Extraordinarily rare 1892 flat Earth map by Alexander Gleason

14 ¼”-diameter world map on a 21 ¼”h x 15”w sheet, printed color. Two facsimile indicator arms (based on the Yale’s copy) affixed by grommet to center of map. Lined with cloth, with instructions printed on back, the whole mounted on metal rods for hanging. Scattered soiling, staining and toning; some penciled notes and scribbles; and wear at edges with minor chipping and fraying to cloth backing.

Only the fourth known example of Alexander Gleason’s 1892 New Standard Map of the World, an important example of the migration of flat Earth thought from England to the United States.

At first look Gleason’s map is visually striking but otherwise innocuous: a north-polar azimuthal equidistant projection, enlivened by a bright-red horizon ring, with two rotating “indicator arms” to be used for determining the times at different locations. It all looks perfectly reasonable—the projection has a long and distinguished history, and the arms seem useful enough. Things get weird, though, with the “Descriptive Key” on the back of the map, which ends with the sentence “The demonstration has reference to either considerations[sic]: the earth a globe or a plane—take your choice.”

To make sense of all this one must refer to Gleason’s Is the Bible from Heaven? Is the Earth a Globe? (Buffalo: Buffalo Electrotype and Engraving Co., 1890, with an enlarged 2nd ed. in 1893). There he marshals Scripture, quirky interpretations of physical science, shoddy observation, and dollops of “common sense” to argue that the Earth is flat, stationary and the center of the cosmos. Late in the work he announces and describes his new map:

“We have prepared A NEW MAP OF THE WORLD AS IT IS. The map is finely executed and printed in six colors. It contains all the continents and principal islands and rivers of the world, also, all the principal cities of the earth. The circle of the map is fourteen and one-fourth inches, having a time dial on which is marked in bold Roman numerals the twenty-four hours of the day and the minutes of the hour. The face of the map is provided with two detatched[sic] radiating arms from the center to the Circumference of the time dial, the arms are held to­gether by friction, having a pivot socket at the center of the map. On the arms is stamped the degrees of latitude; by the operation or moving of these arms the relative time of day or night is quickly determined and read on the dial by the child or person who can read the multiplication table, or tell the time of day by the hands of a clock.” (p. 350)

Gleason received U.S. patent 497,917 for his map on May 23, 1893. Like the description above, the application makes no mention of his flat-earth views, and indeed at one point seems to contradict them:

“The extorsion of the map from that of a globe consists, mainly in the straightening out of the meridian lines allowing each to retain their original value from Greenwich, the equator to the two poles.”

I read this as Gleason unwittingly fessing up that his map is, like any other, a projection of a globe or section thereof onto a flat surface. In any event, he presumably chose not to mention his flat Earth views in the application, in order to avoid the risk of rejection by the Patent Office.

Alexander Gleason, J. S. Christopher and zetetic astronomy
Gleason himself is very hard to pin down. Aside from the evidence offered by his book and the two maps, I have found only brief mentions in the Buffalo City Directory between 1882 and 1898, during which time he had at least six different addresses. Secondary sources on the internet describe him as a civil engineer, but in the Directory he is listed variously as a solicitor (1882-1883), machinist (1889), engraver (1893) and patternmaker (1898)… never as a civil engineer. According to contemporary Buffalo-area newspapers in 1889 he helped establish a Seventh-Day Adventist Church there and in 1898 broke his hip in a bicycle collision. There are a couple of mentions of his flat-Earth advocacy, including this little gem:

“Is it any wonder that Alexander Gleason of No. 1201 Niagara street, is making an effort to prove that the earth is flat? Nowadays nothing seems impossible to a Buffalonian. When Mr. Gleason has successfully demonstrated his theory in regard to our planet, he will doubtless take possession of the earth in the name of his native city.” (The Buffalo Commercial, Nov. 21, 1890, p. 7)

The subtitle of Gleason’s map credits the projection to “J. S. Christopher of Modern College, Blackheath”. This is odd, since the azimuthal equidistant projection dates back centuries, as on this ca. 1713 map by Van der Aa. Odder still, Modern College is a phantom, though there was a Morden College in Blackheath, apparently a retirement home for “decayed merchants”. In any event, Joseph Steer Christopher was born in 1805 in Dartmouth, Devon; was a merchant active at the East India Chambers when he declared bankruptcy in 1844; was up and running with a railway investment scheme by 1845 and inviting investors in the “Natal Company” in 1850; lived for a time in Natal, South Africa and authored Natal, Cape of Good Hope (London: Effingham Wilson, 1850); is otherwise recorded at various addresses in England and Scotland; and from 1875 was resident at Morden College on Dec. 31, 1894, a home for “decayed merchants”. I have been unable to learn anything else about his training or profession, though apparently he found little in the way of lasting success.

At some time in life Christopher got hooked on Samuel Birley Rowbotham’s “zetetic astronomy”. This was a modern-day flat-Earth theory according to which the Earth is a circular plane centered on the North Pole and bounded by ice, with the sun, planets and stars in motion only a few thousand miles above its surface. Rowbotham (1816-84) gained enough adherents that he seems to have made a career of lecturing and publishing on the subject, his best-known work being Zetetic Astronomy: The Earth Not a Globe (1864). It appears that some time in the 1880s Christopher—perhaps as a retirement project?—published a flat Earth map on a north polar azimuthal projection. Alas, I have found only references to such a map, but no image of the map itself.

Both zetetic astronomy and Christopher’s map made their way across the Atlantic and found adherents here in the United States, Alexander Gleason among them. Somehow Gleason got hold of Christopher’s map and republished it, not once, but twice, albeit with his own modifications. His initial effort was The New Map of the World on the Projection of J. Steer Christopher, Morden College, Blackheath…Without Any Antipodes. Published in 1885, this map closely resembles the 1892 map offered here, though it lacks the indicator arms.

In an odd coincidence, at this very time I am able to offer an unrecorded map of Zion City, Illinois, a real-estate venture of John Alexander Dowie and his Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, which very publicly advocated Rowbotham’s theories.

Gleason’s 1885 flat Earth map is so rare that the only images I find are reproductions, such as this one on eBay. His second map of 1892 offered here is almost equally rare. I find no record of its having appeared on the antiquarian market and but three holdings in institutional collections. The internet is however awash in reproductions, everything from poster-sized enlargements to shower curtains and duvet covers, most or all derived from the original held by the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

In all, a great rarity of late-19th century pseudoscience, raising intriguing questions of authorship and intellectual antecedents.

As of November 2020, OCLC 792893248 and 1046459952 give three solid institutional holdings (Boston Public Library-Leventhal Map & Education Center, National Geographic Society and Yale). The entry for an example at the American Geographic Society Library in Milwaukee appears to be a modern reproduction. The map recently featured in Garrett Dash Nelson et al., Bending Lines: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception, an exhibition at the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library.

The circumstances of Joseph Steer Christopher’s life and connection to zetetic astronomy were assembled from a number of sources:

  • A timeline of Christopher’s life on Ancestry.com
  • Bob Schadewald, The Plane Truth, chap. 4 (“The Universal Zetetic Society”), published posthumously on line, 2015
  • “Gleason’s Map and Middleton’s Map”, a discussion thread on the web site of the Flat Earth Society, Sept. 1, 2015-May 16, 2017
  • The Exeter Flying Post or Trewman’s Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser for April 4, 1844 (the bankruptcy notice)
  • The Morning Post (London) for Oct. 22, 1845 (the railway scheme)
  • The Morning Chronicle (London) for March 8, 1850 (the Natal Company)