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

 In 1838, the English author and socialist, Samuel Rowbotham, tried to disprove what had long been established by the ancient Greeks as well as modern scientists – that the Earth is round.

Robotham, a flat-earther from his youth, saw that the ideal place to test his foolhardy theory was the Old Bedford River, dredged in the early 17th century to partially divert the waters of the River Great Ouse in the Fens. Gai was an artificial canal. Cambridgeshire. The canal runs absolutely straight and uninterrupted for a distance of almost six miles, making it an ideal place to directly measure the curvature of the Earth.

“The water is almost still – often completely so, and has no interruption by any locks or sluices throughout its entire length; so that it will, in every case, be well adapted to ascertain whether any or what amount of convexity really exists," Robotham wrote in Zeitgeist Astronomy.

Rowbotham descended into the river and, using a telescope mounted 8 inches above the water, observed the boat, with a flag on its mast 3 feet above the water, slowly moving away from him. He reported that the ship remained in his sight continuously for a full six miles, whereas it should have disappeared had the surface of the water been curved. Armed with this experimental evidence and a long list of scriptures, Robotham attempted to impose the theory that the Earth is flat on the Cambridgeshire community. He published his observations in 1849 in a pamphlet titled Zeittical Astronomy, writing under the pseudonym "Parallax". Robotham argued, based on everyday observations, that the Earth is flat, just as the Earth does not appear convex when viewed from a balloon, and lighthouses can be seen at distances impossible on a sphere.

Robotham later expanded these ideas in the book Earth Not a Globe, proposing that the Earth was a flat disk centered on the North Pole and surrounded by a wall of ice, Antarctica, at its southern edge. Robotham further stated that the Sun and Moon were only 3,000 miles above the Earth and that the "universe" was 3,100 miles above the Earth.

Robotham's claims gained little traction until, in 1870, a supporter named John Hampden offered a £500 wager that he could repeat Robotham's experiment to show that the Earth was flat. Naturalist and surveyor Alfred Russel Wallace thought it was easy money and accepted the bet. Wallace knew that density gradients in the air just above water could cause light to be bent back toward the ground allowing the observer to see objects beyond the horizon. Wallace placed a series of disks at the poles along the water's edge to show the curvature of the Earth. When viewed from one end, the disc toward the middle of the canal appeared slightly higher than the rest of the discs, and the disc at the far end appeared slightly lower.

Despite the available evidence, Hampden steadfastly refused to acknowledge the performance. Nevertheless, the referee, John Henry Walsh, editor of The Field sports magazine, instructed Hampden to complete his wager payment to Wallace. Despite abiding by the agreed terms, Hampden vowed to destroy Wallace and began a two-decade-long sustained campaign of harassment, threats, and defamation. First, Hampden took him to court, claiming that two people were not qualified to decide whether the world was round or flat. Hampden then began publishing abusive letters accusing Wallace of fraud. Eventually, he began sending death threats to Wallace. The suffering ended with Hampden's death.

Meanwhile, Rowbotham continued to advance his ideas. His lectures alarmed people of science and concerned citizens wrote to the Astronomer Royal demanding a refutation of his claims. A correspondent for the Leeds Times observed that "One thing he demonstrated was that scientific dabblers accustomed to advocating on the platform are unable to cope with a man who was, if you like, a fraudster (but clever and well-versed in his theories). fully adept in), fully alive to the weakness of their opponents.''

Robotham died in 1884, but his fatalistic beliefs continued to grow. In the United States, Robotham's ideas were adopted by the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church and widely disseminated through the church's own radio station. In the United States his work was continued by William Carpenter, a printer originally from Greenwich. Carpenter published Theoretical Astronomy Examined and Exposed – Proving the Earth is Not a Globe in eight parts under the name "Common Sense" in 1864. He later moved to Baltimore, where he published One Hundred Proofs the Earth Is Not a Globe in 1885, where he wrote such nonsense as, "There are rivers that run hundreds of miles toward sea level without falling more than a few feet In particular, the Nile River, which, in a thousand miles, falls only a foot.

In 1893, Lady Elizabeth Blount, an English pamphlet writer and social activist, founded the Universal Zetetic Society, whose purpose was "the propagation of knowledge relating to natural cosmology in confirmation of the Holy Scriptures based on practical scientific investigation". He believed that the Bible was the unquestionable authority on the natural world and argued that one could not be a Christian and believe that the Earth was a globe.

In 1904, Lady Blount repeated Robotham's infamous Bedford Level experiment with similar results. He hired a photographer with a telephoto-lens camera to photograph a large white sheet from Welney, which he placed near the river surface in its original position at Rowbotham, 6 miles away. The photographer, who had mounted his camera 2 feet above the water at Welney, was surprised to be able to obtain a photograph of the target, which he believed, given the low mounting point of the camera, should be invisible. Was. Like Rowbotham, Lady Blount failed to take into account the effects of atmospheric refraction, but the photographer observed a mirage, which he described as "an aqueous shimmering vapor [appearing] floating unevenly on the surface of the canal". .

The modern Flat Earth Society, or International Flat Earth Research Society as it was originally known, was founded in 1956 by Samuel Shenton. The English conspiracy theorist lectured tirelessly on it to youth clubs, political and student groups, and was often seen promoting his views on television and in newspapers. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, they claimed that the satellites simply circled a flat disk-world: "Would sailing around the Isle of Wight prove that it was spherical?", they demanded.

Shenton died in 1971, but the society he founded continued to flourish, reaching 3,500 members three decades later. The birth of the Internet and the proliferation of message boards and social media have sustained growth. Today Flat-Earthers probably number in the millions.

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