Closeup of a globe

European globes of the 17–18th centuries

Globes have come a long way over the years. Use the 3D visuals below to explore how European-produced globes were made and used in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Globes today are spherical maps of the earth or the heavens, and their surfaces, full of detail and colour. In the past they were much more than this. The engraved brass meridian rings and printed horizon rings encircling old globes were not merely decorative features. They were there for a purpose.

A terrestrial globe represented the earth (showing the land and sea) and a celestial globe represented the heavens (depicting the layout of the stars). On a practical level the mapping of the heavens was crucially important for seafaring, as sailors navigated across the seas using the positions of the stars. Together, as a pair, they allowed the relationship between the heavens and the earth to be explored and demonstrated.

Explore more from Price's terrestrial globe, Maps G.15. 

Globes were more complex objects than they initially appear, and they could be used to perform many tasks. They played a significant role in the distribution of new knowledge and they encapsulated the need to find our place in the cosmos.

With the contemporary intellectual interest in cosmography (the study and representation of the relationship between the earth and the heavens), this made the pairing of a terrestrial with a celestial globe immensely significant. Although each type of globe had a value on its own, together they formed a compact model of the cosmos which would be adopted by globe-makers for 400 years.

Terrestrial and celestial globes have several elements in common. The framework for both consists of a set of lines: the equator, the ecliptic, the circles of the Tropics, and the Arctic and Antarctic circles. These lines on a terrestrial globe have counterparts in equivalent positions on a celestial globe. In addition, a celestial globe often displays meridian lines called colures, which cross the equinoctial and solstitial points. The user of a celestial globe must imagine the earth at the centre of the sphere and the viewer beyond the heavens, looking down on the universe. 

Diagram naming the parts of a terrestrial and celestial globe

Annotated illustration of two globes

Parts of a globe illustrated in a diagram from around 1770

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How were historical globes constructed?

Globes can be made from many materials, but remarkably, for the vast majority of printed globes, the basic method of construction that was developed in the first half of the 16th century remained more or less the same until the end of the 19th century.

The apparent perfection of their smooth surfaces, however, does not immediately reveal the techniques underlying their construction and the difficulties their makers have had to surmount in order to wrap a flat map around a sphere.

The shell or sphere

The method for making a printed globe stayed remarkably constant from the late 16th century onwards. First, two half-hemisphere shells were formed from papier mâché or layers of paper or thin board.

Once these shells had been removed from the mould, the inner support – usually a wooden pillar – could be positioned and secured through holes at the north and south poles, and secured with glue and small nails.

The two paper hemispheres were then joined together, either by sewing with strong twine or by applying glue along the edges and sealing it with more paper or a strip of cloth. The joined hemispheres formed a paper ball, which was then coated in plaster.

The gores

The plaster provided an ideal surface on which to paste the gores (‘gores’ are the segmented maps used for globes, each segment being a single ‘gore’). It is by no means a simple matter to cover a sphere with paper so that the surface is smooth and wrinkle-free. To make it flat, the paper has to be stretched, meaning that any printing on the paper will also be stretched, which had to be taken into account when the gores were designed.

Segments of a terrestrial globe

Segments of a globe

A 16th century set of miniature globe gores

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The use of 12 gores came to be standard practice, 360 degrees being conveniently divisible by 12. On larger globes 18 or more gores were sometimes used, and in order to make their application to the sphere easier, they were often cut: at the equator to give half-gores, slit partway along the central meridian of each gore, and clipped about 20 degrees from the poles, the polar area being covered by a circular cap, also known as a calotte. Polar caps provided a solution to the difficulty of bringing numerous gore tips together neatly at the poles.

The first printed globes used the woodcut printing technique but from the mid-16th century, engraved globe gores were the norm. Engraving is an intaglio process in which the lines holding the printing ink are incised into copper plates. This makes it ideal for fine and curved lines, and applying small lettering.

A wide range of paper was used for the printing of gores. It can be surprisingly thin in some cases, considering the manipulation it had to go through to be stretched and coaxed into place, and then burnished to ease out wrinkles. A starch-based paste was commonly used to attach the gores to the plaster shell. Only then would the gores and horizon ring be coloured.

Varnishing

Though it is not clear whether early globes were varnished as a part of their making, it was at some point discovered that a layer of varnish would provide protection against dust, dirt and inquisitive fingers. Globes, after all, were made to be touched and turned. Varnish also improved the aesthetic appearance, making the colours appear richer and brighter. Before the varnish could be applied, the gores had to be coated with a protective layer to prevent the varnish from sinking in and discolouring the paper.

Stands

A globe became complete when it was mounted in its stand, the primary purpose of which is to support the globe sphere securely while allowing it to turn freely. The small globes that survive from the early 16th century were mounted in tripod stands but, as globes became larger, something more stable was required.

A circular base, with four legs supporting the horizon ring, into which the globe in its meridian ring could be easily fitted and supported at its base, became a classic design. It was simple, functional, stable and adaptable. This basic design continued to be used by globe-makers everywhere until the end of the 19th century.

How did the use of globes develop in the 17th and 18th centuries?

The idea of making spherical models of the earth and heavens originated with the ancient Greeks. It seems the concept of the earth as a sphere was first postulated around the time of Pythagoras in the sixth century BCE. This idea gradually came to be accepted by other thinkers of the ancient world.

The printed globe, as we know it today, emerged in the early 16th century. Around this time several factors came together to make it possible and timely for globes to be produced in greater numbers on a commercial basis. We know that globes – terrestrial and celestial – were made before 1500, but very few have survived.

The cartography of early globes was based on a mixture of sources. For terrestrial globes information came from sources including ancient geography and first-hand (including some spurious) accounts from European traders and travellers.

Unknown parts of the world were often imagined, and Terra Australis – the hypothetical large southern continent, thought to balance the northern landmass – continued to appear on some globes until the 18th century.

Globes became steadily more accurate as detailed information became available. On celestial globes, the 48 constellations described by Claudius Ptolemy (100–170 CE) provided the basic design and, as knowledge of the heavens increased and updated star catalogues were compiled, new constellations and stars were added.

During the so-called ‘Age of Exploration’, expanding European geographical and astronomical knowledge fuelled the demand for maps and sea charts. It also inspired experimentation in the art of globe-making, and the first half of the 16th century saw the production of several models, both hand-painted and printed.

Printing made it possible to produce globes in greater numbers at lower cost so they could be more widely distributed. The printed globe, terrestrial and celestial, soon became established as the standard type of globe, sometimes called the ‘common’ globe, and the methods of manufacture changed surprisingly little from the mid-16th century until the 20th century.

In addition to universities and places of learning, the principle market for globes was an expanding class of wealthy people. Globes were sold as handsome objects of status and prestige to a comfortable merchant class, in addition to being instruments of geography and astronomy, or navigational and educational aids.

Dutch globes

The output of globes between 1597 and 1605 was truly extraordinary. In these few years 17 editions of globes were placed on the market, ranging in size from 10 to 36cm (4 to 14 ¼ inches). Explorers had recently brought back to Europe new information about southern lands and stars, and the Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 to establish trading outposts in Asia. The family firms of Van Langren, Hondius and Blaeu (with Blaeu's celestial and terrestrial globes), along with their lesser-known rivals, competed fiercely with each other to bring out globes with the most up-to-date information, in order to have a commercial edge.

English globes

Dutch globe-makers were dominant in the first half of the 17th century, and their globes were sold throughout Europe, but in the second half of the century, the trade expanded. Joseph Moxon (1627–1691) became the second person (after Emery Molyneux (d. 1598) who first published his globes in the 1590s in London) to make printed globes in England and was the first in a new and very productive period of activity.

He had spent a great part of his early life in the Netherlands, where his father James, a Puritan, had settled for religious reasons. Following in his father’s footsteps, Moxon had learned the printing trade there.

After moving back to London around 1650, he set up a printing business and, in addition to books, he printed paper, scientific instruments, maps and, most importantly, globes. See for example, this globe by Thomas Tuttell which is almost identical to a celestial globe made by Moxon in 1653.

In 1654 Moxon published his first book on the subject of globes, which was actually a translation of Willem Janszoon Blaeu’s (1571–1638) 1634 manual on globes.

Moxon’s globes and books were immensely successful and ran to several editions in his lifetime. He advertised globes in several sizes, ranging from 3 to 26 inches (7.5 to 66cm). The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) acquired a pair for himself and also ordered a pair for the Admiralty during his time as Chief Secretary.

Moxon is often described as the inventor of the pocket globe, though there are Dutch claims to this title. The pocket globe was a mini-cosmos: a small terrestrial globe enclosed in a fish-skin case lined with celestial gores.

Explore more from Moxon's terrestrial pocket globe, Maps C.4.a.4.(7.).

In London, globe-making was already well established in the early 18th century. Hermann Moll (1654–1732) Charles Price (c. 1679–1733) (see above) and Richard Cushee (1696–1733) all made globes at this time, but in the first part of the century it was John Senex (1648–1740) who dominated the field. He was highly respected, and after his death his widow Mary took over the business.

Many years later, James Ferguson (1710–1776) and then Benjamin Martin (1705–1782) acquired the printing plates for Senex’s globes and started publishing their own globes.

Italian and French globes

The Venetian Franciscan monk Vincenzo Coronelli (1650–1718) was also making globes. He started off with manuscript globes, and the enormous pair of painted globes he made for King Louis XIV of France, between 1681 and 1683 brought him international recognition. Coronelli liked to work on a grand scale. The first pair of printed globes he published were 108cm (42½ inches) in diameter.

Coronelli’s celestial globe

Globe

Vincenzo Coronelli’s one metre star globe

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The globes appeared in 1688 and were followed by several later editions. As part of a series of geographical atlases, he published a collection of his gores in book form in the Libro dei Globi

German globes

Before the mass production of globes in the 19th century, they were relatively expensive for individuals to buy, and therefore owning one, or a pair, could be a status symbol for the owner. The symbolic nature of a globe was reinforced in many ways. They adorned the title pages of atlases, scientific treatises and trade cards; their instantly recognisable form immediately conjures up a connection to learning.

An interest in globe-making was revived in Germany by Johann Baptist Homann (1664–1724), who set up a map-making and publishing house in Nuremberg in 1702 that was run by his heirs into the 19th century. Though there is only one globe that bears his name (Globe 22, p. 109), the firm of Homann was associated with several other globe-makers, including Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr (1677–1750), who produced both a celestial and terrestrial globe, and is one of the best-known from this time.

What was globe production like by the 19th century?

By the end of the 18th century, globes were being produced in much greater numbers throughout Europe. Many of the established firms continued their trade into the next century and, seeing a commercial opportunity, several new globe-makers appeared. Globe-making went from strength to strength.

In England the names Bardin (with his terrestrial and celestial globes), Cary, Newton, Malby and, later, Wyld dominated the field. These were family firms, with the business passing from one generation to the next and often involving wider family members. 

Globe-makers of the 19th century were more associated with map-makers, rather than instrument makers, as had been the case in the previous century. The strong association between maps and globes has continued to the present day.


This article and the descriptions of individual globes are extracts from Sylvia Sumira’s The art and history of globes (London: British Library, 2014).
  • Sylvia Sumira
  • Sylvia Sumira is a leading authority on historic globes and is one of very few conservators to specialise in printed globes. She worked in globe conservation at the National Maritime Museum for several years, and spent a period of study at the Austrian National Library in Vienna before setting up her own studio.