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As The World Turns: Ellen Eliza Fitz and Her Inventive Globe Mount

As I was organizing globes in our stacks several weeks ago, a note on two of the boxes caught my eye. It said,

“This globe sphere was produced by Gilman Joslin, but the significance of this work relates to the mounting which was invented by Ellen Eliza Fitz. Ellen Eliza Fitz patented a mount for a terrestrial globe, designed to show the passage of the sun.”

As I had never heard this name, and as it is Women’s History month, my curiosity was piqued and I decided to investigate Ellen Eliza Fitz further!

An educator, inventor, and author, Ellen Eliza Fitz was born in Kingston, New Hampshire in 1835. After moving with her family to Massachusetts as a child, she spent her teenage years translating classical texts and publishing poetry, graduating from the West Newton State Normal School in 1853. Most of her adult life was spent in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada where she worked as a governess and educator. Beyond being a teacher, Fitz became one of the first women involved in the design and manufacturing of globes.

Small terrestrial globe mounted on a rotating base. Two brass rings encircle half the globe longitudinally and a vertical brass pointed sits on one side of mount.

Fitz globe. Manufactured by Ginn & Heath using the globe mount system patented by Ellen Eliza Fitz, 1879. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Promotion of educational reform was at its height during the mid to late 19th century, including an increased desire to find new hands on methods of teaching. While working as a governess, Fitz imagined a new globe mounting technique, as seen in the globe above, that would facilitate students’ understanding of the Earth’s daily rotation and annual revolution. In 1875, she was granted a patent for her invention. A copy of the patent with a sketch of the design, which can be seen below, is held in the Ellen Eliza Fitz papers at the Watertown Free Public Library in Massachusetts.

Patent given to Ellen Eliza Fitz for the mounting and attachments for a terrestrial globe with accompanying sketch. 1875. Courtesy of Watertown Free Public Library.

The globe is mounted at an angle of 66.5 degrees on a rotatable disc inscribed with a calendar. The vertical indicator, called the solar index,  represents “the sun, or more properly, the central ray proceeding from the sun; so that the position upon the surface of the globe to which it points at any time represents the place upon the earths surface at which the sun is vertical at that time.” The two mounted brass rings demonstrate the divisions of day, twilight, and night on the earth while another thin brass ring [missing from the globes in our collections] encircles the globe representing the horizon of any given place. With the globe mounted in such a manner, the purpose was to allow a student to observe the effects of the Earth’s daily rotation on its axis and it yearly revolution around the Sun.

Fitz globe. Manufactured by Ginn & Heath using the globe mount system patented by Ellen Eliza Fitz, 1877 or 1878. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Cover of Hand-Book of the Terrestrial Globe. Book by Ellen E. Fitz, 1878. Digital copy available through Hathi Trust.

The year after her patent grant, Fitz published a handbook to accompany the globe titled Hand-Book of the Terrestrial Globe or, Guide to Fitz’s New Method of Mounting and Operating Globes. Designed for the Use of Families, Schools, and Academies. Within the manual, Fitz instructs the student on the topics of geometry, geography, and astronomy as well as including a description of the globe mount and a number of problems to be solved while using the globe. Here are some examples of the problems she sets in her manual:

  1. Find the difference of longitude between New York and San Francisco.
  2. At what rate per hour are the inhabitants of Botany Bay carried from west to east by the rotation of the earth on its axis?
  3. Bring Washington into 9 o’clock A.M.
  4. Find the difference of time between Boston and Rome.
  5. Find the times of sunrise and sunset, and the lengths of the day and the night, at Paris upon May 14.

These and many more exercises in the manual would likely be quite the challenge for students today!

Fitz’s globe was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. She continued her intellectual pursuits in the following decade, receiving a second patent in 1882 for mounting globes that indicated the positions of stars above the horizon at any time of the year. Four years later, after a long illness, Ellen died in 1886 in Watertown, Massachusetts at the age of 51.

A strong, independent, and pioneering woman, Ellen Eliza Ftiz’s legacy lived on into the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. Education reform continued to gather momentum and the philosophy of “object teaching” was encouraged, allowing students to use their senses and learn through interaction with objects. The globe became an important way to teach geography, math, and astronomy in the American classroom.

Black and white photo of school children at desks, each with a globe and a teacher in front.

Washington, D.C. public school classroom scenes – “mathematical geography.” Photo by Frances B. Johnson, 1899. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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3 Comments

  1. James C.Armstrong
    March 4, 2022 at 9:58 am

    Thank you for this fascinating bit of global history.

  2. Deborah Warner
    March 12, 2022 at 9:05 pm

    There is a similar globe in the National Museum of American History.

  3. Nancy C Slattery
    March 17, 2022 at 12:32 am

    I saw a lamp in New Jersey 30 years ago that lit up the side the sun was currently shining on. Do not know if it had the mechanism to have the correct tilt. Have looked for this every location that sells globes.
    Do you know if it is still made

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