Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The unwinnable wager

In the same volume of the magazine Scientific Opinion that describes the operation to move an entire hotel, there's a small article noting that someone has placed a wager of up to £500 that no one can prove that the world is round.

The following choice piece of scientific nonsense has just been sent to us by its author, Mr J. Hampden, of Swindon:- "What is to be said of the pretended philosophy of the nineteenth century when not one educated man in ten thousand knows the shape of the earth on which he dwells? Why, that it must be a huge sham! The undersigned is willing to deposit from £50 to £500 on reciprocal terms, and defies all the philosophers, divines, and scientific professors in the United Kingdom to prove the rotundity and revolution of the world from Scripture, from reason, or from fact."

Noted scientist Alfred Russel Wallace decided to take up this seemingly easy challenge, since he was somewhat low on money at the time. Thus it was that, in the issue dated Wednesday April 27th 1870, Scientific Opinion carried an article entitled "The convexity of water painfully demonstrated." This article explained that, using a stretch of Bedford Canal, two telescopes set up at either end saw each other below the middle of the lens, as would be expected if the length of water was curved. The illustration below (taken from the English Mechanic and Mirror of Science magazine for May 13th 1870) shows the set-up that was used. The curvature of the Earth was demonstrated and the wager awarded to Mr Wallace.

However, this was not the end of matters since Mr Hampden quickly published a leaflet accusing Mr Wallace, the judge of the contest Mr Walsh, and the entire scientific community of dishonesty. A letter-writer in the English Mechanic describes it:

"Knaves and liars," and so forth, are abundantly scattered; "the cowardice of the scientific world equal to its knavery;" "shift, dodgy," &c., one meets every other line, and all this from a man whose sense of truth is so weak, or his knowledge so profoundly little, that he has the assurance to say, "they have never made a single experiment, the truth of which can be incontestably proved, and they stick to their insane theory because it is ingenious."

Alfred Russel Wallace took John Hampden to court for libel and the London Daily News for Friday 28th July 1871 carries a story describing how he'd won £600 in damages at the Secondaries' Court, Guildhall.

But this wasn't the end of the matter. John Hampden continued to write libellous material concerning Mr Wallace in a series of postcards that lead to he and Wallace meeting regularly in court. The London Daily News of 18th Dec 1872 describes how John Hampden had, days after the court appearance of the last session, sent a letter to Wallace's lawyers saying that although he had apologised, he retained certain legal rights and he repeated "observations of a libellous character". This lead to court again where the judge ordered a fresh apology to be placed in newspapers once a week until the next session otherwise he would "put the law in force."

Then, in 1873, Hampden was given a two-month custodial sentence, and then again in 1875 appeared before the courts, was committed for trail that March but he could not (or would not) make bail, and so was placed in custody.

At the trail in March 1875 he was jailed for twelve months after writing more postcards (this time he sent one to the Encyclopedia Britannica, claiming that they were damaging their reputation by admitting articles from a convicted thief). For this court appearance he defended himself and his defence was that the libellous statements were true. The newspaper notes that, if unsuccessful, this defence can be considered an aggravation of the original crime.

The last trace I can find of this lengthy episode is from 1876, which states that John Hampden had been released from jail early, "the remaining portion of his sentence having been remitted by the Home Secretary, with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice." After this, I can find no sign of any court appearance relating to the two of them although in his autobiography, Alfred Russel Wallace writes that the libels continued, except that he no longer paid them any mind. Wallace writes:

The last of his efforts which I have preserved is an eight-page tract, which he distributed at the Royal Geographical Society's Exhibition of Geographical Appliances, in December, 1885, in which he attacks all geographical teaching in his usual style, and declares that " at the present moment they are cowering beneath the inquiring gaze of one single truth-seeker, John Hampden, the well-known champion of the Mosaic cosmogony, as against the infidel theories and superstitions of the pagan mystics, who is, at the end of fifteen years' conflict, still holding his ground against all the professional authorities of England and America ; and the single fact that during the whole of that time, no one but a degraded swindler has dared to make a fraudulent attempt to support the globular theory, is ample and overwhelming proofs of the worthless character of modern elementary geography."

It's certainly a fascinating, if dispiriting, tale to watch. Hampden's utter conviction in his own intelligence was not affected one iota by science nor the courts.

Scientific Opinion, Volume 3, p82, article dated 12th January 1870
"The Convexity of Water Painfully Demonstrated", Scientific Opinion, Volume 3, p377, article dated 27th April 1870
"The Earth's Form", English Mechanics and the World of Science, Volume 11, p 182, article dated May 12th 1870
London Daily News, 28th July 1871
London Daily News, 18th December 1872
Pall Mall Gazette, 17th December 1873
Bristol Mercury, 13th February 1875
"The rotundity of the Earth", Essex Standard, 12th March 1875
"The Shape of the Earth", Leeds Mercury, 27th Jan 1876

"My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions", Alfred Russel Wallace,  Chapman and Hall Ltd, 1905

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