The Bet That “Proved” the Earth is Flat
How a not-so-friendly wager in the 19th century laid the groundwork for today’s flat Earth Movement.
In the Summer of 1838, Samuel Birley Rowbotham proved the Earth was flat.
Rowbotham was many things — dubious inventor, prolific writer, elementary school dropout — but he wasn’t much of a scientist. Nevertheless, he passionately believed that the Earth was not a sphere. According to Rowbotham, our world was a bounded plane — with the moon, the Sun, and all the planets suspended just a few hundreds miles above its surface. While most of his evidence was rhetorical in nature (and therefore mostly B.S.), Rowbotham eventually devised an experiment that could prove his flat Earth beliefs.
This came to be known as the Bedford Level experiment.
Over the years, he repeated his experiment many times and always came to same the conclusion — the Earth was indeed a flat disk. And despite writing extensively about it and haranguing anyone who would listen to him, Rowbotham’s discovery was mostly ignored for decades — until John Hampden made a bet.
Hampden was an avid fan of Rowbotham and he never missed an opportunity to defend and promote Rowbotham’s flat Earth beliefs. In 1870, Hampden wagered 500 pounds that he could show that the Earth was flat by repeating the Bedford Level experiment — unless someone could prove him wrong.
Nobody took him up on his wager at first.
And why would they? This was Great Britain in the latter half of the 19th century. The Sun never set on the British Empire. For that to be true, the Earth couldn’t be flat. Most of the world had come to the conclusion that the Earth was a sphere centuries ago. It was settled science.
So Hampden upped the ante. He accused the scientific community of purposely covering up the fact the Earth was flat, and thus would not accept his challenge for fear of having their deception exposed.
This got the attention of Sir Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace was the other guy who discovered evolution. So he was no intellectual slouch. He also happened to be a professional land surveyor — of which Rowbotham and Hampden were not. Plus, Wallace was in deep financial trouble. A series of bad investments had left him on the verge of insolvency. Hampden’s bet seemed like an easy way to defend centuries of scientific thought and make a quick 500 pounds to boot. So against his better judgment, Wallace took up the challenge and conducted Rowbotham’s flat Earth experiment.
And proved the Earth actually was a sphere.
(Although that didn’t really matter in the end but I’ll get to that in a moment.)
First off, this was Rowbotham’s experiment:
There is a long stretch of the Old Bedford River in Cambridge County, England that is so straight and level that it earned the moniker “The Bedford Level.” Hence, Bedford Level experiment. The geography around the Bedford Level was so flat, one could set up a telescope and conceivably watch a flag attached to the mast of a boat as it drifted down river until it sank over the curve of the Earth.
But that’s not what Rowbotham observed. He could still see the flag for many miles beyond what should’ve been possible if the Earth were truly curved.
But the experiment was flawed.
Rowbotham, being untrained, forgot to take into account the effect of atmospheric refraction. Air can bend light in a way that makes it possible to see objects that should be beneath the horizon. This is called a superior mirage. It can make the sun appear to rise earlier than it should and cause ships to hover above the ocean. That means what Rowbotham observed was an optical illusion. Something a trained surveyor like Wallace was well aware of.
so Instead of measuring how far the flag dips below the horizon, Wallace modified the experiment to track how far the flag rises as it traverses upward along the curve of the Earth.
Either way, the experiment showed an Earth that most certainly curved.
This should’ve been the end of Rowbotham’s belief.
But that’s not what happened.
Although an observer ruled in Wallace’s favor, Hampden disputed the claim — going as far as publishing pamphlets disparaging Wallace as a swindler and a cheat. Hampden even penned a letter to Wallace’s wife, threatening to beat her husband to death.
Hampden was thrown in jail and sued, but because he rescinded the bet, the wager was declared invalid and Wallace was forced to return the money.
Hampden saw this as a vindication.
And so did some of the general public.
Wallace and Hampden were in and out of court for years. This caught the attention of the newspapers. Here was a guy no one had ever heard of, with some very unusual beliefs (even for 19th century England), engaged in a high profile legal battle with one of the most famous scientists of the time. The peculiar nature of the bet and Hampden’s sensational behavior made it impossible to keep the story out of print. On top of that, a court ruled that Wallace — a leading thinker of his generation — didn’t win a bet to prove the Earth was a sphere.
Even after two lawsuits and four prosecutions for libel, Hampden never backed down. He championed himself a truth seeker, challenging a corrupt and fraudulent scientific establishment. Thanks to heavy media coverage and his ceaseless self-promotion, some began to see Hampden that way.
Soon interest grew in Rowbotham’s long forgotten writings, inspiring clubs of like minded flat Earthers. People replicated his (flawed) experiment and photographic evidence of the supposed proof was widely distributed. It didn’t matter that Wallace had debunked Rowbotham’s beliefs; an otherwise obscure and unknown writer was given a platform and an audience.
The fact is, sometimes facts aren’t enough.
This is as true today as it was back in 1870. Probably more so.
Today, social media networks have largely taken over for newspapers, giving all varieties of misconceptions and misinformation — from global warming denial to anti-vaccination to all flavors of outlandish conspiracy theories — the kind of exposure that was never before possible. And as long as the content is attention-grabbing and algorithm friendly, its veracity hardly ever comes under serious scrutiny.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen a resurgence in flat Earth belief. Hundreds of thousands of people have subscribed to flat Earth discussion groups and Facebook pages. There are flat Earth documentaries on Youtube with millions of views and flat Earth conventions attracting celebrities and the general public alike.
And almost all of it can be traced back to Rowbotham’s flawed experiment — and the publicity the news media of the time granted it.
Sir Alfred Russel Wallace came to regret accepting Hampden’s bet. Instead of making a quick buck settling a simple scientific argument, Wallace found himself on the hook for several protracted court cases and enduring Hampden’s incessant attacks for years after the event. What’s more, many members of the scientific community looked down upon Wallace for participating in the bet in the first place. They saw his association with flat Earth belief as lending it credibility and legitimizing it in the eyes of the public. Wallace may have meant to embarrass a foolish flat Earth believer, but he ended up mostly embarrassing himself.
Regardless, until we could send rockets into orbit and see the curvature of the Earth for ourselves, the Bedford Level experiment was one of the most widely cited proofs that the Earth is a sphere. Nevertheless, no other place in the world has been as successful at making flat Earth belief seem on the level as the Bedford Level.
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