In the spring of 1818, radical thinker and pseudo-scientist John Cleves Symmes sent an envelope addressed to the “City of Wilmington as a Body Corporate.” The envelope contained Symmes’ controversial Circular No. 1, a proposition sent to cities across the United States calling for “one hundred brave companions “ to embark on a quest to the North Pole in search of an entry point into what Symmes’ believed to be a hollow earth. His team would make the dangerous journey by way of Siberia “with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea.” If this did not sound outlandish enough, Symmes further predicted that once inside the hollow of the earth the explorers would find “warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals if not men.”
What ever happened to this group of rogue polar explorers? Unfortunately, Symmes never had the chance to lead his expedition, and he eventually faded into obscurity. While we might think today that his ideas were so outlandish that no one in his time could have ever given them any credence, we are wrong. In fact, Symmes was not entirely dismissed by mainstream scientists of his time. Furthermore, Symmes’ efforts actually played a major role in creating a new era of American expansionism. By 1818, Lewis and Clark had already completed their famous expedition across the North American continent. America needed a new frontier, and no, at the time it was not Alaska. Polar exploration became the new objective for Americans aspiring to go down as legendary patriotic explorers. This spirit was realized in 1838 when the Great United States Exploring Expedition set sail for Antarctica. After months of meticulous geographic surveying, the scientific team concluded that Antarctica could officially be classified as a continent. While by that time Symmes the man may have been forgotten, his legacy lived on. And his legacy still thrives as scientists continue important work on the science of climate change in Antarctica and the North Pole today.
For more information on Symmes and his contributions to science and popular culture, read “Hollow and Habitable Within: Symmes’s Theory of Earth’s Internal Structure and Polar Geography” by Duane A. Griffin of Bucknell University.