The Bedford Level experiment

In 1838, an eccentric British inventor named Samuel Birley Rowbotham attempted to demonstrate that the Earth is flat, using a long stretch of water known as the Bedford Level. Rowbotham’s views were based on the Hebrew cosmology of the Old Testament, which depicts a three-tiered cosmos with the heavens above, the earth in the middle, and the underworld below.

In support of his Flat Earth model, Rowbotham recruited the Bedford Level, a 9.7 km (6 mile) section of the Old Bedford River. The latter is an artificial river formed by a partial diversion of the River Great Ouse in the Fens, Cambridgeshire, intended to reduce flooding of the fenlands. It is named after Francis Russell, Fourth Earl of Bedford, who began the project in 1630 although it was not completed in his lifetime. The Bedford Level is an uninterrupted stretch which runs in a straight line to the north-east of the village of Welney.

Rowbotham’s idea was to set up a telescope 20 cm (8 inches) above the surface of the water at one end of the Bedford Level and use this to watch while a boat was rowed towards Welney Bridge at the other end, six miles away. The boat had a flag on three-foot (0.91 m) mast. If the Earth really was curved, the top of the mast would disappear long before the boat reached Welney Bridge. Rowbotham relied on an approximation used by surveyors: the drop expressed in inches is 8 times the square of the distance in miles. After one mile the drop is eight inches; after two it is 32 inches; and after three it is 72 inches or six feet.

This approximation holds good for the distances involved, but it fails to take account of the height above the ground of the observer. A more accurate calculation shows that the portion of the boat hidden from Rowbotham’s view would be zero after a mile, 8 inches (0.2 m) after two miles, and 2 ft 8 inches (0.81 m) after three miles. Nevertheless, only the top of the mast would be visible at three miles, and long before it reached Welney Bridge the whole of the boat would have disappeared. Instead, it remained completely visible throughout its journey, which Rowbotham took as proof that the Earth is flat.

Based on his observations, Rowbotham published a pamphlet entitled Zetetic Astronomy, which he expanded into the book Earth Not a Globe in 1865. He suggested that the Earth is a flat disc with its centre at the North Pole, and that it is surrounded by a wall of ice. The Sun and Moon were located 3,000 miles (4,800 km) above Earth, and the stars and planets were a further 100 miles (160 km) away.

But Rowbotham had made an elementary mistake. He had failed to realise that the effects atmospheric refraction close to the water can cancel out the effect of curvature, making the Earth’s surface appear flat or even concave. The same effect can make the Sun appear above the horizon shortly before it actually rises, or after it has set. The phenomenon was well known in Rowbotham’s day, and it was routinely allowed for by sailors navigating at sea, and by surveyors.

Rowbotham’s views understandably attracted very little attention until 1870, when a supporter by the name of John Hampden (unrelated to the Civil War-era politician) wagered £500 that that nobody could repeat the experiment and show that the Earth was other than flat. The challenge was taken up by none other than Alfred Russel Wallace, co-proposer of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace’s day job was a surveyor, and he would have known how to avoid the pitfalls that had affected the original experiment albeit he was apparently unaware of Rowbotham’s efforts. £500 was a considerable sum of money at the time (over £50,000 at today’s rates) and Wallace doubtless saw it as an opportunity to make some easy money. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps he shouldn’t have.

Wallace noted that the parapet of Welney Bridge was 4 m (13 ft. 3 in.) above the water but that the Old Bedford Bridge, at the other end of the Bedford Level, was somewhat higher. To this bridge he affixed a calico sheet with a black stripe, which he positioned so that the lower edge of the stripe was also 4 m (13 ft. 3 in.) above the water. The centre of the stripe would be as high as the line of site as a telescope he set up Welney Bridge. Midway between the two bridges he set up a long pole with two red discs attached, the upper one having its centre the same height above the water as the centre of the black band and of the telescope, while the lower disc was four feet below it. The telescope, upper disc, and black band were thus all the same height above the water; the greater height than that of the earlier experiment would reduce the effects of atmospheric refraction. If the Earth was flat, the upper disc as viewed through the telescope would appear level with the black band. If on the other hand the Earth was round the upper disk would appear above the black band.

To ensure fair play, John Henry Walsh, editor of The Field magazine, was appointed as an independent referee. Walsh was a good choice, as he was not personally acquainted with either Hampden or Wallace. He also had prior experience deciding wagers. But shortly after funds were lodged with Walsh to guarantee the wager, Hampden demanded a referee of his own. Wallace was agreeable, but Hampden chose fellow flat earth enthusiast William Carpenter. Furthermore, Walsh was unable to remain at the Bedford Level for the whole duration of the experiments and a surgeon named Martin Wales Bedell Coulcher stood in for him as Wallace’s referee.

As might be expected, the experiments showed the upper disk apparently raised above the Old Bedford Bridge marker. Coulcher sketched the view through the telescope, and Carpenter signed it to affirm that this was what both men had seen.

Then things started to go awry. Carpenter declared that the result did not prove that the Earth was round because the telescope had not been levelled and did not have cross-hairs. Wallace obtained a spirit level and a smaller telescope equipped with cross-hairs, and then performed the experiment again. The outcome, of course, was exactly the same as before. Both referees then sketched what was seen in the second telescope, and Coulcher signed the sketches. But now Carpenter refused to accept the result because the distant marker appeared below the middle one as far as the middle one did below the cross-hair, which he claimed proved that the three were in a straight line, and that consequently the earth was flat.

Hampden eventually agreed to allow Walsh to review the results and make a decision. Both sides submitted reports, and after considering these Walsh ruled in Wallace’s favour and published the reports and his conclusions in The Field. Ignoring Hampden’s protests, he awarded the £500 wager to Wallace.

At this point, things got decidedly ugly. Hampden went to court to get his money back and won because at this stage it was still in the hands of Walsh and had not yet been paid to Wallace. He published a pamphlet alleging that Wallace had cheated and not content with that, he wrote Wallace’s wife Annie threatening to kill her husband. The death threats landed Hampden in jail for three months. Early in 1871, Wallace sued for defamation and was awarded £600. But Hampden transferred all his assets to his son-in-law and claimed he could not pay. Wallace was left having to pay the court costs. The row continued for another twenty years, during which Hampden was twice imprisoned for defamation. It was only brought to and end by Hampden’s death in 1891.

The whole affair left Wallace significantly out of pocket. He had not been a wealthy man before the wager not least of all because his financial acumen fell rather short of his abilities as a scientist. As a result, he struggled financially until 1881, when he was awarded a £200 p.a. pension thanks to the lobbying of Charles Darwin. Wallace was also criticised for becoming involved with a wager to ‘decide’ an issue which had long been an established scientific fact. All in all, it was a thoroughly unpleasant episode in the life of one of the greatest scientists and thinkers of the nineteenth century.

In 1901, Henry Yule Oldham, a lecturer in geography at King’s College, Cambridge, repeated the Bedford Level experiment using three poles fixed at equal height above the water level, which he viewed with a theodolite and a plate camera. Oldham’s version of the Bedford Level experiment was regarded as definitive because of the photographic evidence. He presented his results in a lecture at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and they were taught in schools for many years until the first photographs taken from space became available in the late 1940s.

As is often the way with what the late Sir Patrick Moore once described as ‘independent thinkers’, the Flat Earthers were not about to give up. In 1904 Lady Elizabeth Anne Blount hired photographer Edgar Clifton to use a camera equipped with telephoto lens to take a picture from Welney Bridge of a large white sheet touching the surface of river six miles (9.7 km) away, at the position Rowbotham had conducted his original experiment. The camera was mounted two feet above the water, and Clifton was able to obtain a picture of the target, which should have not have been visible. The experiment, of course, suffered from the same vulnerability to atmospheric refraction as had the original. Needless to say, this did not stop Lady Blount from publishing the pictures far and wide.

To this day, Flat Earth enthusiasts continue to champion the Bedford Level experiments as having proved that the Earth is flat. A search on Youtube will reveal an attempt in 2016 to recreate the Rowbotham’s original experiment using a laser pointer mounted on the rear deck of a kayak. Problems faced by the researchers included the discovery that the kayak deck sloped upwards and ‘best judgment’ had to be applied to place the laser ‘as level as possible’. The video has received 1,600 ‘likes’ against 805 ‘dislikes’, but many of the 2,404 comments posted are unfavourable.

It would be a worthwhile project – possibly for a science ‘outreach’ group – to repeat the Bedford Level experiment with modern equipment. In the meantime, anybody who seriously believes that the Earth is flat is urged to take a look at this spectacular video of the Turning Torso building in Malmo, viewed from successively greater distances on the Danish side of the Øresund strait between Denmark and Sweden.

Eratosthenes’s experiment

“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round”

George and Ira Gershwin were responsible for some of the most memorable songs of the last century, but this particular line highlights a common misconception. In 1492, when Columbus’ small fleet sailed from Palos de la Frontera in Spain, it had been the best part of two millennia since any serious scholar had believed that the world was flat.

The ancient Greeks were not only aware that the Earth was spherical, but around 240 BC they made an estimate of the circumference and obtained a surprisingly accurate result. Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276 – 194 BC) was a Greek polymath who held the post of Chief Librarian at the Library of Alexandria. He had heard that in Syrene (now Aswan), the noontime Sun on the day of the summer solstice lit up a well, casting no shadow on the side and implying that it was directly overhead. At Alexandria, however, the Sun did not quite reach the zenith and therefore did cast a shadow. By measuring the length of the shadow cast by a vertical rod of known height, the angular distance of the Sun from the zenith in Alexandria at noon could be determined. Of course, Eratosthenes couldn’t simply look at his watch to see when it was noon, so he would have relied on the shadow being at its minimum length at noon.

Eratosthenes found that the angular distance was a fiftieth of a whole circle (i.e. 50/360 = 7.2 degrees) and that the distance from Alexandria to Syrene was therefore a fiftieth of the circumference of the Earth. He then used a value of 5,000 stadia for the distance between the two cities (clearly a rough estimate) to obtain a value of 250,000 stadia for the Earth’s circumference.

Unfortunately, we don’t know the exact value of the stadion Eratosthenes used. The stadion (from which we get the word ‘stadium’) was defined as 600 Greek feet, but different values of the foot were used in different parts of the Greek world and Eratosthenes’ stadion is thought to have been anywhere between 150 and 158 meters (492 and 519 feet), making the distance from Alexandria to Aswan 750 -790 km (466 – 490 miles). We thus obtain a value of 37,500 – 39,500 km (23,300 – 24,500 miles) for the Earth’s circumference, which is very close to the accepted value of 40,075 km (24,901 miles). The actual distance from Alexandria to Aswan is 843 km (524 miles), giving a value of 42,150 km (26,200 miles).

Eratosthenes made the following assumptions: firstly, the Sun is so distant that rays of light reaching Alexandria and Syrene are effectively parallel; secondly that Syrene is located on the Tropic of Cancer (the latitude where the Sun is directly overhead on the summer solstice); and thirdly that Alexandria lies on the same meridian as Syrene.

Eratosthenes’ first assumption was correct, but the other two were not entirely accurate. The Tropic of Cancer is currently located at latitude 23°26′12.7″ N, but in Eratosthenes’ day, it was lay at approximately latitude 23°43′ N. Syrene lies at 24°05′ N 32°54 E, 22 minutes of an arc north of the Tropic of Cancer as it then was; and three degrees further east than Alexandria, which lies at 31°12′ N 29°55′ E.

Essentially, Eratosthenes’s experiment entailed simultaneous measurements the sun’s altitude at two separate locations on the same meridian. The experiment was simplified by choosing the solstitial sun at noon, and a second location that he either believed or approximated to be due south and at the latitude of the Tropic of Cancer. Had both been the case, he would have obtained an answer of 41,600 km (25,850 miles) based on a second location 7°29′ due south of Alexandria. Today we could easily replicate the experiment with two observers equipped with clinometers at John O’ Groats and Weston Super Mare, which are very close to sharing a common meridian and are 810 km (503 miles) apart. The experiment demonstrates how fundamental data can sometimes be obtained from a subtle but easy to measure phenomenon.

Villa Park, Birmingham

Aston Villa, in common with local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion, have been starved of success in recent years. Prior to 2016, however, the club could at least claim to have spent only one season out of the top flight since the mid-1970s. But a play-off defeat by Fulham means that Villa fans including HRH Prince William, Nigel Kennedy, and Tom Hanks  must now endure a third season of Championship football following relegation from the Premier League in 2016.

Poor though the team might currently be, the same cannot be said of Villa Park, which has throughout its existence been one of the most imposing stadia in the country. The current iteration of the stadium began in 1976-77 with the construction of the North Stand to replace the old Witton End Stand.


The stand is one of the first examples of the so-called ‘goalpost’ construction technique and is a fairly typical example of the Brutalist architectural style popular at that time.


Next to be redeveloped was the Witton Street Stand between 1993 and 1994. This time a more conventional cantilever design was chosen. The stand was later renamed for then-chairman Doug Ellis, a move that was not universally popular with supporters.

Shortly afterwards, the Holte End – originally a terrace holding 20,000 – was redeveloped as a two-tier stand. Its exterior was given a redbrick frontage based heavily on the then still existent 1920s Leitch-designed Trinity Road Stand.



The car park is entered via these fine iron gates, guarded by a pair of lions.


The final phase of the masterplan was carried out in 2000 with the rebuilding of the Trinity Road Stand, to give the ground a capacity of 42,500.



Aerial view of Villa Park.

AV08 Peter Schaad on Pinterest

(Photo credit: Peter Schaad)

Sports historian and Villa fan Simon Inglis once noted that a building is never finished, only started. This may well be true of Villa Park with plans to rebuild the North Stand and eventually to increase the capacity to 60,000.

The Hawthorns, West Bromwich

West Bromwich Albion, like their Black Country rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers, have in recent years struggled to maintain a presence in the top flight. An eight year stint in the Premier League ended in May this year with relegation to the Championship. To make matters worse for Baggies fans, Wolves were promoted back to the Premier League.

The Hawthorns, West Brom’s home since the end of the nineteenth century, is 168 m (551 ft) above sea level, making it the highest ground among all 92 Premier League and Football League clubs. It can easily be seen from the Rotunda in the centre of Birmingham 9 km (5.6 miles) away.


The ground has been entirely reconstructed since the 1970s, but beyond the refurbishment of the 1980s-built West Stand in 2008, there has been no major work since the East Stand was constructed in 2001. There were plans to replace the West Stand, but to date these have not materialised. The ground capacity is a fairly modest 26,500.

The Jeff Astle Gates commemorate striker Jeff Astle, who scored 174 goals in 361 appearances for West Brom between 1964 and 1974. Sadly, he died in 2002 aged 59 from degenerative brain disease brought on by repeatedly heading old-fashioned leather footballs, which were far heavier than the plastic balls now used, especially when wet.


This statue commemorates another West Brom legend, Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown, who scored 218 goals in 574 appearances between 1963 and 1980.


Finally, this blue plaque commemorates West Brom’s founder membership of the Football League.


Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton

Anybody old enough to have attended matches at Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Molineux Stadium in or before the 1970s, or at least have seen Wolves on Match of the Day then, will be familiar with what was one of the most eccentric-looking stadia in the top flight.



(photo credits: unknown)

Molineux Stadium is named for the former Molineux Grounds pleasure park, on which it was built. The park in turn was named for the 18th century businessman Benjamin Molineux, who built a mansion there. The mansion was later converted to a hotel and is now a Grade II* listed building.

The gabled Molineux Street stand owes its trapezoidal shape to the constraints of the site. Designed by Archibald Leitch, the stand was opened in 1932 and closely resembled Leitch’s East Stand at Highbury built almost two decades earlier. Proceeding clockwise, the other stands are: South Bank, Waterloo Road stand, and North Bank.

The present-day counterparts of these stands are, respectively, the Steve Bull Stand (formerly the John Ireland Stand), the Sir Jack Hayward Stand (formerly the Jack Harris Stand), the Billy Wright Stand, and the Stan Cullis Stand.

The ground might have looked very different if Wolves had been able to proceed with an ambitious masterplan unveiled in 1958, when they were one of the country’s leading sides under the management of former player Stan Cullis.


(photo credit: unknown)

But the plans were rejected by the local authorities and the football club went into a decline, culminating in Cullis’ dismissal and relegation just six years later. Wolves underwent a renaissance in the 1970s, and a second masterplan was commenced in 1979 beginning with the replacement of the Molineux Road stand. Unfortunately, it all but bankrupted the club. In four disastrous years between 1982 and 1986, Wolves plummeted from the First Division to the Fourth (equivalent to falling from the Premier League to League Two in successive seasons).

Wolves were eventually rescued by the late Sir Jack Hayward, who took over in 1990 and oversaw the completion of the 1979 master plan. By 1993, the stadium had been completely revamped, but a return to the top flight eluded the club until 2003. Since then, Wolves have been something of a yo-yo side, and they even dropped into the third tier for a season in 2013-14. However, ambitious new owners took over in 2016 and Wolves returned to the Premier League for the 2018-19 season.

The attention to detail is obvious, and Molineux is very different to the characterless ‘Legoland’ design of so many modern football stadia.


An aerial view of the transformed stadium.
(photo credit: Express & Star)

The development of Molineux looks set to continue. The Hayward masterplan left the stadium with a capacity of 28,000, which was adequate at the start of the all-seater era when few stadia exceeded 35,000. But even the present capacity of 32,000 is small by today’s standards for a Premier League club, and there are plans to increase the capacity to 50,000.

Match of the Day 1902 style

In 1987, Lancastrian businessmen Sagar Mitchell and and James Kenyon founded one of the world’s first film production companies in Blackburn, Lancs. Mitchell and his father had been in the photographic business for a decade; Kenyon ran a furniture and cabinet making business. They traded under the name Norden, and their advertising slogans were “Local Films For Local People” and “We take them and make them”. These documentary films were either produced for local businesses or on Mitchell and Kenyon’s own initiative. In both cases, the films would be viewed locally. The first reported showing of a Mitchell & Kenyon production was a film of Blackburn Market, which was shown at 40 Northgate, Blackburn, on 27 November 1897.

More than sixty years before Match of the Day first aired, Mitchell and Kenyon began taking their cameras to football matches.

Newcastle United 1 Liverpool 0, 23 November 1901, at St James’ Park.

18,000 fans were at St James’ Park to see the Magpies defeat reigning League Champions Liverpool with a 65th minute goal from Scottish international Bob McCobb. The film features the only known pictures of the ground’s original West Stand, which was demolished in 1905 to make way for a far more modern structure.

Sheffield United 1 Bury 0, 6 September 1902 at Bramall Lane.

This was a high-profile match between what were at the time two of the country’s leading sides. The Blades won one League Championship and four FA Cups between 1897 and 1925, and the Shakers won the FA Cup in 1900 and 1903. But the glory days didn’t last and neither side has won a trophy since this halcyon period.

The quality of the picture is astonishingly good. We get a brief view of the home side’s impressive, newly-opened John Street Stand, the first in England to be designed by the renowned football stadium architect Archibald Leitch. The movie also features Sheffield United’s legendary goalkeeper William Foulke, who also played cricket for Derbyshire County Cricket Club. Foulke was a large man, unkindly known as Fatty Foulke. He measured 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m) and his weight is said to have reached 152 kg (336 lb) at the end of his career. Also featuring for the Blades that day was Herbert Chapman, the future Huddersfield Town and Arsenal manager.

Everton 3 Liverpool 1, 27 September 1902 at Goodison Park.

This is the earliest moving footage of a Merseyside derby, which then as now was a major event. Forty thousand fans packed into Goodison Park to see the Toffees record a 3-1 win over their great rivals. Unfortunately, the picture quality is poor, but details of what was one of the world’s first super-stadia can just about be made out.

Burnley 0 Manchester United 2, 6 December 1902 at Turf Moor.

This match was due to shown that evening at the Burnley Mechanics’ Institute, but the showing was cancelled after the home side’s defeat. Manchester United had just adopted the name by which they would go on to become world famous, having previously been known as Newton Heath. But this match – the first moving picture to feature Man. Utd – was far from a high-profile affair. Both sides were playing in the Second Division (now the Championship), and Man. Utd not only failed to finish higher than fifth; they also had to endure Man. City topping the division and gaining promotion. They nevertheless did considerably better than Burnley, who finished rock bottom.

The quality of the pictures from the Sheffield United vs Bury match compare very favourably with those appearing on TV screens almost seven decades later.

Swindon Town 3 Arsenal 1, Football League Cup Final, 15 March 1969, at Wembley.

Arsenal’s predilection for losing to unfancied opposition was nothing new even in the 1960s. Trailing 1-nil to Third Division Swindon Town, Arsenal were seemingly rescued by a goal from striker Bobby Gould which took the match to extra time. Gould bizarrely marked the goal by bursting into tears. He should perhaps have waited until after the match as the Gunners were undone in extra time by two goals from Swindon winger Don Rogers.

The quality of the picture is almost as poor as that of the pitch, which had been badly cut up by staging the Horse of the Year show at Wembley a week before the match. Videotape technology had apparently yet to catch up with the cine film technology from the turn of the century.

Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1, FA Cup Final, 8 May 1971, at Wembley.

Arsenal, videotape technology, and the Wembley pitch had all markedly improved just two years later, as the Gunners came from behind to beat Liverpool in extra time and complete the League and FA Cup Double. Matches were now being shown in colour, although regular live football on TV was still some years off.

Mitchell and Kenyon continued to make documentary films, but by 1907 public interest was beginning to wane as movie companies shifted their emphasis to fictional productions. The last-known Mitchell and Kenyon production dates to 1913. After Kenyon’s death in 1925, Mitchell stored the films in the basement of his photographic shop, which he now ran with his son John. Mitchell died in 1952, and John continued to run the business until his retirement in 1960

The films were forgotten until 1994, when they were found during renovation work at what was by now a toy shop. They are now preserved at the British Film Institute’s National Film and Television Archive at Berkhamsted, Herts, and in 2005 they were the subject of a three-part BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon presented by historian Dan Cruickshank.

Dulwich Hamlet vs Wealdstone

It seems like a long time ago, but until the 1990s if you wanted to see a top football match you could simply turn up a few minutes before kickoff and pay at the turnstiles. This was the case even for top games such as Arsenal vs Liverpool. The game would kick off at three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, not at some far less convenient time chosen by the TV companies. If the game wasn’t featured on Match of the Day or ITV’s Big Match, the only way to see it was to be there in person. Furthermore, it was no more expensive than going to see a movie.

But those days aren’t entirely gone.  On 8 September, more than 1,100 fans saw Dulwich Hamlet play out an entertaining 1-all draw against high-flying Wealdstone at Dulwich’s home from home, Tooting & Mitcham United’s Imperial Fields stadium.

Newly-promoted to the National League South, Dulwich had been finding life tough at the higher level, and had lost their last three home games. The most recent defeat, a poor performance against Hampton & Richmond Borough, had prompted manager Gavin Rose to make wholesale changes to the team.

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The most vociferous Dulwich fans, known as the Rabble, take up position behind the goal the home side will be attacking in the first half.

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At this point, the Wealdstone end is only modestly populated, but with a only a few minutes before kickoff many ‘Stones fans are still queuing outside the ground.

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The teams shake hands before kickoff.

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The visitors have the best of the first half, and lead by a penalty. Half time sees not only the teams but also the fans change ends. Wealdstone have brought around 200 fans, and they are in good voice.

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But the Rabble are also in good voice, urging the Hamlet to stage a second half comeback.

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The second half gets underway.

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A much better second half performance ensues from Dulwich, but Wealdstone hold on as the clock runs down. It is beginning to look like another afternoon of frustration at Imperial Fields.

Then, on 80 minutes, Anthony Cook levels for the home side with this superb strike – his first goal for the club.

There are further chances at both ends, but no more goals and the match ends all square.

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The two teams leave the field. Both sets of fans are happy with the result, which has seen the Hamlet end a run of three successive home defeats.

All this for twelve quid, or if you are over sixty like me – a fiver. What not to like!