Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: globe
from The Dictionary of Human Geography

A solid sphere; in geography, the globe refers to the Earth itself or a physical model of it (although the Earth’s actual form as an oblate spheroid has been known since Newton theorized it in his Principia and French field scientists demonstrated it in 1736). The globe is a conventional symbol of geographical science, the geographer traditionally pictured measuring distances with dividers placed on a terrestrial globe. Celestial globes showing the pattern of forms in the visible heavens have long been paired with geographical globes. Recognition of the Earth’s sphericity is dated to Eratosthenes (276–195 bce), but only celestial globes survive from Antiquity, and were used in Chinese and Islamic science too. No terrestrial globes pre-date the European Renaissance, although it is a nineteenth-century myth that before Columbus the Earth was believed to be flat.

Construction of terrestrial globes is described in Ptolemy’s second-century ad book: Geography, known in the West from the late fourteenth century. The earliest existing terrestrial globe dates from 1492, made by a Nuremburg merchant knowledgeable about Portuguese oceanic navigations. Circumnavigation of the globe in 1522 produced a scientific and diplomatic demand for model globes, although their bulkiness and the size required for detailed representation of seas and coasts severely limited their practical navigational use on board ship (Brotton, 1997). Globe sets of terrestrial, celestial and armillary spheres (see cosmography) were objects of beauty, status and display as much as scientific instruments (cf. scientific instrumentation) in the early modern world, and the largest globes were made for monarchs such as Louis XIV of France, or as public spectacles; for example; in the great (‘world’) exhibitions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The globe remains an icon of power as much as an educational object today, signifying control over the space that it represents. Model globes or globe images are thus common in advertising and entertainment as an indicator of international reach and significance, and are used by airlines, communications corporations and at self- consciously international events such as exhibitions, fairs and sports spectacles (Pickles, 2004).

The discourse of globalization draws on the idea and image of the globe as a symbol of connectedness and unity, drawing on an association of the globe image with cosmopolitanism. Since the appearance of satellite images of Earth, ‘thinking globally’ has become a mantra of environmentalist discourse, while the globe has become in some respects a banal object, appearing on balloons, key fobs and other playthings (Cosgrove, 2001).

Suggested reading

Full bibliography is available here.

Cosgrove (2001)

Woodward (2006).

Denis Cosgrove
formerly Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Geography
University of California, Los Angeles, USA
© 2009 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd except for editorial material and organization, © 2009 Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael J. Watts, and Sarah Whatmore

Related Articles


Full text Article globe
The Dictionary of Human Geography

A solid sphere; in geography , the globe refers to the Earth itself or a physical model of it (although the Earth’s actual form as an oblate...

Full text Article globe
Word Origins

[16 century] Globe comes from Latin globus , probably via Old French globe. Globus was related to glēba ‘lump of earth’(source of...

Full text Article Globe
The Seafaring Dictionary: Terms, Idioms and Legends of the Past and Present

The terraqueous ball of planet earth (usually preceded by the definite article). A round scale model of the world (preceded by an indefinite articl

See more from Credo