An Open Invitation to Seek Out the Center of the Earth

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
July 25 2013 12:00 PM

An Open Invitation to Seek Out the Center of the Earth

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

Eccentric would-be explorer John Cleves Symmes, Jr. addressed this circular to the city of Wilmington, Del., in 1818. In it, he solicited a fellowship of 100 like-minded “brave souls” to come with him on a polar journey, supplied by “Reindeer and slays,” to discover the center of the Earth, which he declared was “hollow, and habitable within.”

As geographer Duane Griffin writes (PDF), Symmes sent 500 copies of the message to distinguished individuals and groups, including scientists, cities, learned societies, and universities. He attached a certificate of his own sanity to each copy.


How did Symmes come to believe in this theory? Others had published versions of the same idea, including the astronomer Edmond Halley (better known for the comet whose orbit he computed), who hypothesized about a hollow Earth in 1691. But Symmes swore that his own belief came to him organically, from his extensive reading about natural history and geology in encyclopedias and explorers’ accounts. He pointed to magnetic variations around the poles, the migrations of arctic animals, and the existence of the aurora borealis, among other “proofs,” as evidence.

In this circular, Symmes tries to associate himself with prominent and respected scientists. He calls upon Humphry Davy, the British chemist and inventor; Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian explorer and geographer; and S.L. Mitchell, the founder of the Lyceum of Natural History in New York, to support him. All of these attempts to solicit intellectual patronage were in vain, and “Symmes’ Hole” (as it was called) became the laughingstock of the scientific community.

Undeterred, Symmes continued to travel and lecture about the idea until his death in 1829 (while his wife and 10 children, to whom he dedicated this circular, lived an impoverished existence in Kentucky). Although he never raised the money or the companions to visit the poles himself, Symmes did convert Jeremiah Reynolds, whose voyage to the South Pole in 1829 inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.*

Correction, July 25, 2013: This post originally misspelled Edgar Allan Poe's middle name.



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.