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 adventure seems quaint in comparison to fictional space expeditions. However, at the time it was published, many wondered what lay deep beneath the Earth’s surface. A few people truly though planet was hollow. Decades before, a real-life journey to the Earth’s center nearly happened thanks to a notoriously passionate proponent of the Hollow Earth theory and an American president, writes Esther Inglis-Arkell for io9.com.
It was the 1820's. John Cleves Symmes, Jr., an American army officer was traveling around the country on the lecture circuit, proclaiming his theory of a Hollow Earth, one that envisioned the planet as several solid concentric spheres, according to a circular he published, featured by Rebecca Onion at Slate’s history blog "The Vault." Symmes was asking for "one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea…" with plans to slip between those concentric spheres, which he believed were open at the poles "12 or 16 degrees."
For io9.com, Inglis-Arkell writes that Symmes lobbied Congress for funding for the epic journey. They said no. However:
John Quincy Adams said yes. Adams was president as the result of a decision of the House of Representatives, after an election in 1824 that gave no single candidate a needed majority. Although Andrew Jackson had more votes, he was too devisive. The House went for Adams, but soon repented of it. The trip to the center of the Earth wasn’t the main factor in that – Adams was a proponent of a more powerful federal government and so clashed with the representatives of the states – but it certainly didn’t help. Even at the time, the theory was considered laughable by most. Adams still backed it, but his unpopularity led to a single term in office, and the conquering Jackson killed any momentum for the idea.
It’s possible that Adams was more intrigued by the journey to the Arctic pole than the potential to find a way to the center of the Earth. His support for the idea might have stemmed from his ardent interest in the natural world. Nina Burleigh pulls from Adams’ diary in her book The Stranger and the Statesman, excerpted here at Smithsonian.com:
I saw the sun rise and set, clear, from Charles' house on the hill. The pleasure that I take in witnessing these magnificent phenomena of physical nature never tires; it is a part of my own nature, unintelligible to others…. The sensations which affect me at the rising and setting sun are first, adoration to the power and goodness of the Creator…mingled in the morning with thanksgiving…and in the evening with sadness…and with humble supplication for forgiveness of my own errors and infirmities.
Adams’ passion drove him to pursue the founding of a national observatory, a quest that opened him to ridicule from his political enemies, Burleigh writes*. However, he was ultimately successful with the Navel-Observatory in Washington, D.C. and helped ensure that the money from James Smithson’s estate go toward the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. So though the journey to the center of the Earth never happened, Adams did find a more useful way to advance knowledge of the natural world.
*Correction: an earlier version of this story said that Adams was nicknamed "Governor Moonbeam" for his strange theories. That nickname was in fact given to a much more recent politician — California's Governor, Jerry Brown — for his own brand of off-kilter ideas.