I’LL never forget my first globe. It was a basketball-size sphere with textured mountains and shining cerulean seas, but its crowning inner glory was a light bulb. Suspended in the darkness of my bedroom for most of the nights of my childhood, it served first as a night light unto my world. But night after night and year after year, it showed me the makings of things like nights and years and a permanently marvelous truth: We live on a sphere, turning in the light of a star.
I plotted many things on that globe, including my career as a pilot. I have two globes today (a light-up model and a mind-wringing Japanese jigsaw sphere). But while stylized images of globes still appear occasionally on Web sites, newscasts and logos, actual globes are increasingly rare. When did you last see a globe in an office, or a living room? American schools, too, have seen a decline. Officials for major school systems — including Chicago and Seattle — report that most classrooms no longer have them. The last globe you saw was probably in a child’s bedroom — a high-minded toy.
Not that they haven’t had a good run. The first globes were “celestial” models of the heavens — what Atlas shoulders (it’s the sky, after all, that seems round). The first “terrestrial” globe was made around 150 B.C. (by Crates of Mallus, in case you’re ever in a barroom brawl over what the Stoic grammarians ever did for us). The oldest Earth globethat survives today is from 1492. It was spectacularly ill timed, though a colorful cast of saints, mermen and Sciapods make up for the absent Americas.
Just across the Columbian divide is the Hunt-Lenox globe, circa 1510, which features portions of the Americas, and the weighty term “New World.” The globe also bears cartography’s only known deployment of “here be dragons” (in Southeast Asia). Elizabethans, in particular, loved globes — “the whole earth, a present for a prince,” was Queen Elizabeth’s awe-struck response to a gift of a globe — and then there is the name ofa certain theater. In “The Comedy of Errors,” Dromio rudely maps the portly kitchen wench: England on the chin, France on the forehead, and just you guess about the Netherlands.
Such glorious history makes the decline of globes only more perplexing. Perhaps no four-billion-year-old design can escape the occasional hiccup in brand maintenance. But there are more likely culprits. As reference tools, home globes can’t compete with detailed, up-to-date online resources (though note the Wikipedia logo, an incomplete globe). The decline of globes in schools, according to Robert Chisholm, program director for history and social studies in Boston’s public schools, is also because of the squeeze of standardized math and English testing on subjects like geography.
It is the absence of globes in most professional environments, though, that reveals the most about us. Don Draper of “Mad Men” has an office globe. But none of the dozen or so executives I contacted could remember when they last saw one. The more global their work, the more they found the idea of a globe unappealing. Globalization is the alleged triumph of travel, trade and connectivity over the planet’s bricks-and-mortar (or rocks-and-water) limitations. It’s a measure of globalization’s success — and hubris, perhaps — that its original icon appears literal and unsophisticated.
What’s lost when we lose sight of globes? An accurate sense of home, to start. The view of a Roman street on Google Maps is wonderful — but only after a globe has shown you Italy. And no online or paper map has yet succeeded in stretching a round planet onto a flat surface. Choose your complicated failure: Mercator? Sinusoidal equal area? Equidistant conic? Only a globe is both simple and right — simple because it’s right.