The wife of a leading scientist opened her mail one morning. She was shocked to find a threatening message saying that her husband wouldn’t live long enough to die in his bed:
If your infernal thief of a husband is brought home… with every bone in his head smashed to a pulp, you will know the reason…
Tell him from me he is a lying infernal thief, and as sure as his name is Wallace he never dies in his bed.
You must be a miserable wretch to be obliged to live with a convicted felon.
Do not think or let him think I have done with him.
However, the threat didn’t come from Darwin – that really wasn’t the great man’s style: it came from John Hampden, a wealthy man who had lost a bet with Wallace.
I Bet You Can’t Prove the World is Round
From a strict reading of Scripture, Hampden was certain that the earth must be as flat as a pancake. He was so sure of himself that in January 1870 he announced an open challenge to all scientists, betting £500 that no-one could prove the world was round.
This was not a small bet. It was about seven years’ wages for a skilled tradesman. Hampden placed his bet as an ad in the journal Scientific Opinion.
To Wallace the bet looked like a sure thing. In addition to his work as a naturalist, he was a professional surveyor. He knew the earth’s curvature perfectly well, and moreover he knew perfectly well how to prove it.
He ‘Proved’ that Earth is Flat
Hampden had been convinced of the earth’s flatness by the published work of the utopian socialist John Rowbotham.
Rowbotham had carried out an experiment on a straight channel of water several miles long flowing through some of England’s flattest country – the Bedford Levels.
Rowbotham placed three wooden poles in the water so that the first and last poles were four miles apart. He ensured the poles’ tops were all exactly 10 inches above the water. When he looked through a telescope he found that the tops formed a perfect line when viewed from one end. He believed this was only possible if Earth were flat.
Now, we know the earth isn’t flat – we have photos taken from space to prove it. And besides, Eratosthenes measured our planet’s curvature and circumference rather accurately as far back as the third century BC.
Rowbotham’s Experiment was Faulty
Rowbotham’s mistake was one of refraction. Near the surface of water, refraction of light, an optical effect in which light is deflected, becomes highly significant. If Rowbotham had only arranged his poles so their tops were six feet above the water he would have got the correct result, because refraction is insignificant 6 feet above the surface of the water.
In a correctly designed experiment, the top of the middle pole will be seen higher than the final pole.
On March 5 1870, two months after Hampden issued his challenge in Scientific Opinion, he came face to face with Wallace on the Bedford Levels. The two competitors had agreed on an independent referee who, unfortunately, could not be present for the whole process. A local surgeon, Dr. Coulcher, appeared in his place.
Meanwhile, Wallace agreed to Hampden’s suggestion of a second independent referee. Hampden brought along William Carpenter, who far from being independent, was a fervent Flat Earther.
The experiment was carried out and, as might be expected, confirmed Earth’s curvature. However Carpenter – to Wallace’s amazement – claimed the result meant that the earth was flat. Hampden refused to even look through the telescope.
The results were sent to the original referee, John Henry Welsh, who decided in Wallace’s favor and awarded him the £500 stake Hampden had placed with him.
- Wallace showed that the earth’s surface is curved.
- Strictly speaking, the bet was illegal. Through the courts, Hampden forced Wallace to return £500 to him.
- Hampden began a vicious campaign against Wallace, consisting of both threats and defamation. Wallace, who wished most of all for a quiet life, attempted to ignore these.
- Wallace became sufficiently sick of Hampden’s defamation to take action. In January 1871, he sued Hampden for libel. The court awarded Wallace £600.
- To avoid paying anything to Wallace, Hampden gave everything he owned to his son-in-law and declared himself bankrupt.
- Hampden was jailed three times for his actions following the Bedford Levels experiment: for a week, then two months, then six months.
- Wallace ended up out of pocket and suffered years of harassment from Hampden, all to prove something that no educated person doubted in the first place. His was a Pyrrhic victory indeed.
Author of this page: The Doc
Image of Wallace digitally enhanced and colorized by this website.
© All rights reserved.
Published by FamousScientists.org
He knew Earth is round, but his proof fell flat
Smithsonian April, 1978
Alfred Russel Wallace and the flat earth controversy
Endeavour Vol. 25(4) 2001