Then Again: America’s first globe maker was self-taught Vermont farmer

James Wilson

James Wilson, a farmer in Bradford, learned a wide array of skills to become America’s first globe maker. Courtesy of National Life Group

(“Then Again” is Mark Bushnell’s column about Vermont history.)

Central to life in the early 19th century was a seeming contradiction. The world was still largely mysterious, with plenty of territory yet to be charted and fields of study yet to be researched. But despite their far from complete understanding of the world, or perhaps because of it, people believed that if they just applied themselves, they would find the world basically knowable.

That, perhaps, explains the career choice of James Wilson. Given his upbringing, Wilson seemed destined for a life of anonymity, like many of his forebears, as a farmer. As a child, Wilson found little time for school – too much work was needed to be done on the farm. But he maintained his intellectual curiosity and ambition. As an adult, he took time to learn the art of engraving and to study geography. He would use this hard-won knowledge to feed his contemporaries’ fascination with the world by becoming the first globe maker in the United States.

Wilson was born in 1763 in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and lived there until 1795, when he moved across the Connecticut River to Bradford, Vermont. He seems to have brought with him his idea of manufacturing globes or perhaps developed it along the way.

How the idea originated is anybody’s guess. One theory is he became caught up in one of the fascinations of the day. With England, France, Spain and the new United States struggling over which country would own various parts of North America, geography became a hot topic of conversation.

Wilson may have seen his first globes in 1795 on his way to Vermont. He is said to have visited a friend studying at Dartmouth College and there first glimpsed a globe. He also visited a cousin in Vermont, James McDuffee, whose father years earlier had taught the two blacksmithing. Wilson liked what he saw of Vermont, so he bought land and moved his farm.

While it is true that Wilson had little formal education, it would be wrong to consider him ignorant or unskilled. He was, in fact, deeply gifted. As a farmer and blacksmith, he was clever with things mechanical. He also had a thirst for knowledge that we might wrongly assume was rare among rural folk in northern New England in the late 1700s, who were busy establishing homesteads. But the year after Wilson arrived in Bradford, 34 residents successfully petitioned the state Legislature to charter a public library. This came only two years after Massachusetts chartered its first public library.

Determined to build globes, Wilson knew he needed to fill the gapping holes in his knowledge of geography and astronomy. So he sold off some of his farm stock, raising the then rather huge sum of $130, which he used to buy the 18-volume “Encyclopedia Britannica.” Wilson was apparently confident he had the carpentry and blacksmithing skills to make the globes and that the encyclopedia, which was published in installments, would provide the most up-to-date information on geography.

Still, there was the matter of learning to etch. He traveled to Newburyport, Massachusetts, north of Boston, to ask well-known American engraver John Akin for lessons. But when Akin set his fee at $100, Wilson had to look elsewhere. So he traveled by foot to New Haven, Connecticut, where he hired as his teacher Amos Doolittle, who had produced the maps for the first geography book printed in the United States.

Accounts of Wilson’s life don’t mention what his wife thought of his spending so much money and time on what must have seemed a rather speculative venture. Three of his sons, however, were fully supportive and joined him in the business. Indeed, they did much to make it a success.

Wilson was nothing if not self-sufficient. As he tinkered with globe designs beginning in 1796, he built them from scratch in a way almost unimaginable today. To start with, he built his own tools, including a printing press and the lathe he used to make the wooden sphere around which he would mold his globes. He even made his own glues, inks and varnishes. The only shortcut he seems to have taken was purchasing paper from a Boston-area manufacturer.

He spent the better part of a year etching a large copper plate with the Earth’s major features and the routes of famous explorers. A persistent problem that cartographers faced also troubled Wilson – how to get proportions right when working on a sphere. He took his copper plate to a geographer in Charlestown, Massachusetts, who looked the plate over and said there was no way to fix the errors. Wilson would have to start again. So he purchased another sheet of copper, at great expense to his family, and began scratching at it.

Through trial and error, Wilson learned to get the proportions right and to get the various lines circling the globe to meet. He printed the Earth’s features in tapered sections like orange wedges that he cut apart and reunited on the face of the globe. After the paper had stiffened, he would cut the paper globe in half, remove the wooden form, glue the two pieces together and mount them.

The earliest record that historians have of Wilson selling a globe dates from 1809. It seems quite possible that he sold some earlier. How else could he have justified toiling for 13 years in what would have been merely a hobby? Once he began to sell his globes, customers apparently flocked to him. Wilson’s globes were considered at least the equal of English-made pieces, and they cost less. Furthermore, owners of Wilson’s globes could take pride in the fact they were made in America.

Wilson found ready markets in Boston, Amherst and Albany. His customers were often influential members of society since only wealthier people could afford the luxury. One of his first recorded customers was Vermont Supreme Court Justice Nathaniel Niles of West Fairlee. Niles had served as Vermont’s representative in Congress and was such a fan of Wilson’s work that he arranged for his globes to be displayed in Washington.

Demand quickly outstripped supply, so in 1815 Wilson and three of his sons established a factory in Albany. The eldest boy, Samuel, ran the place with the help of his brothers John and David, while their father continued to manufacture globes in Bradford.

Globes were often sold in pairs. One was a terrestrial globe, showing the major oceans and land masses; the other was a celestial globe, showing the relative positions of thousands of stars. J. Wilson & Sons sold models ranging three inches to 13 inches in diameter for prices ranging from $22 to $55.

Despite the success he enjoyed, Wilson was not immune to tragedy. During his life, he was widowed twice. He suffered other devastating losses, which could have destroyed him and the business. In 1827, his son David, who had left the globe business to become a painter in New York, died of tuberculosis. Samuel and John died six years later, though accounts of Wilson’s life, oddly, don’t mention the causes of their deaths.

The business somehow survived these disasters. One of Wilson’s sons-in-law took over running the Albany factory. Wilson himself remained active into his final days. In the years before he died at the age of 92, Wilson perfected a model planetarium. Using a clever arrangement of gears, Wilson’s model was able to replicate the Earth’s daily rotation and its annual circuit around the sun. The device was a boon for students trying to grasp the Earth’s complex movements.

To the end Wilson remained committed to the idea that, with effort, you could come to understand the world.

Mark Bushnell

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  • Bradleigh Stockwell

    I love – LOVE – reading stories like this. They’re like literature, stories you wish someone would film. If it turned out you were making it all up, well, I’d still looking forward to the next one.

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