In the 1940s, Richard Shaver wrote about mysterious experiences he had in which he was receiving information from telepathic evil robots inside the earth. Shaver believed that the monsters lurked in the inner hollows of the earth and could influence the lives of surface dwellers. This is hardly the only depiction of a hollow earth as it is a common sci-fi trope. Some people, however, actually believe that there is substantial space inside the earth’s sphere where curious things occur. The history of thinking about the hollow earth is complex and far more serious than you might guess. It definitely qualifies as some spooky alternative to geology.
A comprehensive history of the Hollow Earth would be impossible. There are far too many legends involving giant caverns, lost civilizations, holes at the poles, internal stars and weird creatures … it really goes on and on. And that’s just the “nonfiction”. I’m not joking (but wish I was).
Remarkably, the idea of a hollow earth has remained somewhat popular and even ideologically useful. The idea of another world below us (suggestive of its own space) is very old. A few ancient cultural myths tell of ancestors that emerged from inside the earth. Or, that the underworld is the place of gods or of the dead. Athanasius Kircher’s 1665 compendium Mundus Subterraneus (the Subterranean World) had been inspired by his own trip inside Mt. Vesuvius to see the internal roiling and boiling hellscape of a volcano. Many people still accept that if you dig far enough into the ground, you reach a really awful abode of tortured souls. Major religions featured an underworld as part of their belief system. Speculative ideas, like those that follow, inevitably involved various non-scientific factors. Discussion of that specific tangle of threads goes too far afield for this post but it is important to recognize that many wildly diverse beliefs about the nature (or supernature) of the earth were based on the same observations we all have. It’s amazing how people can view our own earth so very differently.
How would a Hollow Earth work?
Ironically, earth without its solid core is a far more complex idea than the now-standard model, as it requires mental gymnastics and outrageous anti-science conspiracy ideas as well as going against physical laws.
The main faction of hollow earth believers thought that the earth we see is just a shell, around 800 km (500 mi) thick. Inside there may be other shells, maybe a small core, perhaps an interior sun. Openings to the interior are at the poles or at various other unique places. Another group suggests that we live on the concave surface of the interior. Yet another schema is that the earth is riddled with “honeycomb” openings excavated by an intelligent race who live inside.
Obviously, there was a time when we didn’t know the planet’s structure and these ideas sounded almost plausible. Modern conceptions of the hollow earth are connected with someone we usually think of as a scientist: Sir Edmund Halley. It might seem odd for a person so firmly associated with early science to postulate a hollow earth, but Halley was trying to account for a recently discovered anomaly: the Earth appeared to have four magnetic poles (when no magnet ever had anything other than two poles) and they wandered around wildly. How could this be? To explain it, he postulated (incorrectly) that the multiple poles were from concentric spheres, with atmosphere between them, within the earth, around a small solid core. The spheres moved at different speeds and had their own polarity that accounted for the wandering magnetic measurements. We now know that he leaped to a complicated conclusion to explain a phenomenon based on incomplete data. Yet, as wild as his idea was, there are layers within the earth – just not as Halley envisioned.
Thanks to some clever science experiments, we now know the earth’s solid crust moves around upon a layer of molten rock and that deep under that is a denser metallic core. There are no giant void spaces below the crust because of the tremendous pressure and constant movement that occurs. Using the understanding of density, distance, speed, and other basic physics, researchers use seismic data to infer much about the earth’s interior. Among the discoveries from physics, geology, volcanology, and oceanography were clear and independent disconfirmations of a hollow earth. I suspect Sir Edmund would have loved to hear of it.
Halley was a notable starting point with his paper of 1692. Imaginative, fantastical ideas just don’t die when they’re debunked with facts and reason. Because they often originate from non-scientific reasons, they live on and may mutate no matter how the scientific consensus sways. Even when the scientific community rejected or ignored Halley’s idea, others republished it, including the Reverend Cotton Mather, who inserted it in a volume he composed on Christian philosophy. Several others would later come to the same enticing idea on their own and continue to promote it.
Holes at the earth’s north and south poles were part of popular hollow earth ideas. These holes were said to be a thousand kilometers across where one could sail right over the edge, or what was on the interior might come out (which is usually bad news). The sea flowed through the earth to the other side.
Even today, some conspiracy-minded people suggest that airplanes never fly over the poles (not true) because of the dangerous holes. In 2016, a video by a known hoaxer who promotes UFO ideas suggested that NASA was hiding evidence of a giant hole at the North Pole. It received over 2 million views.
There are good reasons why air routes over the poles are only recently becoming more common, but those reasons are ignored to maintain some other sensational explanation. As with the flat earth proponents, hollow earth believers assert that some nefarious cabal has kept the truth hidden. The reality, they say, goes against all existing scientific information we have been told to blindly accept.
In the practical world of dangerous expeditions to bold new places, two teams were racing for the North Pole in 1909. One led by Frederick Cook, the other by Robert Peary. It’s hard to say if either team really made it, or who got there first – but neither observed a hard-to-miss thousand-mile-wide hole. The poles remained mysterious and associated with secret inhabitants (e.g., Santa Claus, The Thing from another world) and as ground zero for the gods. In 1906, author William Reed produced Phantom of the Poles that utilized stories from polar explorers that seemed strange or unexplained in an attempt to show that the hollow earth “theory” was probably true and that this explained several great mysteries of the world.
Back in 1818, the modern concept of a hollow earth was launched by five hundred copies of an amazing letter sent out to papers, politicians, schools, and anybody else the author thought might be influenced. The author was John Cleves Symmes, Jr. and he was not shy in stating:
“I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentric circles, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles.”
He pledged his life in support of this “truth” and its exploration.
Well, declarations of extraordinary ideas without evidence is not new and will be a characteristic of human society probably forever. Always note that a degree of passion and conviction are not determinations of truth.
Symmes claimed to have come up with his hollow earth concepts by himself, but it had remarkable parallels to Halley’s version. He went on to say that the earth’s interior would be tropical with plants and animals and perhaps even other people. Originally, he proposed five concentric spheres that had life flourishing on both the concave and convex sides. It was a marvelous and fantastic idea. Yet, he later simplified the concept to the single hollow sphere which was copied by many proponents of this fringe idea to come. Symmes asked for 100 brave, well-equipped companions to venture from Siberia to the north pole to have a first-hand look down the hole. Hopefully, the explorers could witness the animals coming out in the spring and even follow them back inside.
In 1820, a novel came out called Symzonia: Voyage of Discovery about a trip into the southern opening of the hollow earth. Some speculated that the author, Adam Seaborn, may have been Symmes using a pseudonym. In 1826, James McBride published Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres which argued in support of Symmes’ concept. Jeremiah Reynolds, an influential advocate for scientific expeditions, joined Symmes on a touring lecture series, but the two men eventually went separate ways, splitting into two hollow earth factions. Reynolds was a persuasive lecturer and his work may have contributed to the support of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838 to map Antarctica.
Symmes didn’t make it to the interior of the earth or even to the poles. He petitioned Congress twice to organize the expedition but that went nowhere. Unsurprisingly, nobody funded his speculative investigation. He spent the rest of his life lecturing and lobbying for the trip, becoming angrier and convinced he was right. One of his sons also took up the cause.
The next major character to promote hollow earth ideas was medicine patent and electrical and magnetism “doctor” Cyrus Teed who claimed that he discovered the alchemists’ Philosopher’s Stone and then was visited by the goddess-creator of the universe who told him he was the messiah to save the human race. Rebranding himself as Koresh (not the only cult leader to do so), he started his own religion, Koreshanity, in Florida that included the vision-inspired belief that we live inside the sphere.
Teed’s preferred explanation for the universe was more complicated than other accepted explanations and included extreme assumptions. He claimed the earth’s shell was one hundred miles thick with seventeen layers. The outer seven are metallic with a gold rind on the outermost layer, the middle five are mineral, and the five inside are geologic strata. Inside the shell there is life. Outside, a void. Our visible sun and moon were only reflections, optical illusions, curving in the atmosphere; the stars were reflecting off seven discs that float in the center of the sphere. In his 1905 book Cellular Cosmogony, he claimed that everything – that is, the entire universe – is inside this sphere. I’ll admit my brain can’t make any sense out of this and I’m not going to dive any deeper into that particular hole. Teed’s ideas showed, once again, how the hollow earth concept could be used for a social agenda. His Fort Meyers location was played up to be ground zero for the second coming of Christ.
German WWI veteran Peter Bender picked up the Koreshian ideas of a hollow earth. In the 1940s, he collaborated with the Nazis to try and use this “secret knowledge” to their advantage. Since the Koreshian thought was that we were inside the spherical earth already, and that the curve was hidden by optical illusions, Bender and his team supposedly traveled to the Black Sea to build a device that would either look into the “sky” to detect enemy ships or project missiles into the sky to confuse enemy radar. Whatever the actual plan was, Hitler was apparently furious with the waste of resources. Bender ended up in a concentration camp where he apparently died. As with the other outrageous tales, some people still accept the idea that the Germans succeeded in setting up a thriving Aryan city in the natural caverns of Antarctica. I hate to even fuel that notion by discussing it, but I feel obliged to point out how the desire to believe will make an end-run around scientific knowledge, reason and facts, and root itself in frightening ideologies.
Science Fiction Trope
Authors of fiction capitalized on the hollow world idea because it had so much potential. In 1721, a French Adventure novel titled An Account of a Voyage from the North Pole to the South Pole via the Centre of the Earth was published. A whirlpool carries a ship through the earth from the north pole to the south and adventures are had.
In 1741 The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground was published by Ludvig Holberg, whose work appears to have been influenced by Halley’s conceptions of spheres separated by empty spaces.
In 1833, Edgar Allan Poe published Manuscript Found in a Bottle which featured elements quite similar to Symmes’ theories and travel near Antarctica.
In 1864, we get Jules Verne’s beloved Journey to the Center of the Earth. A popular book, it also described a scientific expedition into a hollow earth filled with strange life and adventure. In 1914 Edgar Rice Burroughs published At the Earth’s Core which became a series known as The Pellucidar books. His hollow earth adventures had dinosaurs and strange peoples. Fictional tales of the hollow earth usually have geological-sounding descriptions whose plausibility the general public can’t fairly judge. When fiction sounds factual to those who don’t know the details, those fictional ideas may be tacitly accepted as fact. There is no doubt that the public obtains most of their information from the media instead of formal instruction. Some of these ideas are intriguing and are uncritically accepted.
Now back to 1945 and Richard Shaver, a mentally troubled artist and welder, and his collaborative writing partner, Ray Palmer, a science-fiction magazine editor who undoubtedly exploited Shaver until Shaver’s death in 1975. Together, their stories of a cavern world – extensive caves within the earth – filled with evil robots (“deros” – detrimental robot) who were using machines to torture humans on the outside became very popular for the Amazing Stories publication. Controversially, Palmer and Shaver claimed the stories were not fictional. Many readers took this as just another science fiction tale and were angry that Amazing Stories took such a turn, sparking a massive social discussion. But some people said that, like Shaver, they too heard the voices that came from the “deros” and supported Shaver’s claims. The influence of Shaver’s and Palmer’s collaboration is still being felt today – and will likely continue to be felt for decades.
The remnants from Shaver’s tales, hollow earth claims, and occult ideas of lost civilizations also leads one to Mount Shasta in California, near where Kenneth Arnold launched the modern UFO era in 1947 with his sighting of mysterious flying objects. Mount Shasta along with its extensive related geomythology is a landmark of strange ideas, including being an entrance to the inner earth. Mount Shasta is on the Spooky Geology list to get its own entry as it remains a fulcrum of mystical ideas.
Enhancing modern belief in a polar hole is an artifact from past satellite photography. Pole-orbiting satellites have a fixed route and limited range of view so the typical photo of the pole in the past was a composite. Because of the inclination of the camera, when the composites were put together, there was a gap in the center of the circular image which led some people to trumpet the clear documentation of a polar hole! You can tell these were composites because of the lighting of the entire circular area that would never occur in a single shot. The day-long time-lapse capture shows all of the areas as sun-lit eventually. More modern photos show more.
Conspiracy-based ideas such as the hollow earth, the flat earth, the climate change myth, and the moon landing hoax continue to intrigue people and gain followers even though they are irrational and unsupported by evidence. Believers in them, similar to religion, gain a sense of personal satisfaction in knowing some special “truth” that others reject. The tales, characters, and concepts generated from within the hollow earth remain common in science fiction and fantasy pop culture products today.
Charles River Editors. Hollow Earth: A History of Strange Tales, Bizarre Beliefs, and Conspiracy Theories about the Earth’s Core (2017).
Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies In the Name of Science (1952).
Standish, David. Hollow Earth (2007).