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James Wilson: America’s First Globemaker

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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.

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.

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!

Comments (10)

  1. Thank you G&M! I’m enjoying the blogs and appreciate the links to catalog records … wondering if it might be possible to link to larger format images?

    • Great idea! When you click on the image now, you should be taken to the larger version. If you want to see the catalog record, click on the caption. These photos are not in the online catalog because we are still working out a way to 3D-image our globes, but we hope to have that capability soon.

  2. Thank you for sharing the story of this extraordinary man. His passion made for a fascinating live. Might one or two of these globes go on display in the reading room?

    • You will be glad to hear that there are! We currently have three on display: the terrestrial three inch, a celestial thirteen inch, and a terrestrial thirteen inch. However, due to preservation concerns, we like to rotate our reading room display of globes, so a different set might be out if you come visit. And of course, we are more than happy to retrieve any of our globes (Wilson or otherwise) from our vault for consultation.

  3. Thank you for spotlighting James Wilson The history of globes and globe making in the U.S. is a subject that does not get enough attention. I hope you don’t mind I linked to this article in my own blog about globes. There is just so little out there about American globe makers.

  4. HI..just reviewing this blog. James Wilson was born 15 March 1763 in Londonderry, New Hampshire (not Vermont). “He began the manufacture in an old shop in Londonderry. Early in the summer of 1795 he visited his cousin, James McDuffee, and, traveling on foot, he passed through the sites of Manchester and Concord and Franklin, where Daniel Webster, a lad of fourteen, was fitting for college, chiefly with the thought that he might have the opportunity to see the globes that he was sure the college possessed. His friend tried to help him, but the door was locked, and the only examination he had was through the keyhole. .. “from “Our Folks and Your Folks” by Florence Collins Porter. He had his first child around 1788 and was still living in Londonderry. I have not yet discovered when he actually moved to Vermont, but it was after he had studied on his own. He later remarried and had children in Vermont.

    I know that history always get altered with each telling, I just thought you might be interested. I was looking for more when I saw your blog.
    Lynette Scott

  5. I think he is my 2nd Grate Grand Father.

  6. After a bit of research, I am proud to say that James is my 4th great uncle.

  7. Wilson must have been a confident chap to spend that much for a set of the Britannica meant as prep for a still far-off goal to make his own globes. Sheesh. Really? No thought of failure there, I reckon. What if he hadn’t met Amos Doolittle? That might have set him back years. It all sounds like a huge risk on his part. Or maybe it was desperation. Maybe he just couldn’t take another year of farm duties. Lots of people in American history came to that conclusion and moved on…

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