From the Heavens to High-Tec: Brief History of Globes

Spin a globe. Put your finger on a random spot and see where you land. If you can find one, that is. Once an item of information regarding the world around us, these days’ globes are dusty relics hidden in attics or tucked away at the back of classrooms. It’s a shame because in terms of physical map-making, globes provide the most accurate and least distorted model of the planet’s landmasses and oceans. But globes haven’t always been forgotten furniture for kids to play with at their grandparents’ house. The evolution of globes and globe-making tell a story; charting the history of how different eras have viewed the planet, tracing back to when sea monsters laid beneath distant shores to the present.

Globes were first invented in Ancient Greece. But the first globes weren’t depictions of the Earth, rather they were ‘celestial globes’: charting the stars and galaxies above. While no globes from the ancient world still exist, we do have depictions of these ‘celestial globes’ in surviving sculptures like the Farnese Atlas. This marble statue portrays the titan Atlas, bent over from the weight of the universe on his back. The spine-snapping universe is depicted as a spherical object.

The celestial globe illustrates a universal order that we no longer believe to be true: with the Earth at the centre of the galaxy and all the stars spinning round our planet. The spinning nature of the globe is not only metaphorical, as an object itself, it is never still; always shifting and changing to fit the current understanding of our world.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the evolution of terrestrial globes. The oldest surviving globular depiction of the Earth is the Erdaphel (German for “Earth Apple”). It was made in 1492 by the mariner and artist Martin Behaim. The globe depicts a massive Eurasian continent and a giant ocean between the two. In Behaim’s globe, the continents of North and South America do not exist (not yet discovered, of course). The globe was housed in the Nuremberg town hall until the 16th century when it was moved into the Behaim’s family home. The Erdaphel and the terrestrial globes that were made soon after were never intended for navigational or practical use. These early globes were given as presents to rulers, as a symbolic gesture of handing them the world. They were mere objects of furniture and decoration, much in the way models of globes are now.

Following the globe’s initial status as ornament, it slowly evolved into a practical tool for explorers and seaman in the 18th century. As the Age of Exploration developed, the casualties and death rates from navigational errors rose. Suddenly, the globe—which had always been seen as an object of contemplation rather than of immediate use, like a compass—was enlisted into the navigator’s toolbox. If used correctly, the globe could measure longitude and record geographical discoveries on the fly, with greater accuracy than a normal map. As the globe took on more and more practical uses, areas of the map that were once illustrated as home to terrifying monsters or labeled with the famous Latin phrase, “Hic Sunt Dracones” (here be dragons), began to fade away. Soon such creatures were replaced with drawings of compasses and mini-portraits of famous explorers; surely meant to raise the spirit of sailors on rough seas!

Computer technologies and GPS emerging in the 20th century spelled the beginning of the end for the globe’s practical applications. Physical globes were replaced with 3D ‘virtual globes’ such as Google Earth. We’re still in our bedrooms but now we can be explorers, visiting places we’ve never been to, with it’s bird’s eye view function. Yet, one wonders, is Google Earth just another incarnation of the globe given to rulers who think they own it? It seems to hint that the world is no longer owned by politicians and kings – but by corporations.

Yet maybe virtual globes aren’t really insinuating anything so sinister. The virtual globe is not physical; it cannot fit in our hands. We can no longer scale down the planet and the universe into something we can hold, the limits of the cosmos are beyond our skills with just ink and paper.

The virtual globe reveals our current understanding of ourselves and our universe; that humanity is just a tiny microscopic blip in the wider scheme of things. The notion that we are so powerful that we could hold the Earth in the palm of our hands is just another archaic idea gathering dust… like those early globes that featured dragons or ignored entire continents.

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