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´╗┐Title: The Mistake of Christopher Columbus
Author: Archer, Jules
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The Mistake of Christopher Columbus" ***

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                            By Jules Archer

             If someone told you the world was flat you'd
          laugh and call him a fool. But if he proved it--and
             you believed him--who'd have the last laugh?

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
                            September 1951
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The man who discovered that the world was flat, after all, was an
Australian hermit named Herbert Fitzgrone. He was a thoughtful man with
a glass eye and a metal plate in his head, both obtained during the
Boer War. In the bush shanty where he had lived for forty years, he
studied the riddle of the universe.

One day, shortly after he had turned sixty, he made his astonishing
discovery. He went to Sydney, and found his way to the office of the
editor of the _Sydney Sun_. He opened the door and went in. "The world,
sir," he said simply, "is flat."

Those historic words were the first inkling of the scientific storm
that was to burst without warning on a complacently globular world.
Unfortunately, the editor was not there to hear them. It was 11:00
A.M., Pacific time, and the Sydney pubs were open. Herbert Fitzgrone, a
patient man to whom years were as seconds, sat down in the empty office
to wait.

When the editor showed up at 4:35 P.M., he seemed a trifle confused.
He hung his hat on Fitzgrone's head, and sat down in the waste paper
basket. The man of science then stood erect and said it again. "The
world, sir, is flat."

"That so?" said the editor. "You know, I always had a secret hunch it
was." He was an amiable man, with four children and a glass fountain
pen that flashed a light in the top when he used it. At that moment he
wasn't quite sure whether Herbert Fitzgrone was alone or at the head of
a delegation.

"I expected you to scoff," Herbert Fitzgrone said, a shade of
disappointment in his tone. "After all, when Columbus and Magellan said
the world was round, everybody scoffed. I came here prepared to be
scoffed at."

"I don't like to scoff at anybody," the editor said. "I once scoffed at
a man in a pub, and he hit me in the eye."

"Well, if you won't," the scientist said, vexed, "you won't. Anyhow,
I want to show you my proof that the earth as a globe is a monstrous
impossibility. Look here." He spread out some sheets of paper on the
editor's desk.

"My," said the editor. "Impressive, all right. What is it?"

"Trigonometry. Do you understand it?"

"No, but I'm very fond of it. All those big numbers and everything.
Very impressive."

"Well, my calculations prove that the earth couldn't be a globe,
because two lines of latitude can't possibly be at the same level. Do
you realize what that means?"

"My God," said the editor in awe.

"Exactly! Suppose you had two ships in Sydney Harbor, one seven miles
north of the other. According to the globular theory, the northern ship
would also be four miles higher!"

The editor lurched in his swivel chair. "Stop the presses!" he yelled
into the phone, as he had seen editors do in American films. "And get
me the Hatson Line quickly!"

He waited for his connection. Then he said, "This is the editor of the
_Sun_. Listen and listen carefully. Hold all sailings until further
notice! I've just learned that the earth is flat! _Flat_, do you
understand? God help the ships at sea!"

He hung up, wan and shaken. Then he rushed for the door to get the
story on the presses. He was already through the door when he made the
odd discovery that it wasn't the door. It was the window, it was open,
and his office was on the ninth floor.

       *       *       *       *       *

Nothing more was heard of Herbert Fitzgrone after this tragedy.
Presumably frightened that he might be held responsible for the
editor's death, the scientist disappeared. Fortunately for posterity,
however, he neglected to pick up the calculations he had spread out on
the editor's desk.

They were discovered by a vice-president of the Hatson Line, who came
to the editor's office for further enlightenment. This gentleman made
a prolonged study of the papers--he was quick on the trig and a fast
man with a digit. He came to the terrifying conclusion that Christopher
Columbus had made a terrible mistake.

He immediately cabled the New York office, forwarding all figures
down to the last spherical triangle. The head of the New York office,
a patriotic man, promptly dispatched the whole thing to the State
Department in Washington, marked "Top Secret." Five minutes later Drew
Pearson predicted darkly that the whole world would shortly find itself
flat on its back.

The nation's top scientists were summoned to a secret and speedy
conclave at the White House. The President put it squarely up to the
scientists--was the world round, or wasn't it? And if it wasn't, what
effect would a flat world have on the nation's defenses? Was this a
boost for communism or democracy?

"Speak up, boys," he said. "I haven't got all day."

"Ridiculous, Mr. President," one scientist sneered. "If the world is
flat, how do you explain that when you approach a mountain or ship at
sea, you see first the summit or funnels?"

"What you see depends upon the weather," a young scientist insisted.
"If there are low clouds, you don't see the top first. Then again,
what you see first often depends on what you _want_ to see first! It's
conditioning. Have you ever made a conscious effort to see the bottoms

A little scientist with a high neck and a squint jumped up. "When a
partial eclipse of the moon takes place, the shadow of the earth on
the moon is a circle. Only a ball-shaped object can throw a circular
shadow, gentlemen!"

"Poppycock!" scoffed a scientist next to him. "So can a flat disk.
Furthermore, who is an authority here on what happens on the moon?
Moon-gazing is guesswork, gentlemen--sheer guesswork!"

A worried little bald man pleaded, "Why can't we reconcile these
hostile theories of apple-shape and saucer-shape into a compromise
concept which will satisfy everybody?"

"Exactly!" a ribald voice shouted. "Apple-saucer!"

"Mr. Einstein?" said the President hopefully.

The great man rose wistfully. "I am sorry, Mr. President," he said
meekly. "But it is all over my head."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Flash," said Walter Winchell on Sunday night. "Attention, Mr. and Mrs.
America and all the ships at sea. I, Walter Winchell, want to tell you,
whoever you are, that I, Walter Winchell, am the first as usual to
break the most sensational scoop of the century! I, Walter Winchell,
now tell you, whoever you are, that the world is no longer round, but
flat. Flat, ladies and gentlemen ... F-L-A-T. Geography marches on! And
the very first baby to be born into this new flat world...."

Hearst papers promptly informed their readers that: REDS SABOTAGE
GLOBE! The _New York Times_, with eminent fairness, editorialized:
"It would seem that there is a great deal of justification for the
new theory that the world is flat, while on the other hand, it seems
equally dubious that there is sufficient evidence for discarding the
globular theory which has had, we cannot afford to overlook, the
distinguished test of time."

Readers of the _Daily Worker_ turned for the facts, as usual, to the
_Herald Tribune_. The Communist Party suffered its usual crisis. One
group contended that accepting the new theory would split the unity
of the working class, diverting attention from the class struggle.
The other group bitterly maintained that to adhere to the discredited
globular theory would be a betrayal of Marx.

The latter lost. The result was a new splinter party called the True
Marxists, which called a world rally to form the new popular front,
the Flat World Workers Party. On the other side of the barricades, the
N.A.M. and American Legion denounced flat-worldism as an attack on the
very principles on which our great nation of free enterprise is founded.

Gabriel Heatter cried, "Ah, my friends, let's not be deceived! Let's
not be duped by this subtle attack on all that we hold dear, all that
we have learned in the little red schoolhouse, in cherished days gone

"This," Henry J. Taylor declared scathingly, "is the sort of thing we
might have expected in the worst days of the New Deal. What actually
lies behind this subversive campaign to convince Americans that the
world is actually flat? Just this. Certain interests want you to
believe that Columbus was wrong, that he made a mistake, when he
said the world was round. If you swallow this, then you must believe
his discovery of America was also a fantastic mistake. Is any decent
American willing to concede that the founding of our great nation was
nothing but a blunder?"

The Un-American Activities Committee immediately held hearings in
Washington. Witnesses on all sides of the question were summoned.
Among those who testified were Herbert Hoover, Gabriel Heatter, Henry
J. Taylor, Thomas Dewey, Robert Taft, John Foster Dulles, Henry Luce,
Gerald K. Smith, Representative Rankin, Louis Budenz, Whittaker
Chambers, Elizabeth Dilling and Westbrook Pegler, who revealed that
the whole thing was a plot by Mrs. Roosevelt. Henry Wallace was also
called, cited for contempt in the first five minutes, and thereafter
the proceedings went smoothly.

       *       *       *       *       *

The C.I.O. and the A.F. of L. held special conventions to consider
what stand labor should take on the issue. Since they felt it had
little bearing on wages, hours or the Taft-Hartley Act, they passed a
resolution to remain neutral. Or, as one delegate put it, to live in a
world without shape.

A wave of unrest swept over the country. Teachers went on record in
favor of a flat world, out of sheer boredom with trying to cram the
opposite concept into the thick skulls of small fry. Shipping companies
and airlines spent millions in paid advertising to fight the flat world
idea. They feared that business would fall off if people got scared
about doing the same.

Those who accepted the theory were stigmatized as "flatheads," and were
exhorted in black ad headlines: "DON'T BE A FLATHEAD!" This led to the
coining of the counter-epithet, "globephobe."

M.G.M. announced it would produce "The Flat Earth," made by the same
hands who turned out "The Good Earth." Warner Brothers promptly
purchased a vehicle called "One Globe" to star Humphrey Bogart as
Columbus, Lauren Bacall as Queen Isabella, and Paul Muni as the _Santa

The controversy spilled over into the United Nations. Russia, which
discovered that it looked more imposing on flat maps, demanded that
all globe maps be destroyed under a death penalty for non-compliance.
The United States, out of habit, opposed this idea. Despite
$3,567,219,483,128.50 rushed as a loan to Albania, Iceland and 72
other nations, the U.N. vote went with the Soviet. As one Albanian
grumbled, "They didn't send Chesterfields--just Wings."

Russia's victory had reverberations heard around the world ... or
rather, along the sides of the world. Old geographies were burned.
Globe maps were broken in half and used for ashtrays. The flat map won
the international distinction of being referred to as the Moscow map.
Globetrotters were laid off by the lecture bureaus in droves. Universal
Pictures had the plane in its trademark sky-write the company's name
around a terrestrial saucer.

The world could not exist half round, half flat, the President of the
United States told Congress sadly. And since the rest of the world was
flat, there was no help for it--America would have to flatten out, too.
Despite globephobe cries of "Shame!" the famous 22nd Amendment was
added to the Constitution:--

"The world shall, for all purposes of this Republic, be considered
as flat. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by
appropriate legislation. Any article or any amendment which may contain
any implication that the world is round is hereby nullified and

       *       *       *       *       *

Now that the world is once more flat, unified and serene, I do not
think that there can be any serious consequences if I reveal the
sequel to this historic development. It came about when the editor
of a national magazine, at his wit's end for a strong piece to follow
his usual lead article of "Is Sex Here To Stay" or "How Sexy Are You
Sexually?", hit upon the notion of sending me to Australia to find the
man who had discovered the earth was flat.

It took me months of searching through the outback to locate Herbert
Fitzgrone. He was still living in his bush shanty, and had just turned
eighty when I found him. I had great difficulty in persuading him to
tell me the whole story, as he was totally absorbed in a new scientific
study. He was on the verge, he told me jubilantly, of proving that
there is no such thing as gravity, and that Newton was an ass.

When I persisted in knowing more about his original research that had
exploded the globular theory, he smiled dryly.

"Oh, _that_! Well, you probably know that I left all my calculations
behind in that editor's office. When I came back here, I decided to
work out a duplicate set. Well, sir, do you know what I discovered?
That old Columbus had been right all along! I'd put the decimal point
for the algebraic equation of one plane triangle in the wrong place."

"But that's impossible!" I burst out in horror. "Why, the whole world
is flat now as a result of your calculations!"

"You don't say," Herbert Fitzgrone chuckled. "Well, now!"

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The Mistake of Christopher Columbus" ***

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