The Rise of the Modern Flat Earth Movement

How could people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries possibly come to think that the Earth is flat?

Adam M Wakeling
15 min readJun 21, 2021
Samuel Rowbotham’s proposed world map, from ‘Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe’ (1865)

“It is a most curious thing that in the nineteenth century any man should be found to wager £500 that the Earth was not round.”

From the judgement in Wallace v Hampden (1871)

InIn the fens north of Cambridge, near the village of Welney, the Old Bedford River flows through an impressively straight six-mile drainage canal called the Bedford Level. Built in the seventeenth century as part of a series of major engineering works to drain the fens, it directs the wayward waters of the Great River Ouse northward.

On a warm summer’s afternoon in 1838, a man in his early twenties waded into the canal near Welche’s Dam, carrying a telescope. Samuel Birley Rowbotham was familiar with the swampy Cambridgeshire countryside, having spent some months as secretary to the short-lived utopian socialist commune at Manea Fen. Now, he was setting out to test an idea that had stuck with him since childhood. Since he was seven years old, he had been convinced that the Earth was flat.

Rowbotham sent a friend — or assistant — to row a small boat flying a flag five feet above the waterline up the canal to Welney Bridge, at…



Adam M Wakeling

Adam Wakeling is an Australian writer, lawyer and historian. He is online at and on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.