A brief history of globes

Written evidence suggests that people have used globes to model the world around them since antiquity; Strabo (63/64BCE-24CE) reported that Crates of Mallos had a globe of the equivalent of 10 feet in diameter. Globes are delicate, though, and the surviving evidence for early globe use is sparse. The earliest globe that survives today was made in 1492 by Martin Behaim, a German navigator and geographer in the employ of King João II of Portugal. Behaim's globe recorded not only the lie of the lands being discovered by seabourne explorers, but also details of overseas commodities, market places and local trading protocols. Thus, the earliest surviving globe, which probably reflects many others produced around the same time, features information on more than cartography.

The 16th century

English globe by Joseph Moxon
Image 1 The English Globe by Joseph Moxon, 1679. The globe's sphere was stationary above a planisphere drawn up for the latitude of London. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.1466).

Globes retained appeal to a wide range of audiences into the 16th century. Gemma Frisius, a Dutch cartographer, mathematician and instrument maker who worked at Louvain, wrote in his Principiis de astronomiae et cosmographiae (1530) that:

[T]he mounted globe ... is the only one of all instruments whose frequent usage delights astronomers, leads geographers, confirms historians, enriches and improves legists [les legists], is admired by grammarians, guides pilots, in short, aside from its beauty, its form is indescribably useful and necessary for everyone.

Frisius' account of globes as beautiful as well as useful is significant - globes have tended to attract attention as art objects, as well as for their depiction of geographically, politically and economically important lands. Globes were often exchanged as gifts among important rulers, since they signified command of the world, but were also suitably stately for presentation to powerful figures.

The variety of uses to which globes could be turned is illustrated by the case of a globe made by Gerard Mercator, a Flemish cartographer who trained under Frisius. Mercator included rhumb lines on his globe of 1541, which meant that the globe could have been of some use in navigational instruction. However, Mercator made the globe for Nicolas Perrenot de Granvelle, an important figure in the privy council of Emperor Charles V. De Granvelle would have been attracted by the possibility of possessing the world symbolically by possessing the globe, and the courtly setting suggests that the beauty and grandeur of the globe would have been as important as its utility.

There are no 16th-century globes in the Whipple collection, but the objects presented here serve to demonstrate the variety of meanings that globes have attracted.

The 17th century

Globes retained their decorative function in the 17th century, and some innovative designs were produced that promoted the gentlemanly use of globes as accessories or furniture items. Pocket globes were first produced in England by Joseph Moxon XR  (1627-1691) in 1673, and gentlemen might well have used these miniature instruments as status symbols. Moxon also collaborated with Roger Palmer XR  to make the 'English Globe' in 1679 (Image 1), which was best used in the garden. Indeed, the fact that the 'English globe' could not be rotated on its stand meant that it could only be used for latitudes matching that of the south of England and would have been useless on sea voyages. Pocket globes and instruments such as the 'English globe' meant that makers could promote globes among new audiences.

» Read more about pocket globes

» Read more about the "English globe"

While makers innovated some designs to attract new users, they kept abreast of cartographic developments and continued to produce globes that recorded the most recent discoveries. Robert Morden, who collaborated with William Berry and Philip Lea to produce a globe sometime between 1683 and 1690, declared in his Geography rectified, or, A description of the world (1693) that:

[I]t is a boldness justifiable by truth, to affirm that all former Geographies diligently compared with the more accurate Observations and Discoveries of late years are greatly defective, and strangely erroneous.

While Morden was not advocating the use of the globe in practical navigation, he certainly felt that accuracy was important. If a globe recorded the latest discoveries in the way that Morden described, possession of the globe would indicate the owner's awareness of the most cutting edge geographical findings.

» Read more about the globe made by Robert Morden

The 18th century

The 18th century is sometimes seen as a second 'age of exploration', following the initial voyages of discovery in the late 15th and 16th centuries. When four Royal Navy ships were wrecked off the Scilly Isles in 1707 on account of navigational errors, the British Government established the Commissioners for the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea (also known as the Board of Longitude), which offered large monetary prizes to anyone who could devise a method for accurately finding longitude G . This motivated a more practical approach to sailing in the 18th century.

Globes sat awkwardly among air pumps and microscopes, the established apparatus of the rationalists. Many judged that globes could only be used to record, but not to make, discoveries. For example, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), a Fellow of the Royal Society, felt that globes were only explanatory devices, which "like books, have no uses more extensive than the view of human ingenuity".

In spite of the cynicism that some felt towards globes, they proved useful for recording the new discoveries made in the 18th century, including many of the Pacific islands and New Caledonia. Existing territories were also updated in line with continuing exploratory ventures. For instance, California, which had been depicted as an island since the early 17th century, was mapped as a peninsula with increasing frequency throughout the 18th century.

The 19th century

Image 2 Bett's New Portable Globe. Betts fitted his globe with mechanisms like those in umbrellas so that the device could be collapsed for easy carriage. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.0438). View large image

Globes had traditionally had some role in the training of navigators and astronomers and the use of the instruments in education underwent a major expansion in the 19th century. Strategies to bring the globe into the world of the child included making smaller versions and using the objects as part of a game.

Pocket globes could have provided small, if not accurate, representations of larger globes at relatively low cost, so that children could learn about the various rings on globes, or about the approximate arrangement of the continents. Many globes designed for children's education were comstructed from various pieces in the style of 3-D jigsaw puzzles. Other globe makers concentrated on trying to make their globes as portable as possible, so that the objects could be carried from classroom to classroom or between the homes of different pupils in the case of travelling tutors. John Betts' XR  umbrella globe (Image 2) provided one way to do this.

» Read more about pocket globes

» Read about a jigsaw puzzle globe

Beyond the specific area of globes, the 19th century saw the development of many technologies that we take for granted today. Among these innovations were electric lighting for streets and for the home, and the telegraph cable. Now that light could be reliably provided throughout the day and night, and locations across the seas reached without arduous travel, many of the lessons that globes had been designed to teach became redundant.

For instance, it became less important that students could work out how many hours of daylight there would be at a given latitude on a particular day of the year. Globe design reflected this change in function, as the horizon ring G  fell from common use towards the end of the century. Prior to this, from around the middle of the century, many makers abandoned the use of constellation figures on celestial globes in an attempt to appeal to the self-consciously scientific spirit of the age.

The 20th century

Technological advances in the 20th century acted on globes in a variety of ways. On one hand, the development of radio based navigation techniques in the 1940s and 1950s meant that globes were no longer used for navigation. As electric lighting had made the demonstration of solar phenomena that terrestrial globes offered less compelling, so radio navigation brought an end to the widespread use of celestial globes to show man's position relative to the sphere of fixed stars.

» Read about an early 20th-century globe used for navigating at sea

New technologies also affected perceptions of globes positively, though. When satellite pictures showing the earth's coastlines became available in the 1960s, the view that had been constructed by compiling evidence accumulated over centuries of exploration was visually confirmed for the first time. The move towards large-scale production of globes in the 20th century, for instance by the Replogle company, also meant that the public were more exposed than ever to the instruments that had been the preserve of princes and merchants 500 years before.

Katie Taylor

Katie Taylor, 'A brief history of globes', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2009 [http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/globes/abriefhistoryofglobes/, accessed 27 May 2016]

Back to top ^^
Privacy / Web Standards / Copyright Information
© Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge 2006-9
The Whipple Museum [/whipple/]
Explore Whipple Collections
Gallery Challenge [/whipple/gallerychallenge/]