural philosophy and paved the way for Symmes’s flamboyant claims about a new, subterranean world.

A figure long obscured by the mists of history, American soldier and trader John Cleves Symmes (1779-1829) enjoyed his moment of fame—and marked his place in the venerable rolls of nineteenth-century eccentrics—on 10 April 1818. On that day he mailed out from map iconSt. Louis map iconMissouri 500 copies of a controversial pamphlet that proclaimed the earth’s interior to be hollow, habitable, and accessible. Symmes later recalled paying out “considerable sums for the printing and postage” of enough missives to distribute “one to each notable foreign government, reigning prince, legislature, city, college, and philosophical societies [sic], throughout the union, and to individual members of our National Legislature, as far as the . . . copies would go” (“Letter”). The circular’s decidedly unconventional claims marked its author as a true American original. But Symmes’s peculiar views were in fact innovations on an established geophysical theme, imaginative and often subtle distillations of much earlier ideas about the earth’s cavernous interior. Hollow-earth theory—a phrase I employ here to designate scientifically-derived hypotheses about the earth’s inner structure, as opposed to primeval myths about mysterious underworlds that give form to the “dark terrain of the unconscious” (Standish 12)—was in fact indigenous to England. It was the progeny of Enlightenment geology and cosmology, eventually exported to map iconAmerica via Cotton Mather’s philosophical writings, and ultimately adapted by scientific romances and works of science fiction that turned to Symmes’s popularization of the hollow-earth idea as a vital plot element in their construction of alternative, subterranean worlds.[1]</a This line of influence must be revisited if we are to appreciate the startling appearance of the “No. 1 Circular” as a transcontinental rather than a simply local event—that is, as an instance of the migration and adaptation of ideas that compels us to apprehend Symmes as a product of the British as well as of the American history of ideas.

With its enigmatic superscription, “Light Gives Light, to Light Discover—Ad Infinitum,” Symmes’s circular addressed itself in capital letters “TO ALL THE WORLD!” Its brief contents were unambiguous and worth citing in full:

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. Jno. Cleves Symmes. Of map iconOhio, Late Captain of Infantry. N. B.—I have ready for the press, a Treatise on the Principles of Matter, wherein I show proofs of the above positions, account for various phenomena, and disclose Doctor Darwin’s Golden Secret. My terms are the patronage of this and the new worlds. I dedicate my labours to my Wife and her ten Children. I select Doctor S. L. Mitchell, Sir H. Davy, and Baron Alex. de Humboldt, as my protectors. I ask one hundred brave 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 a 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. J. C. S.

Symmes wisely attached to his appeal a certificate attesting to his mental soundness. As a family historian recounted in 1871, however, this judicious move failed to protect the circular from being “overwhelmed with ridicule as the production of a distempered imagination, or the result of partial insanity” (F. M. Symmes 245). The promised treatise was in fact never published and was probably never written, and neither Davy nor Humboldt showed any interest in serving as Symmes’s protectors, although the map iconEdinburgh-trained science star Dr. Samuel Mitchell for a time encouraged Symmes’s theories, joining in the fray that rapidly took hold of many western newspapers’ editorial columns—“a spasmodic and vituperative war of words,” as Alan Gurney has called it (95)—to  support Symmes’s proposed expedition, at one point confessing that it would be a “rare and extraordinary” experience to “converse with [Symmes]” upon the latter’s “re-appearance from the internal worlds!” (Mitchell 448). Unfortunately, aside from a few letters to newspapers and some lecture notes that he referred to collectively as his memoirs, Symmes never published any comprehensive account of his hollow-earth theories. Like a modern-day Socrates, he left that task to an admiring student while he hit the public lecture circuit.

Most of what we know about Symmes and his hypothesis is therefore contained in James McBride’s reverential monograph, Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres; Demonstrating that the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open About the Poles, which appeared anonymously in 1826, and in an identically-titled book by Symmes’s eldest son, Americus, not published until 1878, that plagiarized verbatim McBride’s biographical synopsis and mounted an equally-vigorous defence of the elder Symmes’s theories. Americus’ vindication reads very much like an abbreviated version of McBride’s text, calling upon many of the same geographical, astronomical, and zoological pieces of evidence in his refutation of the “old theory” of solid spheres even as he also refers extensively to later nineteenth-century conceptions about geophysical phenomena such as the gulf stream, isothermal belts, and solar-ray refrangibility— phenomena “wholly inexplicable upon the Newtonian theory,” according to Americus, “but … easy of explanation” upon that of Symmes (18).

In McBride’s account we find that Symmes did indeed provide a resolution of sorts to “Darwin’s golden secret,” an allusion to the ninth canto of Erasmus Darwin’s long poem The Botanic Garden (1791), which purported to illuminate “The Economy of Vegetation” and “The Loves of the Plants.” “Oh, Sylphs!,” Darwin’s speaker exclaimed,

disclose to this inquiring age

One golden secret to some favour’d sage;

Grant the charm’d talisman, the chain, that binds,

Or guides the changeful pinions of the winds! (317-22)

One of Darwin’s ubiquitous footnotes explains that if human agency could somehow be exerted over the winds in northern latitudes, so that predominant north-easterlies were converted into south-westerlies typically “attended with warmth and moisture,” “it would be the most happy discovery that ever has happened,” since it would contribute to a doubling of vegetation and to a great increase of human inhabitants in unfavourable climes (61). Symmes happily donned the mantle of Darwin’s “favour’d sage,” arguing that the polar openings announced in his circular are themselves the source of “the changeful pinions of the winds.” The “long continuation of winds, or regular monsoons, which occur in some parts of the earth,” Symmes suggested, “may be supplied by winds sucked into one polar opening and discharged through the other” (McBride 36).

Symmes’s reference to the senior Darwin is in fact a tip-off that his circular, although a seemingly spontaneous proclamation, had its ideological provenance in European thought. Although the connection remains implicit in his scattered writings, Symmes’s hypothesis about the earth’s internal structure has a direct lineage in late seventeenth-century earth-sciences debates, in particular in the great astronomer Edmond Halley’s (1656-1742) map iconRoyal Society lectures regarding magnetic fluctuation.

Halley's Schema

Figure 1: Halley’s hollow-earth schema

Halley’s reputation rests primarily on two major accomplishments: his correct prediction of the return of a bright periodic comet that today bears his name and his steady encouragement of Isaac Newton in the writing and publication of his world-changing Principia Mathematica.The extraordinary breadth and diversity of the eighty-plus papers Halley published in the Philosophical Transactions (PT), however, signal a prodigious intellectual fertility. An appreciation of Halley’s ecumenical interests prepares today’s reader for the esoteric hypothesis about magnetic variation (or declination) and the earth’s shell-like structure that he presented to the Society in 1691. To this lecture, published in PT #95 the following year as “An Account of the Cause of the Change of the Variation of the Magnetical Needle; With an Hypothesis of the Internal Parts of the Earth,” Halley appended a diagram illustrating a “schema” of the hollow earth, made up of an outer shell that is one of three nested, equidistant, and equally-thick circles—an inner space constituted by “Subterraneous Orbs capable of being inhabited” (557; see Figure 1. The stave containing bass and treble clefs along with the vertical lines descending from its foot are part of a paper-saving illustration to Francis Roberts’ essay on trumpet notes in the same number, 559-63). Halley’s “Account” addressed the seemingly insoluble question “of the slow changes suffered by the variation of the compass” (Armitage 71), itself a project that had significant repercussions for mariners of the Restoration period, when the expansion of imperial influence was vexed by navigators’ incapacity to measure accurately longitudinal position.

Halley argues that any theory hoping to explain magnetic variation must suppose “the Globe of the Earth … to be one great Magnet, having four Magnetical Poles or Points of Attraction.” Only a comprehension of the earth as such a quaternary-poled, magnetical “system” can “render a tolerable account of the observed Variations” of the compass that Halley outlines in his opening pages (565). Where is the second set of poles located, and how do they operate reciprocally with the North and South Poles to influence the compass in such extraordinary ways? The earth is structured as a globe-within-a-globe, Halley proposes, both moving together in the same diurnal rotation but at slightly different velocities. A liquid or hydraulic substance separates the spheres, enabling their divergent axial motions: “So then the External Parts of the Globe may well be reckoned as the Shell, and the Internal as a Nucleus or inner Globe included within ours, with a fluid medium between” (568). In this way Halley situates a pair of “fixed” poles on the shell or “cortex” of the earth and a second moveable pair at its nucleus. As he recapitulates, “we have adventured to make the Earth hollow and to place another Globe within it” (572).

Halley outlines four possible objections to his hollow-earth theory and addresses each individually. In the process of dealing with the final reservation, he appeals first to the “Wisdom of the Creator,” the final authority in all discussions of cosmic form and order, and secondly to “the excellent Mr. Newton,” whose Principia had appeared four years earlier—allusions suggestive of the pacific interplay between scientific and religious thought still common to natural philosophy of the seventeenth century, which credited God with simultaneously contriving and adhering to those immutable laws of nature that modern mathematics, geometry, and mechanics were capable of divulging:

I know ‘twill be objected, [first] That there is no Instance in Nature of the like thing; [second] That if there was such a middle Globe it would not keep its place in the Centre, but be apt to deviate there-from, and might possibly chock against the concave Shell, to the ruine or at least endammaging thereof; [third] That the Water of the Sea would perpetually leak through, unless we suppose the Cavity full of Water; [fourth] That were it possible yet it does not appear of what use such an inward Sphere can be of, being shut up in eternal Darkness, and therefore unfit for the Production of Animals or Plants; with many more Objections, according to the Fate of all such new Propositions.(572)

In reply to the first objection—that nature provides no other example of a hollow globe or planet—Halley points to Saturn’s rings as “a notable Instance of this kind” (572). In this analogy—to which Symmes himself was to turn in 1816 when first contemplating the existence of a hollow earth—Halley appeals to the comparatively recent observations of Saturn made by Christiaan Huygens and Giovanni Cassini between the 1650s and 1670s, which determined that the sixth planet is surrounded by a thin, flat ring composed of multiple smaller rings separated by gaps. The modern telescope, its magnifying capacity improved exponentially in the decades since Galileo’s groundbreaking observations of 1609-10, provided Halley (and, more than a century later, Symmes) with the evidence his esoteric theory required: that other solar bodies indeed furnish a structural and now-dramatically visible model of, and hence an important precedent for, a hollow earth.

Halley returns sanguinely to the example of Saturn to rebut the second criticism, that an inner globe “would not keep its place,” but would bump up against the earth’s outer shell with catastrophic results: “Since [Saturn’s] Ring in any position given,” he argues, “would in the same manner keep the Centre of Saturn in its own, it follows that such a concave Sphere may move with another included in it, having the same common Centre” (573). Halley applies Newton’s law of universal gravitation mutually to earth’s subterranean regions and to Saturn, a planet durably positioned within its rings, which he, like other astronomers of the time, believed to be composed of solid rather than particulate matter. Again, Halley’s theory finds its defence in new technologies, at a particular historical moment when the physical details of a heliocentric universe were being telescopically discovered and interpreted in an increasingly scientistic process of dismissal of the geocentric episteme. Halley’s advanced comprehension of the workings of the Copernican universe and of Newtonian gravitational theory rendered efficacious the type of comparative method he employs here. Saturn functions as a credible model for a hollow earth whose inner sphere or spheres exist in an exquisitely balanced “equality” of magnetic attraction with an outer shell.

Halley takes care of the third objection—that water from oceans and seas would inevitably leak through to earth’s hollow centre to who-knows-what cataclysmic effect—with unruffled facility. Given that beds of chalk, clay, or stone, and even “Caves arch’d with Sand” are capable of containing water, apprehensions about seepage are groundless (573).

Which leaves the fourth and, for Halley and his contemporaries, the most consequential of concerns: what ultimate purpose or use can “such an inward sphere” have? What benefit or avail could a hollow earth have for terrestrial inhabitants who are insensible of it and whose felicity and health appear to be wholly independent of it? In short, for what or whom was it designed? As the corporeal expression of divine intelligence, earth testifies in every detail of its structure to the expedience of providential design: the Creator would not mould a planetary habitation that wastes space. Our planet’s very existence is the necessary expression of providential thrift, of creation’s rational adherence to the precept of use-value. Whatever “Curiosity in the Structure,” whatever “Accuracy in the Mixture and Composition of the parts” we might expect to find “in the Fabrick of this Globe” (574), we may count on its testifying to God’s ineffable genius. Halley speaks at some length, therefore, about the numinous instrumentality of inner space. In the process, he incorrectly cites a calculation about lunar relative density in Newton’s Principia:

Another Argument favouring this Hypothesis is drawn from a Proposition of … Mr. Newton, where he determines the force wherewith the Moon moves the Sea in producing the Tides. . . . Now if the Moon be more solid than the Earth as 9 to 5, why may we not reasonably suppose the Moon, being a small Body and a Secondary Planet, to be solid Earth, Water, and Stone, and this Globe to consist of the same Materials, only four ninths thereof to be Cavity, within and between the internal Spheres: which I would render not improbable. (575)

Halley refers, with what appears to be an erroneous transcription of the original calculation, to Book 3, Proposition 37, Corollary 3 of the Principia in which a discussion of solar and lunar influences on terrestrial tides leads Newton to conclude that the density of the moon “is to the density of the earth as 4,891 to 4,000, or 11 to 9. Therefore the body of the moon is denser and more earthy than our earth” (878). Halley applies his own version of this computation to his hypothesis about the earth’s structure—a powerful demonstration of earth’s cavernous anatomy. The earth’s lesser mass, demonstrated convincingly in Newton’s discussion of tidal movements, can be explained by its hollow interior.

Late in the “Account” Halley again turns to the question of utility, an inquiry that leads him to the most remarkable and, for future hollow-earth novelists, the most fruitful of propositions—that the inner earth may be capable of supporting life and that its structure may be as complex as that shown in Figure 1. Such a fantastic suggestion can be entertained if we inquire further into the nature of the fluid or ether that separates the inner globe (or, now, globes) from the outer, an as-yet unknown, magnetically-charged medium that may well produce its own vivifying light:

To those that shall enquire of what use these included Globes can be, it must be allowed, that they can be of very little service to the Inhabitants of this outward World. . . . [But] why . . . should we think it strange that the prodigious Mass of Matter, whereof this Globe does consist, should be capable of some other improvement than barely to serve to support its Surface? Why may not we rather suppose that the exceeding small quantity of solid Matter in respect of the fluid Ether, is so disposed by the Almighty Wisdom as to yield as great a Surface for the use of living Creatures as can consist with the conveniency and security of the whole? (575-76)

Halley’s investiture of a hollow globe with animating light granted an implicit mandate to superterranean explorers to discover and colonize earth’s capacious hollow interior, a “great surface” divinely contrived to accommodate a surplus of “living Creatures.”

Halley terminates his “Account” with a brief exposition on the schema displayed in Figure 1. The inward “circles,” separated by “Magnetical Matter,” are roughly proportionate in size to Venus, Mars, and Mercury, and turn about the common axis p. p.: “Thus I have shewed a possibility of a much more ample Creation, than has hitherto been imagined; and if this seem strange to those that are unacquainted with the Magnetical System, it is hoped that all such will endeavor first to inform themselves of the Matter of Fact and then try if they can find out a more simple Hypothesis, at least a less absurd, even in their own Opinions” (576-77). Halley’s radical amplification of God-given, terrestrial living-space resides in his proposition that no fewer than three inner spheres inhabit the hollow earth.

Halley’s theory was reprinted in the PT in abridged form in 1731, 1749, and 1819, as well as in Volume 1 of the Miscellanea Curiosa, a collection of the Society’s “most valuable” lectures. When in 1716 Halley was approached by the Society to offer an explanation of the “unusual Lights which have of late appeared in the Heavens,” he made so bold as to return to his original hollow-earth hypothesis, suggesting that the “subtile Matter” of the aurora borealis was capable of “pervading the Pores of the Earth” from its subterranean source:

Lastly I beg leave on this Occasion to mention what, near 25 Years since, I publish’d in No. 95 of these Transactions, viz. That supposed the Earth to be concave, with a lesser Globe included, in order to make that inner Globe capable of being inhabited, there might not improbably be contained some luminous Medium between the Balls, so as to make a perpetual Day below. . . . And if such a Medium should be thus inclosed within us; what should hinder but we may be allowed to suppose that some parts of this lucid Substance may, on very rare and extraordinary Occasions, transude through and penetrate the Cortex of our Earth? (“Account of the Late Surprising Appearance of the Lights” 428)

Halley concluded this particular essay by asking his readers to “lay no more stress upon this Conceit than it will bear,” encouraging them to attend to the figuralism of his language and intimating that this account of the source of the northern lights was as much a dexterous thought experiment as it was a solemn proposal.

Although other natural philosophers seem to have prefigured the hollow-earth idea, Halley’s theory of a habitable inner world remains his unique invention. In his Royal Society lecture of February 1688, for example, Robert Hooke proposed that the biblical deluge was a result of the earth’s “Liquid Water” escaping the “Shell of the Egg” that constitutes the globe’s hard surface (qtd. in Oldroyd 227). Hooke’s convenient earth-as-egg analogy, however, is a fleeting conceit in a protracted discourse about catastrophic alterations to land levels in prehistoric times. He never invests the yolky interior with an animating principle: its glutinous mass cannot host life. Similarly, the “Burrows, and Channels, and Clefts, and Caverns” described in Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681), although testifying to “the unsoundness and hollowness of the Earth in the inward recesses of it,” are lifeless and uninhabitable recesses, never having “had the comfort of one beam of light since the great fall of the Earth” (6-7). The lava-filled chambers and caverns of Athanasius Kircher’s percolating globe in his Mundus Subterraneus (1665) are likewise inhospitable. Kircher’s ash-spewing mountains, fed by a labyrinth of sinuous, magma-bearing conduits and ignited antechambers, present an awe-inspiring vision of a honeycombed and excretory interior. But this ornately-conceived volcanic world is anything but livable.

In contrast Halley, who would have been familiar with these models, was unique for grounding his theory of a multi-sphered hollow earth in Newtonian physics and for making it habitable. I therefore share with Duane Griffin the opinion that, in proposing a hollow earth as a way of interpreting otherwise inexplicable fluctuations of the magnetic needle, “Halley invented the world anew.”

Halley’s hypothesis was to be invoked, directly and implicitly, not only in subsequent philosophies of a habitable inner globe[2] but also in a diverse body of hollow-earth fantasies and utopias that originated in mid-eighteenth-century Europe[3] and reached a crescendo in late-nineteenth century America (see note 1).His theory, the first to propose a complexly-structured chthonic realm suitable for human occupancy and to back itself up with hard science in the form of Newton’s Principia, therefore enjoyed a rich ideological and literary afterlife. It found its earliest transatlantic champion in the prominent map iconNew England clergyman Cotton Mather (1663-1728), who in The Christian Philosopher(1721) congratulated Halley for his singular contribution to our apprehension of the “Wonders of the Universe.” As Winton Solberg has noted, The Christian Philosopher single-handedly introduced Enlightenment thought to America. It therefore serves as “the point of departure for tracing science and religion in America at their roots” (Solberg xxi). If the idea of a habitable hollow earth originated in England, its entry into America coincided in The Christian Philosopher with the colonies’ initiation into the Age of Reason. The hollow-earth idea inhabits its own particular niche in the very origins of American intellectual modernity. Mather opened the door to the development of an indigenous strain of hollow-earth thought and belief in the land of his birth.

Mather’s aim in this exuberant work of natural theology was to document for his readers the miraculous workings of nature as revealed through notable scientific discoveries. The inclusion of Halley’s hollow-earth theory as one of these “lessons of Piety” is not surprising given Mather’s enthusiasm for the dynamic if still embryonic field of astronomical observation and discovery. “Great God,” he exclaims early in The Christian Philosopher,

what a Variety of Worlds hast thou created! How astonishing are the Dimensions of them! How stupendous are the Displays of thy Greatness, and of thy Glory, in the Creatures, with which thou hast replenished those Worlds! Who can tell what Angelical Inhabitants may there see and sing the Praises of the Lord! Who can tell what Uses those marvelous Globes may be designed for! (19)

The question of planetary design eventually turns Mather toward a brief but unrestrained encomium on Halley’s pseudo-Newtonian, hollow-earth hypothesis. Mather’s ovation for Halley’s theory is filtered through Newton’s earth-moon mass calculation. He repeats the logical sequence of Halley’s original argument and links it indelibly with Newton’s already-towering reputation as the hero of modernity—as the scientific titan who had attained “by common consent … the summit of the British intellectual world” (Westfall and Funk 5). “Sir Isaac Newton has demonstrated the Moon to be more solid than the Earth, as nine to five,” Mather writes,

why may we not then suppose four Ninths of our Globe to be Cavity? Mr. Halley allows there may be Inhabitants of the lower Story, and many ways of producing Light for them. The Medium itself may be always luminous; or the concave Arch may shine with such a Substance as does invest the Surface of the Sun; or they may have peculiar Luminaries, whereof we can have no Idea. . . . The Diameter of the Earth being about eight thousand English Miles, how easy ‘tis to allow five hundred Miles for the Thickness of the Shell! And another five hundred Miles for a Medium capable of a vast Atmosphere, for the Globe contained within it!—But it’s time to stop, we are got beyond Human Penetration; we have dug as far as ‘tis fit any Conjecture should carry us! (110)

With this gesture of deferential submission to the impenetrable mysteries of the divinely-ordered cosmos Mather concludes his paean to Halley. The hollow earth was in New England, an appendix of the emigrant Age of Reason.

The hollow-earth hypothesis was to find a commodious berth in America although nearly a century was to pass after the publication of The Christian Philosopher and the theory’s startling reappearance in the lectures of John Symmes. The eighteenth century may be viewed retrospectively as a protracted gestation period for American hollow-earth theory and belief. Embedded in the urtext of American Enlightenment thought, Mather’s annotation of Halley’s provocative attestation to a “Variety of Worlds” takes its place as a footnote in the first of a series of major eighteenth-century statements proclaiming reason as the source of intellectual and political legitimacy for the American colonies. Whereas in Europe Ludwig Holberg had already employed Halley’s “middle Globe” in 1742 as a setting for his utopian Journey to the World Underground—narrator Nicholas Klim preoccupies himself while tumbling into “the inner Surface of our Earth” with the thought that he “was sunk into the subterraneous World, and that the Conjectures of those Men are right who hold the Earth to be concave, and that within the Shell or outward Crust there is another lesser Globe” (7)—the hollow-earth idea did not reappear in America until the early nineteenth century. Then, it materialized not as a circumspect and judiciously-worded hypothesis akin to Halley’s “Account” but as a stridently-envisaged scheme for exploration and action—as a typically “American” manifesto exemplified by the unbridled enthusiasm of James McBride’s Symmes’s Theory.

Audobon's drawing of Symmes

Figure 2: John Cleves Symmes, by John James Audubon.

Meeting Symmes in 1824 in map iconHamilton, Ohio when the latter resettled there from map iconKentucky to reside on his affluent uncle’s farm, McBride became his patron and collaborator. He presents us with a not-wholly flattering depiction of Symmes’s rhetorical capacities in the potted biography that makes up his book’s final chapter. Symmes’s nasally voice and stammering delivery must have made him a rather uncharismatic orator when he delivered his first hollow-earth lecture in map iconCincinnati in 1820, even if these elocutionary defects had little effect on his determination to spread the word about a peculiarly accessible subterranean world. McBride describes Symmes at the age of 46 (three years before his premature death) as an “abstract” man with “a bright blue eye, that often seems fixed on something beyond immediate surrounding objects” (158). John James Audubon’s pencil drawing of Symmes for the Western Museum (Fig. 2), surrounded by books, globe, spy glass, and other obscurely scientific instruments, perhaps captures some of the mysterious profundity that McBride invests in his biographical subject.

Symmes’s other-worldly demeanor seems incongruous with his earlier career as an ensign with the American army and eventually a regimental captain in the American-British war of 1812, in which he distinguished himself for bravery at the battle of Bridgewater and the sortie from map iconFort Erie. Symmes resigned from service in 1816 to sell private supplies to troopers and Indians in St. Louis. There, he also took up the study of charts and drawings of Saturn, whose rings led him to establish the principle that hollow planets not only exist but also are universal and normative—shades of Halley’s logic that McBride reiterates in Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres. “The appearance of Saturn,” McBride writes, “established the fact, that the principle of concentric spheres, or hollow planets, does exist, at least in one instance, in the solar system. And if the fact be established that it exists in one case, is it not fair to say … that the same laws of matter which formed one planet into concentric spheres, must form all the others on a plan more or less the same?” (58). Such reasoning by analogy was a central platform of Symmes’s theory, just as it was for Halley. Americus emphasized this point in striking fashion. Arguing that Saturn, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, as well as the earth’s own moon, all exhibit observable signs of concavity—“concentric circles round one or the other … poles” (25), “vacant spaces … about the polar openings” (26), belts of different colours that “increase and diminish alternately, running into each other” (27), and so on—he concluded that “a disposition to hollow cylinders does exist in nature” (24). “Reason, common sense, and all the analogies in the natural universe,” he therefore confidently pronounced, “conspire to support and establish the theory [of concentric spheres], and an examination will prove that it is the most natural and harmonious view of this subject that has ever been presented for the consideration of the human mind” (60).

In 1819 Symmes moved to map iconNewport, Kentucky, where he gathered a small group of disciples and pressed his local congressman, Richard M. Johnson, into presenting his case in map iconWashington. Congressional petitions, although invariably failures, became something of a mania for Symmes. In 1822 he appealed to the U.S. Congress to equip an expedition to prove the existence of a habitable and accessible concave to the globe, but the petition was tabled in March. In December 1823 he forwarded similar petitions to both houses of Congress, which were promptly rejected. And in January 1824 he petitioned the General Assembly of Ohio to recommend his expeditionary plans to Congress, a request that was indefinitely postponed. Symmes, however, was undeterred by governmental disinterest. He was perhaps buoyed by the kind of public support he received from the good citizens of Cincinnati, who in 1824 hosted a theatrical benefit in his honour, complete with a five-act melodrama and a tributary poem by a local bard, one Moses Brooks, whose recitation of the final quatrain in rhyming couplets resulted in “whoops, hurrahs, and stamping of booted feet” (Gurney 96):

Has not Columbia one aspiring son,

By whom th’ unfading laurel may be won?

Yes! history’s pen may yet inscribe the name

Of SYMMES to grace her future scroll of fame. (qtd. in F.M. Symmes 246)

It was also in Cincinnati that Symmes met Jeremiah N. Reynolds (1799-1858), the cocky young editor of the Wilmington Spectator, whose name was to become curiously entwined with the mythology of Edgar Allen Poe. Reynolds is remembered today as the “principal propagandist” (Reingold 108) and corresponding secretary for the ambitious United States Exploring (or Wilkes) Expedition of 1838-42, whose achievements included the charting of large sections of Antarctica’s coast. Enjoying the personal support of President Andrew Jackson, Reynolds exhorted Congress in a passionate speech of 1836 to underwrite a global expedition that would “collect, preserve, and arrange every thing valuable in the whole range of natural history” (qtd. in Philbrick). The elder Reynolds’s extensive involvement with the successful expedition—its mammoth collection of ethnographic, zoological, horticultural, and geological artifacts were acquired by the Smithsonian in 1858 and “added immeasurably to the [institution’s] importance and prestige” (Philbrick)—positioned him as a formidable member of America’s early scientific community: “Reynolds’ skillful blend of science and commerce resulted in . . . the new nation’s greatest scientific venture” (Reingold 108).

The younger Reynolds, however, found Symmes’s hollow-earth theories irresistible. Reynolds’s career path as youthful hollow-earther turned reputable explorer and chronicler shows that hollow-earth belief and rigorous scientific practice could co-exist without discord in the early years of polar exploration, long before Peary’s and Amundsen’s expeditions proved the fallacy of polar openings. Reynolds joined Symmes in 1825 on a lecture tour over the Appalachians, with the intention of convincing audiences in the Atlantic states of the truth of Symmes’s claims and to raise funds for an Antarctic expedition. After stops in Ohio and Pennsylvania, however, Symmes and Reynolds had a fierce falling-out that almost resulted in a duel. Symmes carried on with his lecture tour through Washington, Maryland, New York, New England, and Upper map iconCanada, while Reynolds eventually wheedled his way into a position as historiographer aboard the Annawan, which, with its sister ships the Penguin and the Seraph, constituted the expeditionary force of the South Sea Fur Company and Exploring Expedition of 1829.

The latter adventure was ignominiously scuttled in map iconValparaíso after a series of desertions and mutinies, and Reynolds, “the grand mover in the enterprise, left the expedition to wander among the Araucanian Indians” (Gurney 104). In 1832 he was hired as private secretary to the commander of the frigate Potomac, and in 1834 he published the story of that ship’s expedition to the coast of map iconSumatra. According to popular legend, Poe, who had written a glowing review for the Southern Literary Messenger of Reynold’s 1836 “Address, on the Subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas,” died on the streets of map iconBaltimore muttering deliriously, “Reynolds, Reynolds! Oh, Reynolds!” (qtd. in Rhea 45).

Symmes was dead before Reynolds set out on his south seas adventures, but his standing as America’s most dedicated and ingenious hollow earther had been assured by McBride’s monograph, which drew a direct line of influence from Halley’s original hypothesis to Symmes’s more compendious theoretical scheme. “The celebrated Dr. Halley,” McBride reminds his readers,

in his attempt to account for the change of the variation of the magnetic needle, advanced a novel hypothesis, as respects the internal structure of the earth. He supposed that there is an interior globe. . . . However, he suggests no idea of Polar Openings, nor of any communication from the outer surface to those interior regions; consequently their existence must have remained forever a matter of mere conjecture. (131-132)

Here McBride addresses the two chief advances Symmes’s theory made on Halley’s account. Firstly, massive polar openings—popularly (and derisively) known by the later nineteenth century as “Symmes’s Holes”—exist just beyond the ice encountered in far northern latitudes. Secondly, these holes have the potential to function as portals of communication between the exterior and the interior worlds. Their discovery and penetration would finally supplant Halley’s necessarily conjectural postulations with material proof of the earth’s concave inner structure.

“According to Symmes’s Theory,” McBride recounts,

the earth, as well as all the celestial orbicular bodies existing in the universe, visible and invisible … are all constituted in a greater or less degree, of a collection of spheres, more or less solid, concentric with each other, and more or less open at their poles; each sphere being separated from its adjoining compeers by space replete with aerial fluids; that every portion of infinite space, except what is occupied by spheres, is filled with an aerial elastic fluid, more subtile than common atmospheric air; and constituted of innumerable small concentric spheres, too minute to be visible to the organ of sight. (25)

Symmes’s “collection of spheres, more or less solid” presents us with a physically-unified and coherent model of the universe. It provides a tenaciously comparative way of thinking about the hollow earth and its galactic habitat—a spheric cosmology that accounts for the universal, concave (or eggshell-like) structure of orbicular matter from the evanescent and molecular (“aerial elastic” fluids) to the astronomic and celestial (the visible planets and stars). McBride later outlines expressly the connection between analogy and divine economy implicit in his initial summary of Symmes’s theory. In doing so, he makes a singularly compelling case for his mentor’s hypothesis. Taking it “for granted, that there is a God, and that he is the first cause of all things,” McBride writes that he “is of the opinion, that a construction of all the orbs in creation, on a plan corresponding with Symmes’s theory, would display the highest possible degree of perfection, wisdom, and goodness—the most perfect system of creative economy” (56).

One is tempted to think that Halley would have been delighted with Symmes’s amplification of his theory and equally so with its promotion through McBride’s ingenuous reasoning by utility: “If a hollow globe,” McBride queries, “would answer the ends of supporting organic life as well as a solid one—why not be hollow?” (54). Symmes augments Halley’s three original “Subterraneous Orbs” with an additional two, all furnished with massive diametrical openings. “Composed of at least five hollow concentric spheres,” as McBride describes it, “with spaces between each, an atmosphere surrounding each; and habitable as well upon the concave as the convex surface” (28), Symmes’s hollow earth could potentially house and sustain a human population multitudinous beyond calculation (28). “Each of these [interior] spheres are widely open at their poles,” McBride informs us: “The north polar opening of the sphere we inhabit, is believed to be about four thousand miles in diameter, and the southern above six thousand” (28). Each sphere, in turn, is “lighted and warmed according to those general laws which communicate light and heat to every part of the universe”—that is, the sun shines in through the polar openings, radiating light and heat internally (35).  “Light, we know, is reflected from solid bodies on which it falls,” McBride reminds his readers, “and also from the atmosphere: the rays of the sun, then, which would pass the lower part of the verge and fall on the opposite concave surface, would be reflected back in all directions, and most probably light the whole interior of the sphere sufficient for the ordinary purposes of life” (116). It is to a fervid pseudo-scientific defence on this point about light and heat—what Americus Symmes admits is “the most common objection” to his father’s theory (65)—that the latter dedicates the final few pages of his treatise. “The rays of light come parallel from the sun to the earth,” Americus explains,

and, if he were no larger than the earth, they would fall at least twelve degrees upon the concave interior surface, as they passed over the lower part of the verge both north and south. But the earth in her annual revolution, owing to the inclination of the poles to the plane of her orbit, alternately permits the incident rays to fall much more than twelve degrees upon the interior surface. . . . [T]hose rays . . . would produce abundant light and heat throughout the whole interior. (65)

Symmes’s hollow earth, then, enjoys an atmosphere tempered and animated by our sun. What’s more, clouds formed out here in the skies of the convex world float in through the polar openings, providing the interior with rain and snow. But there is also an internally-specific, energizing force that supplements these migrant winds and vapours and that completes Symmes’s atmospheric model for our wonderful hollow planet, called into existence, to borrow McBride’s inimitable phrasing, by “the Almighty Fiat . . . for the support and maintenance of living creatures, innumerable, and endless in the variety of their organization, their colours, their passions, and their pursuits” (126). “The disciples of Symmes,” McBride notes,

believe that each sphere has a cavity, or mid-plane space near the centre of the matter composing it, filled with a very light, subtile, elastic substance. . . . The gas escaping from these spaces is, no doubt, the cause of earthquakes; and supply the numerous volcanoes. . . . This aerial fluid with which the mid-plane spaces are filled, may possibly be adapted to the support of animal life; and the interior surfaces of the spheres formed by them, may abound with animals, with organs only adapted to the medium which they are destined to inhabit. (37)

Symmes’s habitable inner earth is thus climatically modulated by internal and external sources of energy. Whereas Halley had postulated an indwelling, sun-like substance as the animating principle for his closed system, Symmes describes a dynamic and harmonious interplay between superterranean and subterranean climates, between the sun’s rays and the subtile aerial fluids emanating from those ambiguously-located mid-plane spaces. A structural advantage is therefore claimed for Symmes’s Holes when it comes to alternative models of the hollow earth, since their existence literally opens up the possibility of reciprocal effect—of physical interaction and communication—between surface and centre.

And nature provided Symmes with all sorts of evidence for those holes’ actual existence. How was it, he asked rhetorically of his various audiences, that those “incredible numbers of whales, mackerel, herring, and other migratory fish, annually come down in the spring season of the year, from the arctic seas towards the equator . . . in their best plight and fattest condition” (McBride 68-69)? Why, as numerous sailors in the arctic regions have recorded, are seals, reindeer, polar bears, and musk ox found to be fatter and fitter on their southward migrations? Surely the healthy condition of these satiated beasts is proof of open and abundant seas beyond the ice—seas bordering polar lands climatically tempered by mild air emanating from Symmes’s Holes. “Instinct,” McBride explains, “generally leads animals to fruitful and productive, rather than unproductive, regions; why then proceed north on the approach of winter, unless in expectation of finding a warmer climate, or, at least, a more mild and plentiful country, beyond the icy circle? . . . We must conclude that there are more salubrious climates and better countries within, than any we have yet discovered without” (75). Even those Esquimaux encountered at the far northern limits of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century expeditions would, according to travelers’ lore, point further north when asked where they came from. “North of where they then were,” McBride reasons, “the climate becomes more mild, and is habitable; a change, the cause of which is not easily accounted for on the old philosophic principles” associated with a solid earth (84).

Unsurprisingly, McBride devotes much of the latter part of his book to an extended appeal for financial backing of an expedition to explore the polar regions and discover Symmes’s Holes. Such an undertaking would “bespeak a spirit of liberality, and a desire to promote scientific enterprize” highly complementary to the intrepid American character (137). In McBride’s opinion, it would also be most expeditiously attempted “by sea, and by way of the south polar opening, crossing the verge at the low side, in the Indian ocean, where it is presumed the sea is always open, and nearly free from ice” (152). Sadly, McBride’s solicitation was about as successful as Symmes’s various petitions. No polar expedition was ever connected with McBride’s name, and his Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres remains the singular memorial to his otherwise obscure personal history. Symmes, however, was not only buried with full military honours on 30 May 1829; his remains at the old burying ground in Hamilton were also covered with a still-standing monument erected by the idolizing Americus, whose description of the peculiar structure notes that it is carved from freestone,

surmounted with a hollow globe, open at the poles, bearing the following inscriptions: on the west side—‘Captain John C. Symmes, a native of New Jersey, died in May 1829, aged forty-nine years and six months.’

On the north side—‘Captain John Cleves Symmes was a philosopher and the originator of ‘Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres and Polar Voids.’ He contended that the earth is hollow and habitable within.’

On the south side—‘Captain John Cleves Symmes entered the army of the United States as an ensign in the year 1802. He afterwards rose to the rank of captain, and performed daring feats of bravery in the battles of Lundy’s Lane and sortie from Fort Erie.’

Reed’s hollow earth

Figure 3: Reed’s hollow earth.

More than seventy-five years after Symmes’s death, fellow-American hollow earther William Reed published a book (The Phantom of the Poles [1906]) that testified eloquently to the stamina of Halley’s original idea as it had been refined by Symmes and modified to adapt to new contingencies in the scientific field. Reed’s delightful evocation of a hollow earth traversed and penetrated by miniature barques through Symmes’s Holes illustrates the vitality of hollow-earth thought as it was refined and embellished over the course of more than two centuries. (See Fig. 3.) “This earth is not only hollow, or double,” Reed proclaimed, “but suitable in its interior to sustain man with as little discomfort . . . as on its exterior” (18). If for Halley a hollow earth resolved the puzzle of magnetic variation, for Reed its ameliorative potential was even greater: “vast territories of arable land” under the earth’s surface, “made accessible to mankind with one-fourth the outlay of treasure, time and life that it cost to build the subway in map iconNew York City” (275-76), represented new frontiers for exploration and the promise of renewal for the human condition, much as they did for Symmes. Reed’s majestic conclusion echoes the sanguine expectations of Halley’s “more ample Creation,” proffering nothing less ambitious than a hollow-earth credo for the modern era that serves as a fitting conclusion to my brief explorations here: “By treating the earth as hollow, we have the solution of all the great mysteries . . . the supernatural giving way to the natural, as it always does with understanding, and relief comes to mind and body” (18).

Peter W. Sinnema is Professor of English at the University of Alberta. He has published books and articles on various aspects of Victorian literature and culture, and is currently working on a study of hollow-earth thought and its literary afterlife in England and America.


published June 2012

Sinnema, Peter W. “10 April 1818: John Cleves Symmes’s ‘No. 1 Circular.'” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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[1] The hollow-earth hypothesis played a particularly significant role in the explosion of American utopian fiction in the 1880s and 90s, a period that witnessed a rapid growth of movements for progressive change and that in turn embraced the idea of a concave inner-world as an alternative setting for allegorical critiques of dominant political, economic, and social beliefs. Among the more notable are Mary E. Bradley Lane’s Mizora: A World of Women (1881), Mrs. J. Wood’s Pantaletta: A Romance of Sheheland (1882), William R. Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atvatabar, being the History of the Discovery of the Interior World and Conquest of Atvatabar (1892), Ingersoll Lockwood’s Baron Trump’s Marvellous Underground Journey (1893), Will N. Harben’s The Land of the Changing Sun (1894), E. D. Fawcett’s Swallowed by an Earthquake (1894), John Uri Lloyd’s Etidorpha (1895), Charles Aikin’s Forty Years with the Damned, or Life Inside the Earth (1895), S. Byron Welcome’s From Earth’s Center: A Polar Gateway Message (1895), William Amos Miller’s The Sovereign Guide: A Tale of Eden (1898), Charles Willing Beale’s The Secret of the Earth (1899), and Jack Adams’ (pseud. Alcanoan O. Grigsby and Mary P. Lowe) Nequa, or The Problem of the Ages (1900). For a useful but incomplete bibliography of hollow-earth novels of the period, see the appropriate entry in Everett F. Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Early Years (1990). Symmes and his theories tend to be invoked implicitly in late nineteenth-century hollow-earth fiction, although there are several notable instances of direct allusion. Welcome’s From Earth’s Center, for example, opens with Ralph Spencer dreaming of great discoveries beyond the Arctic circle: “Perhaps it may be our good fortune to solve some of the greatest problems of the age—of any age! Is there an open Polar Sea? Is Professor Symmes’ theory a fallacy?” (17). In Beale’s The Secret of the Earth, Torrence Attlebridge discourses at length to his brother Gurthrie about Symmes’s idea of “a world within our own”: “The old arguments against [the earth’s] rotundity were quite as potent as any ever brought to refute the theory of a hollow globe, first advanced by Captain Symmes” (164). And in Adams’s Nequa Captain Battell refers to a magazine review of Symmes’s “Theory of Concentric Spheres” to convince his colleague Raphael Ganoe that the Ice King has passed over the polar verge into the hollow earth: “we are forced to the conclusion, that if the earth was ever a soft revolving body it must be hollow at the center, and it is not at all unlikely that there may be openings at the poles into this hollow space. So, we see that there is some logical foundation for this Hollow Globe Theory” (103).

[2] Aside from the already mentioned monographs by McBride and Americus Symmes, major hollow-earth defences include W. F. Lyon’s The Hollow Globe (1871), Cyrus Reed Teed’s The Cellular Cosmogony, or, the Earth a Concave Sphere (1898), William Reed’s The Phantom of the Poles (1906, cited below), Marshall B. Gardner’s A Journey to the Earth’s Interior, or, Have the Poles Really Been Discovered (1913), and Raymond Bernard’s The Hollow Earth: The Greatest Discovery in History (1963).

[3]Early hollow-earth fantasies included Ludwig Holberg’s A Journey to the World Underground (1742), the anonymously-authored A Voyage to the World in the Centre of the Earth (1755), and Jacques Casanova de Seingalt’s “Icosameron” or the Story of Edward and Elizabeth who Spent Eighty-one Years in the Land of the Megamicres (1788). The first and arguably still most important hollow-earth fiction published in the United States was Captain Adam Seaborn’s Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery (1820). The question of the pseudonymous Seaborn’s actual identity—was this a pen name for Symmes himself?—remains a matter of debate.