Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

400 years of beautiful, historical, and powerful globes

By Greg Miller, WIRED
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
This ridiculously awesome moon globe was made by the artist John Russell in 1797.
This ridiculously awesome moon globe was made by the artist John Russell in 1797.
HIDE CAPTION
History of the world
History of the world
History of the world
History of the world
History of the world
History of the world
History of the world
History of the world
History of the world
History of the world
History of the world
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Conservator Sylvia Sumira has traced the history of making globes
  • Her book Globes: 400 years of exploration, navigation, and power showcases her favorites
  • Globes are more of a symbol for navigation rather than a practical tool

(Wired) -- To look at an ancient globe is to look at the Earth as it was seen by the people of another time. It reflects their understanding of the continents and seas, and it captures political divisions that have long since shifted.

Even the typography and colors of a globe are indicative of the time and place of its origin, says Sylvia Sumira, a London-based conservator of ancient globes.

Often, it's a thing of remarkable craftsmanship and beauty. "If you go into a room and there's a globe, your attention is immediately drawn to it," Sumira said.

In her lavishly illustrated new book, Globes: 400 years of exploration, navigation, and power, Sumira traces the history and making of globes and showcases dozens of fine examples drawn largely from the collection of the British Library.

They're more a symbol of navigation than a tool for navigation.
Sylvia Sumira, conservator of ancient globes

Contrary to the popular misconception that nobody knew the Earth was round before Columbus, the ancient Greeks described the making of globes (in verse, no less) in the third century B.C. The oldest surviving globe dates back to 150 A.D. But they really took off between about 1500 and 1900, and it's this period that's the focus of Globes.

Read more: 5 new record-breaking rides that will terrify you this Summer

There are records of globes being brought on ships during the age of exploration, but they probably weren't used for navigation, Sumira says.

For one thing, any globe that's small enough to be brought on board would have to be scaled down to the point of being useless for charting a course on the high seas.

"They're more a symbol of navigation than a tool for navigation," she said. In the book, she writes that in the 17th century, globes were sold as "handsome objects of status and prestige to a comfortable merchant class."

Not that ancient globes don't convey some useful information. Much of it is contained in the horizon ring that surrounds many of them. Concentric circles printed or engraved on the ring indicate the degrees of the compass, the months of the year, zodiac signs, and sometimes information about winds.

They can be used, for example, to determine the sunrise and sunset on a given day of the year, Sumira says. "Most of the globes were like little calculating machines."

Read more: Striking photos of the rooms where VIPs shape history

Several globes in the book come in pairs: one terrestrial, one celestial. "The constellations were very much used for navigational purposes," Sumira says, so being able to study pairs like this would have been very instructive for mariners in training.

Most of the globes were like little calculating machines.
Sylvia Sumira, conservator of ancient globes

The celestial globes sometimes look like someone let the animals out of the zoo: the stars that make up a constellation are overlaid on the figure that gives it its name — a lion for Leo, a big bear for Ursa Major and so on.

Getting your bearings with the celestial globes is a little tricky. It helps if you pretend you're God, looking down at the heavens from on high. The earth would be a dot inside the center of the globe. From this view, the constellations are mirror images of how they appear from Earth.

Among Sumira's favorites are the pocket globes. "They're just delightful little things," she said. The smallest is just 1.5 inches in diameter. Many come in a wood or leather case that opens up to reveal a terrestrial globe that can be taken out. The concave surface of the case often contains a matching celestial globe.

Read more from WIRED:

Why are LEGO sets expensive?

Absurd creature of the week: The half-ton giant freshwater stingray with a 15-Inch poison barb

Attention Hipsters: The Jurassic Park soundtrack is being released on vinyl

Subscribe to WIRED magazine for less than $1 an issue and get a FREE GIFT! Click here!

Copyright 2011 Wired.com.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Style
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
After surviving Vichy prisons and Nazi concentration camps, Brian Stonehouse became one of the most prominent fashion illustrators of his age.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
Award-winning photographer Phil Stern captured everything from the battlefield to Hollywood Boulevard. These are his most iconic images.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 0216 GMT (1016 HKT)
The Sony World Photography Awards has released a collection of some of the competition's most beautiful entrants.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Zaha Hadid Qatar 2020 stadium
Are sports stadiums modern-day cathedrals? Leading architects say arenas will soon become our most important social spaces.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Whether you think stuffed animals are cool, beautiful, or downright disturbing, this is taxidermy like you've never seen it before.
December 4, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Studio 54 has become synonymous with the glamor and excess of the late Seventies. These rare images capture its debauched side.
December 3, 2014 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
It's official: London's getting another landmark. This time it's a stunning plant-covered bridge partly inspired by Leonardo DiCaprio.
December 3, 2014 -- Updated 0747 GMT (1547 HKT)
1947 Ferrari 125 S, Enzo Ferrari Museum, Modena
For fans of Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Pagani, this corner of Europe is a petrol-powered promised land.
December 3, 2014 -- Updated 1013 GMT (1813 HKT)
Victoria Beckham and Emma Watson were among the designers, models and taste-makers recognized at this year's British Fashion Awards.
December 2, 2014 -- Updated 1648 GMT (0048 HKT)
Duncan Campbell's It For Others, which features a dance inspired by Karl Marx and examines African art, has won the prestigious art prize.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Simon Beck decorates snow-covered lakes and mountainsides with massive geometric designs using his footsteps as his implement.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
Houses that melt, float and flip upside down? Alex Chinneck's playful architecture sparks the imagination and begs for a photo-op.
ADVERTISEMENT