Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken — Keats, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”

It is a scene familiar to any sci-fi aficionado: the tiny dot, a speck against a vast, dark background, zooms steadily closer until a whole world spans your field of vision. Now the adventure can begin.

The planet before me, though, would stretch credulity in even the wildest space yarn. Its land masses are a muted patchwork of green and pink, while its oceans are a grubby grey-brown, and even from this distance I can spot monsters rearing their snouts above the waves. Strangest of all is what’s underground: not the usual crust, mantle and core, a readout indicates, but varnish, plaster and papier-mâché.

Enough of the conceit: this is, of course, our planet, or rather a five-and-a-half-inch-wide model of it made in the early 17th century by the Dutch map-maker Willem Janszoon Blaeu. My far-out mission has involved nothing more than a few clicks on to the website of the British Library, which has just posted it and nine other historic globes online. They are the first fruits of a project to digitise 30 of its 150-strong collection of these objects; the remainder will be published in instalments over the next 12 months or so.

Until now, only academic researchers have been able to explore these worlds, which are stored at the BL’s main site in St Pancras, London. “Because of the unique handling and moving problems they pose, we’ve had to be quite protective over them, which has meant limiting their use,” explains Tom Harper, lead curator of antique maps. “Putting these virtual models online for anyone to access opens them up to a far wider audience.” Some of the globes, he adds, have never been photographed before.

Celestial globe by Thomas Tuttell, mathematical instrument-maker to William III (1700)
Celestial globe by Thomas Tuttell, mathematical instrument-maker to William III (1700) © The British Library

Such is the richness of the 3D modelling — painstakingly carried out by the BL’s imaging studio and specialist company Cyreal — that even specialists will gain a new perspective. “The viewing experience is much more immersive than what would be possible if you were looking at the actual objects,” Harper says. “You can zoom in on the digital globes, virtually spin them, turn them upside down — unthinkable with such fragile antiques!”

They were, he points out, “originally created to be tactile objects” — and, while the magic of the thing itself, that sense of continuity with the living past, will always slip through the finest net of pixels, there is a quasi-physical pleasure to be had in manipulating these worlds so easily.

Fascinating details leap out at the turn of a scroll-wheel. Take that Blaeu globe. It’s a 1621 update of a 1602 model, revised to take in new discoveries during that interval — in particular that of Cape Horn in 1616 by Blaeu’s countrymen Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire, who named it after the Dutch town of Hoorn. And indeed you can swoop in to see “C. Hoorn” at the bottom of “Terra del Fuego”, much of whose west coast is undelineated, pending further exploration.

Globe by Willem Jansz Blaeu, published in 1606 but revised to include discoveries at the tip of South America in 1616 by Willem Schouten
Globe by Willem Jansz Blaeu, published in 1606 but revised to include discoveries at the tip of South America in 1616 by Willem Schouten © The British Library

To the south lies a vast land, far more extensive than the Antarctica we know today. Called frankly “Australis incognita”, it is conveniently big enough to accommodate a dedicatory panel to Blaeu’s learned friend Cornelius Petrius, “a mathematician of singular renown”. Above that is a chunk of land reaching almost to the equator called Nova Guinea, but of Australia and New Zealand there is not a sign.

As you compare the globes, you see the gaps getting filled in. Richard Cushee’s “new globe of the earth laid down according to the latest observations”, made in 1730, contains a recognisable chunk of Australia — aka New Holland — though the eastern side remains unmapped. Spin it westwards and you come to the island of California. Just over 50 years later, Gabriel Wright and William Bardin’s “new, accurate, and compleat terrestrial globe” unites California with its parent continent and gives you the whole outline of New Holland, albeit with Van Diemen’s Land — Tasmania — firmly attached.

That “terrestrial” qualification is significant: the early modern scholars and merchants who bought Blaeu’s globes, and the Enlightenment gentlemen who bought Cushee’s, were no less interested in the heavens. Four of the 10 globes are celestial, offering a God’s-eye view of the night sky from the outside in. In Blaeu’s 1606 celestial globe, for example, lavishly adorned with the figures that the constellations are meant to represent, Boötes, the herdsman, in fur hat and baggy tunic, has his back to us, as do many of his mythological colleagues — Aquarius the water-carrier, the twin babies of Gemini, Orion the hunter.

But the stars are no more immune to the human fray than the earth below. The pair of hunting dogs that Boötes delicately holds on a double leash as they nip at the Great Bear’s ankles — a generous elaboration of what is just a couple of stars — are unnamed on Blaeu’s globe; Thomas Tuttell’s 1700 version, however, boasts pretty much the same Boötes and Bear — to a copyright-challenging degree — but the dogs have gone, replaced by a heart surmounted by a crown. A kind of Restoration emoji, this is identified as “Cor Caroli”, “Charles’s Heart”, an obsequious attempt by English sky-mappers to commemorate the executed King Charles I.

As the BL releases more globes over the coming months, the more such nationally inflected quirks will become apparent. “Dutch globes naturally tended to emphasise features and achievements of the Dutch world, the French ones the French world,” Harper says. “It’s fascinating too how 18th-century English globes are obsessed with commodities, the routes of English expeditions, as well as ocean routes, trade winds. They really reflect the English perception of the world.”

The BL is not the only institution to digitise its globes in this way: similar examples can be seen on the websites of France’s Bibliothèque Nationale and at the Osher Map Library in Maine. Back in London, the National Maritime Museum — which has the UK’s largest public collection of globes — offers a 3D rendering of a 1541 terrestrial globe by the pioneering cartographer Gerardus Mercator. For those who want literally to go deeper into the subject, it also has a blog about what X-ray studies of these artefacts have revealed.

Those with working-from-home deadlines to meet should click with care: you can soon lose yourself in these worlds, and in the other maps and charts that populate these websites. “People are fascinated by maps for all sorts of reasons: their accuracy or quality of design,” Harper says. “But mostly I think it’s their ability to transport us in a virtual sense to places we’ve been and would like to go.” With actual travel stymied by coronavirus, that is a tempting proposition.

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