America’s First Globe Maker


James Wilson, who has the honor of being the maker of the first pair of terrestrial and celestial globes ever made in America, was a native of Londonderry, N.H. He was born in 1763. He early felt a strong love of knowledge, and gave proof of talents of the right stamp for acquiring it, but felt constrained by circumstances to devote himself to the laborious occupation of a farmer.

Up to the age of thirty-three he pursued that employment in the place of his nativity; not, however, without reading, observation, and reflection. His inclination and genius turned his thoughts and studies especially to geography and astronomy, with the means of their illustration.

When about thirty-six years of age, Mr. Wilson had the pleasure of seeing and examining a pair of English globes, and resolved to imitate them. He commenced with balls turned from blocks of wood, which he nicely covered with paper, and scientifically finished off with all the lines and representations which belong to such apparatus drawn upon them.

This rude beginning was followed by a much better method. The solid balls were thickly covered with layers of paper firmly pasted together. This shell was then divided into hemispheres, which being removed were again united, and finished with due regard to lightness, strength, and smoothness.

But how were these spheres to be covered with maps equal to those of the European artists? Mr. Wilson procured copper plates of sufficient size for his thirteen-inch globes, protracted his maps on them in sections, tapering as the degrees of longitude do from the equator to the poles, and engraved them with such admirable accuracy of design, that when cut apart, and duly pasted on his spheres, the edges with their lines, and even the different parts of the finest letters would perfectly coincide, and make one surface, truly representing the earth, or celestial constellations.

Though in the use of the graver he was self-taught, and this species of design and engraving was incomparably more difficult than plain work, yet by his ingenuity and incredible perseverence he succeeded admirably, and brought forth globes duly mounted, and in all respects fitted to rival in the market any imported from foreign countries. In the prosecution of his work and general studies, Mr. Wilson derived important assistance from the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, which constituted the principal part of his library.

He published the first edition of hie globes in 1814, and personally presented to the city of Boston the first American globes that were seen there. Quite a sensation was produced among the literati by such a novelty, and when earnest inquiry was made,— “Who is this James Wilson? who is he?”— he has been heard to say that he felt exceedingly mortified, in consideration of his rustic garb and manners, when obliged to come out and confess himself.

But the gentlemen in question knew how to prize his talents, and were proud of the honor which he had done to his country. They encouraged him to prosecute his undertaking, by the assurance that he should find there a ready market for all the globes he could furnish. For a time he pursued his vocation on a small scale in two or more New England towns, but finally, in company with his sons, who inherited a good share of their father’s taste and ingenuity, he established, about the year 1815, a large manufactory in Albany, N.Y., and in 1826 brought out from fresh engravings a still more perfect and splendid edition.

These globes, consisting of three different sizes, so elegantly and scientifically constructed, are an honor not only to their makers, but to the American people. That manufactory at Albany was sustained for several years, though the young artists who commenced it went down to early graves, and their aged father not long after withdrew himself from the business. Mr. Wilson died at his home in Bradford, Vt., March 26, 1855, at the age of ninety-two years and twelve days.

Ballou’s Monthly Magazine – May, 1884

—Jeff Burks

“James Wilson, the Vermont Globe Maker, Bradford, Vermont, 1810” by Roy Frederick Heinrich

James Wilson (Globe Maker) – Wikipedia

In addition to being a globe maker, Wilson was also a blacksmith and cabinetmaker. In 1810 he spent $130 on an 18 volume set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1797 edition published in Edinburgh) for which he built his own bookcase. The Bennington Museum has preserved that bookcase, photos of which which may been seen here or here. His first globe sold in 1813 for the enormous sum of $50. Photos of Wilson’s globes, their furniture and an advertisement may be seen at the American Treasures exhibit at the Library of Congress. Additional photos here and here.

This entry was posted in Historical Images. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to America’s First Globe Maker

  1. Reblogged this on The Obsession Engine and commented:
    Something we take for granted today.

Comments are closed.