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James Wilson: America’s First Globemaker

Wilson’s three inch terrestrial globe, 182-. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

At the age of 33, James Wilson (1763-1855) moved out of the log cabin he had built by hand, sold all the stock he possessed on his 100 acre farm, and managed to scrape together $130 in rural eighteenth century New Hampshire. And for what purpose? Wilson wanted to purchase all thirteen volumes of the third edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Born into a farming family in Bradford, Vermont, James Wilson transformed himself into a jack-of-all-trades when it came to globe production. In a well-known, if somewhat apocryphal tale, Wilson visited Dartmouth College in 1796 and was immediately inspired to begin constructing his own globes. Historians have been able to trace which globes the college had in its possession the year Wilson purportedly visited, so it is assumed that he may have seen them on display.

While we will never be completely certain that Wilson examined those particular globes during his
famous trip to Hanover, we do know that in the years following 1796 he took a 180 degree turn in his life’s ambitions. With his new set of encyclopedias, he set about educating himself as much as possible about geography, cartography, national and state boundaries, history, globe production, and astronomy.

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America on Wilson’s thirteen inch terrestrial globe, 1828. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

With a background as a rural farmer, Wilson had considerable skill in several trades that proved useful in producing globes. He was able to turn a globe’s wooden stand using a lathe from his exposure to woodworking and forge meridian rings and quadrants from his experience as a blacksmith. From his encyclopedic readings, he also learned how to produce the ink, glue, and varnish necessary to finish his globes. The Vermonter also sought out famed American engraver, Amos Doolittle (1754-1832), to learn how to engrave his own copperplates in order to print globe gores. Amos Doolittle is most well-known for his copperplate engravings of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and appears to have passed on his passion for the craft to Wilson; Wilson reportedly spent 300 days engraving his first large copperplate.

Wilson, already a tradesman and a craftsman, was subsequently transformed into a businessman when he opened his first globe factory in the 1810s in Albany, New York. With the assistance of his sons John, Samuel, and, later, David, J. Wilson & Sons began producing globes on a commercial scale. They manufactured them in several standard sizes (7.5cm, 13cm, 23cm, and 33cm in diameter), with prices beginning at $50. The cost was significantly lower than imported globes from Europe and had the added benefit of having much more accurate boundaries and place names in the United States.

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Wilson’s thirteen inch terrestrial globe, 1828. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

J. Wilson & Sons remained in business for several decades, but after the death of Wilson’s three sons and business partners, the ownership of the factory was transferred to his son-in-law, Cyrus Lancaster. It is unknown how long Lancaster kept producing globes, but we do know he lived until 1862.

The Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress currently has seven Wilson globes. They date to the earlier years of his commercial production and represent all the sizes we know he manufactured. We hope you can visit the Division to have a closer look!