In the 1864 science fiction classic Journey to the Center of the Earth, Professor Otto Lidenbrock deciphers a message that reads “Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jökull of Snæfell, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the Kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth. I did it.” And so starts an imaginative and lively adventure.
Today, Jules Verne’s subterranean voyage may seem quaint. At the time it was published, however, many wondered what lay deep beneath the Earth’s surface. One popular hypothesis posited that the planet was actually hollow.
John Cleves Symmes Jr., an American army officer who fought in the War of 1812, was an avid supporter of this theory. On April 10, 1818, he issued a single-page circular stating, “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 12 or 16 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.”
As author Nathaniel Phillbrick writes in Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, Symmes spent the next several years lecturing on his theory in front of captivated audiences. His ideas soon attracted the attention of Jeremiah N. Reynolds, a newspaper editor who abandoned his career to join the army officer on his cross-country circuit. Together, notes Sea of Glory, “this improbable due spoke in sold-out lecture halls all across the [U.S.]”
But the pair eventually parted ways, with Reynolds moving away from Symmes’ “theory of holes at the poles and people possibly living inside the planet” in favor of a more scientifically grounded push for polar exploration, according to J.L. Bell’s Boston 1775 blog.
Per Sea of Glory, Reynolds proposed an expedition to not only the South Pole, but the broader South Pacific. He gained support from marine and scientific societies and, in 1828, successfully lobbied the House of Representatives to pass a resolution asking then-President John Quincy Adams to deploy a research vessel to the Pacific.
The president, for his part, had first mentioned Reynolds in his November 4, 1826, diary entry, writing:
Mr Reynolds is a man who has been lecturing about the Country, in support of Captain John Cleves Symmes’s theory that the Earth is a hollow Sphere, open at the Poles— His Lectures are said to have been well attended, and much approved as exhibitions of genius and of Science— But the Theory itself has been so much ridiculed, and is in truth so visionary, that Reynolds has now varied his purpose to the proposition of fitting out a voyage of circumnavigation to the Southern Ocean— He has obtained numerous signatures in Baltimore to a Memorial to Congress for this object, which he says will otherwise be very powerfully supported— It will however have no support in Congress. That day will come, but not yet nor in my time. May it be my fortune, and my praise to accelerate its approach.
Adams’ words proved prophetic. Though his administration opted to fund Reynolds’ expedition, the voyage was waylaid by the 1828 presidential election, which found Adams roundly defeated by Andrew Jackson. The newly elected president canceled the expedition, leaving Reynolds to fund his trip through other sources. (The privately supported venture set sail in 1829 but ended in disaster, with the crew mutinying and marooning Reynolds on shore.) Per Boston 1775, the U.S. Exploring Expedition only received the green light under the country’s eighth president, Martin Van Buren.
As Howard Dorre explains on his Plodding Through the Presidents blog, multiple media outlets (including Smithsonian, in an earlier version of this article) erroneously interpreted Adams’ description of Reynolds’ ideas as “visionary” as a sign of his support for the hollow earth theory. In fact, notes Bell in a separate Boston 1775 blog post, the term’s connotations at the time were largely negative. In the words of 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson, a visionary was “one whose imagination is disturbed.”
The president, adds Dorre, only agreed to support the polar expedition “after Reynolds abandoned the hollow earth idea.”
Adams’ passion for nature—including, but not limited to, exploring distant regions—is well documented. This ardent interest led him to pursue the founding of a national observatory—a quest that opened him to ridicule from his political enemies, writes Nina Burleigh in The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum. But Adams was ultimately successful in establishing the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. He also helped ensure that the money from James Smithson’s estate went toward the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. So, while the journey to the South Pole didn’t take place as planned, Adams found an array of ways to advance knowledge of the natural world.
Additional reporting for this story was conducted by assistant editor Meilan Solly in 2021.