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The planet Earth.

They're commonplace in the geography schoolroom - but how many of us have had or seen a plastic or cardboard globe showing the countries, continents and oceans?

Their history does not start with the depiction of terrestrial features, but of the night sky. The terrestrial globe really took off with the discovery of new lands, and reached its peak through the 16th to 18th Centuries. Everybody who was anybody ordered or commissioned the latest editions, and their newest improved terrestrial globe had to have a matching celestial globe as its pair.


The first attempts to depict the starry sky on a sphere date from the Chaldeans and the Egyptians. The Greeks apparently began to construct celestial globes with Eudoxus of Cnidus (c400 - c347 BC).

Greek philosophers conceived of the earth as a sphere surrounded by a body of stars and constellations, which could be represented as celestial globes. The earliest extant celestial globe rests on the shoulders of Atlas in the marble statue commonly called the Farnese Atlas1 (a Roman copy of a Greek version from the 4th or 3rd century BC). Greek and Roman authors mention the existence of celestial globes as well as instances of their use. Cicero, in his treatise 'De Republica' describes the use of one by Archimedes (287 - 212 BC).

In 140 BC, a Greek known as Cratos of Mallos, the royal librarian at Pergamon, built what may have been the first terrestrial globe in history. It is hard to picture exactly what was on it, since the Greeks only knew of a small part of the planet. The Americas, Australia and the Far East were still terra incognita - unknown lands.

After centuries of decline, globe-making revived toward the end of the first millennium in the Arab world2, but did not spread from there to Europe until the 15th Century.

Globes were used as essential navigational aids, to show the positions and movements of the celestial bodies. The makers of navigational instruments, such as astrolabes and compasses, also made these globes.

Throughout history, globe construction posed many dilemmas for globe-makers, ranging from what materials to use for different parts to representation of two-dimensional maps on three-dimensional spherical forms.

The notion of faithfully depicting the terra-aqueous (land and ocean) globe on a sphere followed as the known world expanded. Before then, planispheres3 and portolans4 were used.

The choice of material for globe spheres could be problematic. In the 13th Century AD, Alfonso of Castile recommended wood rather than expensive precious metals such as gold or silver, or heavy materials like lead and brass - or corrosive material like copper and iron. He felt that a common material like clay was not appropriate for such a noble object, and he warned that leather, parchment, and cloth could shrink when exposed to heat.

So it was in the late 15th Century that parchment began to be used, as in the Martin Behaim globe of 1492 in Nuremberg, the earliest surviving terrestrial globe (which became sadly out-of-date the same year!) It was made by covering a mould of papier-mâché with vellum, which was sliced off at the equator. This then split into strips and the map was meticulously drawn on the parchment gores5. The whole was carefully lined up, pasted back onto the sphere, varnished over to protect it and reinforced with wooden rings at the equator.

Columbus's discovery of America then led to an explosion in interest and manufacture of globes.

In the 16th Century, with the rise of printing, the globes were made by pasting printed strips, or gores, onto a spherical shell. A small globe of this type by Martin Waldseemuller dating from 1507 was the first to show the name 'America.' The printing blocks were initially made of wood, but for fine work, clarity and durability, copper plates were preferred.

Like two-dimensional cartography, globe-making flourished in the Netherlands as the Dutch expanded their exploration and sea trade. Over the course of the 17th Century, the balance of power gradually shifted towards France, and by the end of the 18th Century, English cartographers and globe-makers were the most prominent.


The earth's spherical shape was definitively confirmed only after the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan sailed around the globe. The voyages of exploration fostered the renewal of cartography thanks to the geographic studies of Mercator, who devised innovative celestial and terrestrial globes.

Transposing the surface of the earth to a sphere was always difficult. One solution, posed by Cratos Mallos, reflected the concept that the earth was composed of four evenly-spaced islands, dividing the terrestrial sphere into four quarters.

The problem of the ideal number of gores intrigued even Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer. In the 16th Century, Martin Waldseemüller printed the earliest surviving gores, settling on 16. In 1541, master mapmaker Mercator worked out a mathematical system for gores that included, among other things, separate polar regions (caps or calottes) and gores in many forms.

By the late 19th Century, developments in globe manufacturing reached staggering diversity. Variations in hollow globe construction in America abounded. Five innovations cited in the 1876 edition of Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary included:

    A paper shell globe covered in powdered slate.
    A papier-mâché globe divided into forty-eight pieces which could be disassembled for packing when necessary or for convenient study.
    An inexpensive paper globe whose printed gores were held together with string in a roughly spherical shape.
    A tissue-paper globe that reportedly could be inflated with air to 3m in diameter for use in schoolrooms.
    An inflatable globe of india-rubber-coated silk by Goodyear.

Globes vary in size from 'pocket' globes of 8cm diameter to a pair at 4m diameter, fit for a king.

Building the Sphere

The most traditional manufacturing process for creating a hollow sphere went as follows:

    Wetted strips of strong paper were placed on a wooden mould, and a shell built up with successive strips of pasted paper.
    After drying, the paper shell was cut through the Equator and removed.
    The sphere was placed within a frame and revolved as five layers of plaster composed of whiting, glue, and oil were successively applied and allowed to dry; the layers were then scraped even with a semi-circular scraper and polished.
    Lead shot was then introduced into the interior to correct any imbalance, if necessary.
    Guidelines were drawn to aid in the placement of the engraved strips and polar circles which were applied wet.
    Finally, the globe sphere was coloured, varnished and mounted.


The meridian is the circular or semicircular vertical piece that suspends the globe at the poles. This is usually mounted to show the tilt of the earth.

The horizon is the circular ring mounted horizontally at the largest diameter. This could have information on it about wind directions, other relevant details or pure decoration.

The base supports the horizon and meridian. Depending on the size of the globe, this could be a simple pillar, or four legs. An enclosed box is only useful if just the northern hemisphere is required and the globe is hinged and being used as a drinks cabinet.

Terrestrial Globe Makers

Making a globe has always been a complicated and challenging task. The larger the globe, the greater effort needed. Producing printed globes has always needed more attention than making individual or manuscript globes.

Francis Monk is credited as the constructor of the first terrestrial globe in the Low Countries.

Martin Waldseemüller's book Cosmographiae introductio, printed in 1507, was accompanied by a globe, which for the first time displayed a new continent in the Atlantic labelled 'America'.

Johannes Schöner's terrestrial globe of 1523 was the first to incorporate the information gathered from the circumnavigation of the World by Magellan's crew.

Mercator joined the partnership of Van der Heyden, globe-maker, and Gemma Frisius, mathematician, as engraver in 1535. They had been commissioned to construct a pair of globes for the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V, by Imperial Charter.

George Adams, Sr, was one of the most important English instrument-makers in the second half of the eighteenth century. After George Sr's death in 1773, the company he founded was managed by his sons, George Jr and his younger brother Dudley. They were globe-makers to King George III of England.

James Wilson (1763 - 1855) was the first globe-maker in the US.

The Most Famous Globe-maker

Vincenzo Coronelli, born in Venice in 1650, was a Franciscan monk as well as a cartographer. One of his most significant accomplishments was the pair of giant globes (completed in 1680) which he produced on commission for King Louis XIV of France. Each one measured almost four metres in diameter, and had a doorway through which people could enter to observe the globe from the interior. About thirty people could fit inside each one.

The globes were transported to Marly and not Versailles, and remained there for a long time. Today they are on display in the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

He returned to Venice and founded the world's first geographical society, the Accademia degli Argonauti. The first publication for this exclusive group of highly-reputed and powerful aristocrats was a smaller printed version of the large Paris globes. Coronelli set up a workshop in his monastery in Venice and started to work on 110cm-diameter globes.

In 1688 the first copies of the terrestrial globe were presented to the Venetian Doge, and Coronelli became the publisher of the largest and most decorative globes ever printed. The globe gores were published later along with the hundreds of maps and views in the most ambitious cartographical project under the title Atlante Veneto from 1693.


Early terrestrial globes can be dated more or less by the landmarks displayed on them. If somewhere had not yet been discovered this is obviously not featured.

Occasionally these globes may contain a cartouche in which details of the maker, a date or the name of the owner may have been inserted.

As the dimensions of the continents have been known for some time now more recent globes are dated on their political content. Old colonies are now countries which may have different names. Countries such as Yugoslavia are now a collection of smaller countries.

Modern Globes

Globes continue to be made today, from the educational and instructional to the displayable, highly-decorated and collectable. They come in all sizes and materials, from the 10cm plastic gyratable terrestrial and celestial globes, made in China; the 20cm and 30cm diameter educational, made in the USA and Europe; huggable pillow globes; inflatable globes; acrylic, silk-screened transparent globes; 3-D puzzle globes; fine reproduction globes, such as detailed hand made replicas of the 110cm globes of Coronelli; hand-crafted globes made of wooden slats, hand-detailed by a dedicated artist in France and those made of semi-precious stones inlaid into metal, where the stones are used to shape their countries of origin and the latitudes and longitudes are inlaid in gold.

Some globes have interior lights and others have the land features detailed in relief.

In fact globes are still being made in every material possible, and in any manner possible from the ancient traditional ways and modern hand-worked commissions to factory production lines.

1Now located in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Naples.2A brass globe, 22cm in diameter, inscribed with the constellations, made by Ibrahim Ibn Sahl and his son Muhammad of Valencia, is believed to be the oldest free-standing celestial globe existing in the world today. An Arabic inscription states that the globe was made in year 478 of the Hegira (1085 of the Christian era).3The representation of the circles of the sphere upon a plane, as in a map of the world; especially, a representation of the celestial sphere upon a plane with adjustable circles, or other appendages, for showing the position of the heavens, the time of rising and setting of stars (and so on) for any given date or hour. Illustrations of Celestial Planisphere and Terrestrial Planisphere.4 From the Italian portolano meaning 'pilot book'. A detailed textual sailing guide that contains one or more charts of a coastline, showing its bays, harbors, islands, and navigational hazards. The earliest portolans are among the oldest known manuscript maps. Created by mariners from compass bearings, portolans were often more accurate than land maps of the same period. They often have rhumb lines radiating from the points of a wind rose or compass rose to help pilots chart direction. Illustration of a Portolan.5A gore is a strip that is wider at one end than the other or wider in the middle than the ends, so that when one or more are joined they form a sphere, or part of a sphere.

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