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Wyld's Great Globe

The famous British cartographer and former Member of Parliament, James Wyld, had a brilliant plan to promote his mapmaking business. The Great Exhibition was slated for 1851, at Hyde Park in London, and would be visited by prominent industrialists, scientist, and artists from around the world, as well as members of the Royal family. Wyld figured if he could create a huge model of the earth with an accurate depiction of earth’s geography, for the exhibition, it could further his chances of scoring new business deals and increasing sales.


Sectional view of Wyld's Great Globe, which stood in Leicester Square, London from 1851 to 1862.

Wyld approached the organizing committee of the Great Exhibition with the idea, but was disappointed to learn that the pavilion being erected for the Great Exhibition—the Crystal Palace—was too small to house his proposed 60-feet-tall globe. Besides,the organisers weren’t too fond of Wyld trying to use the Exhibition as a mean to promote his business, and his proposal was rejected. Undaunted, Wyld began to search for an alternate location and found Leicester Square a suitable site for his project. After a rather complicated series of negotiations with the owners of the gardens, permission was granted to build the globe there and keep it for 10 years.

Construction of globe started as soon as the agreement was signed. Under the supervision of Edward Welch, the architect for the project, some 300 builders raced to complete the building.

Wyld's Great Globe was not a regular globe. It was hollow with the earth’s geography represented on the interior surface rather than on the outside. A series of platforms connected by staircases on the inside allowed visitors to marvel at every square inch of the gigantic relief map of mountains and rivers, built to scale, but vertically exaggerated to make them perceptible. Fertile land was colored green and deserts in sandy yellow. Volcanoes were shown erupting dramatically using dyed cotton wool for lava and smoke, while snowy mountains were sprinkled with white crystals that sparkled brilliantly in the gas light.


The map was as accurate as any mid-19th century map could be, except for the fact that Antarctica was absent. The great southern continent was largely unknown at the time, and although sightings of a huge ice shelf and land was reported for the last thirty years, Wyld dismissed these stories.

The Globe was an immediate hit, proving as popular as the Great Exhibition itself, although the Exhibition did help in no small part. Many visitors who came to the Great Exhibition also went to see the much talked about Wyld's Great Globe. After the Exhibition ended, the number of visitors to the Globe fell abruptly, but by 1853 it was still drawing 1.2 million visitors a year. By the mid-1850s, however, the building had started to look shabby and Wyld was forced to use the venue for a variety shows to attract visitors.

Wyld’s agreement for the use of the land expired in 1862, after which the exhibition hall was removed and the globe broken up and sold for scrap.

Although the Great Globe was not the first project of its kind—a small hollow globe was built in 1664 for Frederick III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, Denmark, and a similar globe was constructed in Paris in the 1820s—Wyld's Globe was larger and more robust than the paper-over-iron-frame construction in Paris.

It was not until 1935 that anything resembling Wyld's Globe was recreated. In 1930 the Christian Science Publishing Society built a 30-foot tall stained glass globe called the Mapparium in Boston, the US. The map of the world was projected on the inside, just like in Wyld's Globe, and can be viewed internally on a bridge running diametrically across the globe.

Also see: Eartha: World's Largest Rotating Globe


The Mapparium in Boston, the US. Photo credit: Smart Destinations/Flickr

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