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The Flat Earth Society (also known as the International Flat Earth Society or the International Flat Earth Research Society) is an organization which aims to promote the idea that the Earth is flat instead of an oblate spheroid. The modern organization was founded by Englishman Samuel Shenton in 1956 and was later led by Charles K. Johnson, who based the organization in his home in Lancaster, California. The formal society was inactive after Johnson’s death in 2001 but was resurrected in 2004 by its new president Daniel Shenton.
Modern flat Earth hypotheses originated with English inventor Samuel Rowbotham (1816–1884). Based on his incorrect interpretation of the Bedford Level experiment, Rowbotham published a 16-page pamphlet, Zetetic Astronomy, which he later expanded into a 430-page book, Earth Not a Globe, expounding his views. He said the Earth is a flat disc centred at the North Pole and bounded along its southern edge by a wall of ice (Antarctica), with the Sun and Moon 3,000 miles (4,800 km) and the "cosmos" 3,100 miles (5,000 km) above earth. He also published a leaflet entitled "The inconsistency of Modern Astronomy and its Opposition to the Scriptures!!" which argued that the "Bible, alongside our senses, supported the idea that the earth was flat and immovable and this essential truth should not be set aside for a system based solely on human conjecture".
Rowbotham and his followers, like William Carpenter who continued his work, gained attention by engaging in public debates[when?] with leading scientists of the day. One such debate, involving the prominent naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, concerned the Bedford Level experiment (and later led to several lawsuits for fraud and libel). Rowbotham created a Zetetic Society in England and New York, shipping over a thousand copies of Zetetic Astronomy. Council members in New York included the US Consul to China and the superintendent of Baltimore public schools. He also edited The Zetetic and Anti-Theorist: a monthly journal of practical cosmography.
After Rowbotham's death, Lady Elizabeth Blount, wife of explorer Sir Walter de Sodington Blount, established a Universal Zetetic Society, whose objective was "the propagation of knowledge related to Natural Cosmogony in confirmation of the Holy Scriptures, based on practical scientific investigation". The society published a magazine, The Earth Not a Globe Review, and remained active well into the early 20th century. A flat Earth journal, Earth: a Monthly Magazine of Sense and Science, was published between 1901–1904, edited by Lady Blount. In 1901, she repeated Rowbotham's Bedford Level Experiment and photographed the effect, sparking a correspondence in the magazine English Mechanic with several counter-claims. Later it achieved some notoriety by being involved in a scam involving dental practices. After World War I, the movement underwent a slow decline.
In 1956, Samuel Shenton, a signwriter by trade, created International Flat Earth Society as a successor to Universal Zetetic Society and ran it as "organizing secretary" from his home in Dover, England. Because of Shenton's interest in alternative science and technology, the emphasis on religious arguments was less than in the predecessor society.
This was just before the launch of the first artificial satellite; when satellite images showed Earth as a sphere, the society was undaunted; Shenton remarked: "It's easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye."
However it was not until the advent of human spaceflight that Shenton managed to attract wide publicity, being featured in The New York Times in January and June 1964, when the epithet "flat-earther" was also slung across the floor of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom in both directions.
The society also claimed that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax staged by Hollywood, a position also held by others not connected to the Flat Earth Society.
In 1969, Shenton persuaded Ellis Hillman, a Polytechnic lecturer, to become president of the Flat Earth Society, but there is little evidence of any activity on his part until after Shenton's death, when he added most of Shenton's library to the archives of the Science Fiction Foundation which he helped to establish.
Shenton died in 1971; Charles K. Johnson, inheriting part of Shenton's library from Shenton's wife, established and became president of the International Flat Earth Research Society of America and Covenant People's Church in California. Under his leadership, over the next three decades, the Flat Earth Society grew from a few members to a reported 3,500. Johnson gave newsletters, flyers, maps, and other promotional materials to anyone who asked for them, and managed all membership applications together with his wife, Marjory. The most famous of these newsletters was Flat Earth News. Johnson paid for these publications through annual member dues costing US$6 to US$10 over the course of his leadership. Johnson's beliefs were based on the Bible; he saw scientists as pulling a hoax which would replace religion with science.
The Flat Earth Society's most recent world model is that humanity lives on a disc, with the North Pole at its center and a 150-foot (45 m) high wall of ice at the outer edge. The resulting map resembles the symbol of the United Nations, which Johnson used as evidence for his position. In this model, the sun and moon are each 32 miles (52 km) in diameter.
Flat Earth Society recruited members by attacking the U. S. government and all its agencies, particularly NASA. Much of the society’s literature in its early days focused on interpreting the Bible literally to mean that the Earth is flat, although they did try to offer scientific explanations and evidence.
Some headlines from Flat Earth News during the 1970s and early 1980s:
The group rose to about 3,500 members at its peak under Charles K. Johnson. It faced overwhelming scientific evidence and public opinion that the Earth is a sphere. "Flat-earther" became a common epithet for someone who stubbornly adheres to discredited or outmoded ideas.
The society fell to around 200 members by 1980. They still believed the Earth is flat. Eugenie Scott called them an example of "extreme Biblical-literalist theology: The earth is flat because the Bible says it is flat, regardless of what science tells us". The society was further affected by a fire at the house of Charles K. Johnson which destroyed all of the records and contacts of members of the Society. Johnson’s wife, who helped manage the database, died shortly thereafter. Johnson himself died on March 19, 2001.
In 2004, Daniel Shenton (not related to Samuel) resurrected the Flat Earth Society, basing it around a web-based discussion forum. This eventually led to the official relaunch of the society in October 2009, and the creation of a new website, featuring the world's largest public collection of Flat Earth literature and a user-edited encyclopedia. Moreover, the society began accepting new members for the first time since 2001, with musician Thomas Dolby becoming the first member to join the newly reconvened society. As of July 2014, over 500 people have become members. Shenton has also conducted several interviews since the society's relaunch, including in The Guardian newspaper.
Flat Earth Society of Canada was established on 8 November 1970 by philosopher Leo Ferrari, writer Raymond Fraser and poet Alden Nowlan; and was active until 1984. Calling themselves planoterrestrialists, their aims were quite different from other flat earth societies. With obvious humorous overtones, they claimed a prevailing problem of the new technological age was the willingness of people to accept theories "on blind faith and to reject the evidence of their own senses." They did not actually believe Flat Earth theories, considering their proponents cranks, and did not accept such people into their society, which was made of quite a few prominent members of Canadian literary and political circles.
They published a newsletter, The Official Chronicle and promoted their ideas more widely via television and press. Its main aims were "to combat the fallacious deification of the circle," "to restore man's confidence in the validity of his own perceptions", and "to spearhead man's escape from his metaphysical and geometrical prison."
As of 2003[update], Iris Taylor of I. Taylor Research has worked to reinstate the Canadian Chapter of the Flat Earth Society and recruit new members.