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Black and white drawing of a man, presumably Symes. He is wearing an army cap and has a mustache.

THE reported discovery of the North Pole by Dr. Nansen recalls the curious theory propounded by John Cleve Symmes, of Ohio, in the first quarter of the century. In 1818 Symmes issued a circular "to all the world," in which he said: "I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within, containing a number of solid, concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 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."

To this startling proposition he added an "N. B.," announcing that he had ready for the press a treatise on "the principles of matter" that would prove his theory. He closed with this appeal: "I ask 100 brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season with reindeer and sleighs on the frozen sea. I engage we find a warm, rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring."

A copy of this circular was sent by Symmes to nearly every learned institution and town of large size in the country, and to many scientific societies in Europe. In accordance with the request of Symmes, Count Volney laid it before the Academy of Science of Paris. That body decided that it was not worthy of consideration. Symmes continued to fire circular after circular at the public and then he started on a lecturing campaign of education. The evident earnestness and enthusiasm of the man attracted large audiences. He made many converts to his opinions, and on one occasion, at the end of an address, it was unanimously resolved that, "We esteem Symmes's theory of the earth deserving of serious examination and worthy of the attention of the American people." But capital for the enterprise failed to materialize and it was not long before Symmes and his theory began to be ridiculed by newspaper editors and the wits of the period. Some one (sic) fastened on the mysterious Polar cavity this epithet: "Symmes's Hole," and it stuck from that day to this.


Suffolk County, over in Jersey, was the birthplace of Symmes. He was born Nov. 5. 1780. He received only the ordinary education obtainable by country boys at the time, but he was of a studious disposition and read everything that came in his way. Mathematics and the natural sciences possessed very great attractions for him and he lost no opportunity to add to his stock of knowledge on those subjects.

At the age of twenty-five he enlisted in the United States Army as an ensign. He remained in the service ten years and was promated (sic) through all the grades to be a captain. In 1816 he was retired on the disbandment of the army that had been called into existence during the second war with England. Symmes was a gallant, daring soldier, and his name was honorably mentioned on many occasions in the reports of his commanding officers. He was high-spirited and quick to resent what he considered a slight or an insult. Two " affairs of honor are set down to his credit. In one of them he severely wounded his opponent and himself hit in the wrist.

In these far-away "twenties" of the closing century the subject of Polar exploration was one of the uppermost thoughts in the scientific world. Great Britain had then begun offering large rewards for Arctic discoveries. Symmes, in 1822 petitioned Congress for aid in his undertaking. He asked the Government to equip an expedition to explore "this internal world." During the next two years he continued to besiege the national Legislature and also the Legislature of the young State of Ohio, but without avail. "Strict construction" of the Constitution was the fashion and the statesmen of the time could not see their way clear to gratify Capt. Symmes's scientific ambition in Polar Hole discovery.

About 1825 it occurred to him that he might be able to do something with Russia. That country was then fitting out a Polar expedition, and through the American Minister at St. Petersburg Symmes made application to join it. The request was granted, but poor Symmes was unable to purchase a proper outfit and had to remain at home in Ohio. But he did not despair. Beaten in Congress, defeated in the Legislature of his own State unsuccessful in his effort to find a rich man or a combination of them to fit out an expedition for him, he turned again to the lecture field in the hope of being able to raise sufficient money to realize the dream of his life. It was a hopeless struggle, and it finally came to an end with his death in May, 1829. Symmes was then only forty-nine years old. His tomb is in Hamilton, 0. On one side of the monument these words are cut: "Capt. John Cleves Symmes was a philosopher and the originator of Symmes's theory of concentric spheres and Polar voids."


The theory of Symmes was that the earth is not a solid mass thrown off ages ago from the sun in a molten condition, which has gradually cooled from, the surface inward. He held, on the contrary, that it is a hollow sphere, with an opening at either pole. So certain was he on this point that he fixed the diameter of the Northern cavity at 2,000 miles and estimated that the Southern one was slightly larger.

The shell of the earth, he held, is about one thousand miles thick. He thought its interior was hollow, because "an Omnipotent Being would not have created so large a globe with only its outer surface habitable. " That would be a waste of material, and hence improbable.

Following this line of argumentation, he maintained that if there is a place of abode within the earth, the light and heat supply must be the sun, and, if the sun, there must he an opening for the admission of the light and heat. Owing to the inclination of the Polar axis and the rotation the earth around the sun an orifice of the proper size at the poles would admit a sufficient amount of both.

This theory of concentric spheres, Symmes extended to all the planets getting the suggestion from the rings of Saturn and Jupiter.

The theory was, to say the least, an ingenious one, and it is not surprising that it attracted very great attention at the time. The North Pole was then far more of a mystery than it is now. Capt. Ross had not started with the Victory, which was crushed in the ice, until 1829, and it was not until 1846 that Sir John Franklin endeavored to wrest its great secret front the ice-bound North.

Symmes's fantastic theory has, however, won for him a certain share of immortality, and he unquestionably believed in his idea.

Reproduced with permission: L.L. Dyche, Explorations (Newspaper Clippings Related to Polar Exploration), Vol. 1 & 2. University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence, KS.


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Original Source:

New York World, NY. March 1, 1896

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K . Bailey, and S. Snodgrass, Wathena Middle School, U.S.D. 406, Wathena, KS, 66090. Sponsoring Teacher: Mrs. Rullman

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