John Cleves Symmes, Hollow Earth Theory, and Edmond Halley

Symmes Hole, from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1882

The Hollow Earth Theory, an idea shared by John Cleves Symmes and Edmond Halley, was the basis of the first proposal for the US to mount a polar expedition.

The concept behind the first proposal for the US to fund a polar expedition was full of holes, but so was some work by Edmond Halley.

John Cleves Symmes, Jr., formulated America’s first Hollow Earth Theory. Symmes was a captain in the US Army, distinguished for service in the War of 1812. He came from prominent family. His father, a Colonel, a pioneer of the Northwest Territory, loaned money to the government to finance the Revolution. His cousin, Anna Harrison, First Lady to William Henry Harrison, was Benjamin Harrison’s grandmother.

Regard for the family helped John Cleves Symmes attract an audience but, ultimately, the reception his idea enjoyed had two main causes: the sincerity and zeal with which he told the world of his Hollow Earth Theory; and, perhaps more importantly, the science upon which he based his arguments, however off-kilter they veered.

John Cleves Symmes clearly misinterpreted data but, because his research synthesized observations by some of the most respected physical and natural scientists of his day, his theory had appeal. No man, in 1818, had seen the poles; their true nature was still a matter of speculation. Even Edmond Halley, of the eponymous comet, proposed a hollow Earth theory, based upon deductions he drew from Isaac Newton’s Principia. Symmes was wrong. So were Newton and Halley.

Symmes’ Proposal for a Polar Expedition

“I declare the earth is hollow, habitable within: containing a number of solid concentric spheres; one within the other, and that it is open at the pole twelve or sixteen 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.”

“I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped to start from Siberia, in the fall season, with reindeer and sledges, 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.”

Five hundred copies of Circular No. 1 [excerpted above] were printed in 1818 and mailed throughout the US and Europe, to colleges, politicians, scientists, and philosophers. A certificate attesting Symmes’ sanity was enclosed in each mailing.

Newton. Halley, Symmes and Hollow Earth Theory

Isaac Newton’s Principia appeared in 1687. In the Principia, Newton argues that the density of the Moon is greater than that of the Earth or, to put it another way, the Moon is more solid than the Earth. Newton estimates that the Moon is more solid than Earth by a ratio of 9 to 5.

Edmond Halley published his Hollow Earth Theory in 1692. Halley’s Hollow Earth Theory grew from his study of polar magnetism. Halley concluded that Earth had four magnetic poles, and knew, too, that some feature of Earth must account for them. He remembered Newton’s ratio. Halley thought, “why may we not suppose that Earth is four-ninths hollow?”

Symmes maintained that he never read Halley, but the Symmes Hollow Earth Theory is similar to Edmond Halley’s description of Earth as a hollow shell encircling two additional concentric shells and a solid core. Each shell had its own poles- which accounted for the multiple magnetic poles of ‘outer’ earth- as well as its own atmosphere and source of light, and so might support life.

So, too, thought Symmes. At first, he conceived multiple concentric globes; later, a single hollow Earth, like a big bead. Symmes detailed the size and location of the openings, the rims and downward slopes of which he called verges. Beyond the verges, one would enter ‘warm and rich land.” The interior worlds would be lit and heated by rays refracted from the Sun.

Support for John Cleves Symmes and a Polar Expedition

Symmes’ followers supported his idea by citing observations made by respectable scientists and philosophers. Amicus Symmes, for example, notes that Arctic explorers such as Elisha Kane, William Parry and John Ross all saw that some birds head north for winter and return come spring, fat, with babies. Where did they go? Naturally, claimed Amicus, they “pass over the verge and into the polar opening, where they find a warmer and gentler climate, and …produce their young, coming back fatter than when they left.”

Thanks largely to his lectures Symmes developed a following among the public, politicians, and even scientists. Symmes’ Hollow Earth Theory captivated John Quincy Adams, Samuel Mitchell, the Russian Count Romanoff, and arctic explorers Isaac Israel Hayes and Charles Francis Hall. University audiences loved him. Believers sometimes thought of themselves as Symmesites; in 1824, the Cincinnati Theater mounted a benefit to raise funds for a polar expedition.

Symmesites petitioned Congress to fund exploration of the holes. When Symmes teamed with Jeremiah Reynolds, whose speaking talents and flair for publicity were greater than his own, the idea gathered momentum. Aware of Symmes’ Theory, the Chancellor of Russia, planning a polar expedition, asked Symmes to join his team. Symmes declined.

Near the zenith of his popularity, Symmes’ health failed. He left the lecture circuit. Jeremiah Reynolds abandoned the Hollow Earth Theory, and tailored his pitches for expedition funding to the desires of his audience of the day. Did they need to hear accounts of commercial potential, the glories of discovery, or recitals of scientific advances? He no longer spoke of holes.

Reynolds succeeded. His efforts eventually lead to the Great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838. For generating the initial support for public funding, however, and for pushing the very notion of polar expedition into the Congressional consciousness, credit belongs to Symmes.


Clark, P. “The Symmes Theory of the Earth.” Atlantic Monthly, 1873.

Griffin, Duane A. “Hollow and Habitable Within: Symmes’s Theory of Earth’s Internal Structure and Polar Geography.” Physical Geography 25 (2004): 382-397.

Halley, Edmond. “An Account of the Cause of the Change of the Variation of the Magnetical Needle.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 16 (1691) 563-578.

Kollerstrom, N. “The Hollow World of Edmond Halley.” Journal for History of Astronomy 23 (1992): 185-192.