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The Curious History of The International Flat Earth Society

The recent resurgence of this ancient idea reminds us that flat Earth believers have a long history

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. (Corbis)
smithsonian.com

This week, a particularly odd little bit of pseudoscience reared its head again when rapper B.o.B. took to Twitter and proclaimed that the Earth is flat. Since then, the rapper has drawn the ire of all sorts of incredulous people, including astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

People have known that the Earth is round since at least the sixth century B.C.E. So many were surprised to hear the flat Earth concept still kicked around. But this wasn't the first resurgance of the idea. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, a man named Charles Kenneth Johnson became a minor celebrity for his refusal to believe the Earth is round, Cheryl Eddy writes for iO9.

Johnson’s good friend Samuel Shenton founded a small fringe group dubbed the Flat Earth Society in the 1950s. In 1972 Johnson became the president of the society after Shenton's death, transforming the group from a small collection of conspiracy theorists into an organization with thousands of members. 

He made waves in the national media and became known for cheerfully insisting the rest of the world was being duped by scientists, Douglas Martin wrote in Johnson’s obituary for the New York Times in 2001.

''If earth were a ball spinning in space, there would be no up or down,'' Johnson told David Gates and Jennifer Smith for Newsweek in 1984. Similarly, Johnson’s wife Marjory believed that the Earth must be flat, because otherwise she would have spent her childhood in her native Australia hanging upside-down by her toes, Martin wrote at the time.

During his tenure as president of the Flat Earth Society, its ranks swelled to about 3,500 people. In his newsletters, Johnson wrote off such spectacles like the sunrise and sunset as optical illusions, discussed how Charles Lindbergh proved the Earth was flat, and claimed that NASA and the moon landing were nothing but hoaxes, Eddy writes.

"You can't orbit a flat earth," Johnson told Robert J. Schadewald for Science Digest in 1980. "The Space Shuttle is a joke—and a very ludicrous joke."

Ironically, Johnson lived just over the hill from Edwards Air Force Base in southern California—the facility where the Air Force tests experimental aircraft, and where NASA’s Space Shuttles landed after returning to Earth.

While most of the articles about Johnson and his fringe beliefs were written with tongue firmly in cheek, he channeled his odd sort of fame into increasing membership in the Flat Earth Society (as well as a starring role in an ice cream commercial). But it didn’t last: By the time Johnson died, the society had dwindled again to just 100 members.The Flat Earth Society is still around, though they remain little more than a tiny fringe group.

"It is always good to question 'how we know what we know'," Christine Garwood, author of Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Ideatells Brendan O'Neill for the BBC. "But it is also good to have the ability to accept compelling evidence—such as the photographs of Earth from space."

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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