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Modern flat Earth societies are modern societies that are based on the belief that the Earth is flat. Modern flat Earth hypotheses originated with the English writer Samuel Rowbotham. Based on conclusions derived from the Bedford Level experiment, Rowbotham published a pamphlet Zetetic Astronomy, which he later expanded into a book Earth Not a Globe, proposing the Earth is a flat disc centered 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 titled “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 followers like William Carpenter gained attention by successful use of pseudoscience in public debates with leading scientists. One such debate, involving Alfred Russel Wallace, concerned the Bedford Level experiment. Rowbotham created a Zetetic Society in England and New York, shipping over a thousand copies of Zetetic Astronomy.
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.
The International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), the first Flat Earth society organization, was founded by Englishman Samuel Shenton in 1956 and was later led by American Charles K. Johnson, who based the organization in his home town of Lancaster, California. The belief lacked representation after Johnson’s death in 2001, until the name was reclaimed in 2004 by Johnson’s self-proclaimed successor “Daniel Shenton”, a man claiming to live in Hong Kong.
In 1956, Samuel Shenton, a signwriter by trade, created the International Flat Earth Society as a successor to the Universal Zetetic Society and ran it as “organizing secretary” from his home in Dover, England. Given Shenton’s interest in alternative science and technology, the emphasis on religious arguments was less than in the predecessor society.
When satellite images showed Earth as a sphere, Shenton remarked: “It’s easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye”.
In 1969, Shenton persuaded Ellis Hillman, a Polytechnic of East London 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 he helped to establish.