1. ITV Report

Cambridge research sheds new light on historic globe

Was it a toy or a scientific instrument? A Cambridge study lifts the lid on a 100-year-old Spanish globe. Photo: Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge

Until now, the globe in the University of Cambridge’s Whipple Museum of the History of Science has been shrouded in mystery: where, when and why was it made? Who would have used it? Most fundamentally, what is it – some kind of scientific instrument or a child’s toy?

New research by Seb Falk in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science has brought us closer to understanding the puzzling object, which is 25 cm in diameter. Remarkably, his work highlights how it symbolises a wave of change that swept 19th-century Spain into the modern world – from increasing trade in scientific instrumentation to a move of the education system towards interactive learning.

The globe is unlike any other currently known. Inside are beautiful illustrations, encyclopaedic entries and a planetarium that re-enacts the revolution of the planets around the sun at the turn of a cog.

“Making a globe like this would have been technically difficult: apart from the construction of the globe from brass, wood and pasteboard, the inside of the sphere is hand-covered with encyclopaedic information designed expressly for the object and printed using the latest chromolithographic technology. All in all, it’s rather surprising that such an object was made in Spain, a country where there was no previous tradition of globe making.”

– Seb Falk
Inside the mysterious Spanish globe at the Whipple Museum in Cambridge Credit: Jacqueline Garget / Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Yet Falk believes that the balance of evidence weighs in favour of a Spanish provenance. “The prime meridian is shown running through Madrid, and the encyclopaedic entries are in Spanish.”

His research has led him to believe that it may have been made as a prototype for a globe-toy that was never mass produced and whose maker has long since disappeared from the annals of history. Today, no trace exists in the databases of Madrid’s National Museum of Science and Technology of the man who perhaps made the globe before marking it with his company stamp: Benjamín Tena of Valencia.

Inside the Spanish globe are beautiful illustrations, encyclopaedic entries and a planetarium. Credit: Jacqueline Garget / Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Dating the globe has been a remarkable exercise in detective work. Falk used cartographic evidence such as the presence of the border between Norway and Sweden (their union was dissolved in 1905), together with information in the encyclopaedic entries on the names of plants and animals and the number of moons for each planet, and even the use of accents in Spanish words that lost them suddenly in the first decade of the 20th century. All point towards the maker having made the globe around 1907.

Today, the globe-toy stands on display alongside the newly re-housed collection of globes at the Whipple: blank slate globes for children and teachers to draw the world in chalk, lunar globes showing the craters of the moon, pocket-sized and portable ‘umbrella’ globes, and many other examples of our abiding fascination with imagining the world in three dimensions.