The G in GIS
The Fliers' Globe Exemplifies 20th
by Dr. Jerry Dobson
We have in our possession a wondrous globe that extols the history of geographic exploration in the 20th Century. It’s called “The Flier’s and Explorers’ Globe,” or sometimes just “The Fliers’ Globe,” and it has belonged to the American Geographical Society since 1929. Its story truly befits the end of one millennium and beginning of the next, for it tells us where we’ve been and asks where we are going.
In monetary terms, this globe certainly stands among the most valuable on earth. Measuring 20 inches in diameter, it was constructed by Rand McNalley, and donated to the Society by John H. Finley, president of the Society (1925 to 1934) and later editor-in-chief of The New York Times. It’s extraordinary value, however, lies in what’s been scribbled and scrawled across its surface.
Picture, if you will, an antique globe with Charles Lindbergh’s route etched across the Atlantic and signed in his own hand. How much would such a “collectible” bring at Sotheby’s?
How much more if Amelia Earhart also signed and marked her route as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in 1932? Now, add Wiley Post, first man to fly solo around the world (1933), and Harold Gatty, who helped him set an around-the-world speed record shortly before Post and Will Rogers died on the same route. Add Louise Boyd, an outstanding maritime explorer who mapped the channels on both sides of Greenland in the early days of sonar mapping technology. Add John Glenn, first person to orbit the earth (1962), with a photograph of President John Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson watching him sign. Add astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell.
That’s why it’s called The Fliers’ Globe, but what about explorers? Look north, and you’ll find Robert Peary, president of the Society (1903 to 1907) and first person to reach the North Pole (1909). Look south, and you’ll find Roald Amundsen, first to reach the South Pole (1911). Elsewhere, you’ll find Fridtjof Nansen, who led a lengthy Arctic expedition (1893-1896), directed the League of Nations refugee relief effort after World War I, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922; Richard Byrd who explored the Arctic and Antarctic regions and established the Little America research base in Antarctica; and Sir Hubert Wilkins, among the first to explore the Arctic by air. You’ll even find Sir Edmund Hillary’s signature on Mt. Everest and William Beebe’s signature near Bermuda where he and Otis Barton set a depth record of 3,028 feet in the Bathysphere (1934).
The Fliers’ Globe contains these signatures and many others for a total of 62 individuals, and some names are repeated for more than one feat. Even among the less famous are people like Lincoln Ellsworth, who claimed much of Antarctica for the United States, and J. Tuzo Wilson, a renowned Canadian geophysicist who contributed much to plate tectonics theory.
Whom did we miss?
The Fliers’ Globe is not a complete record of 20th Century exploration, for we somehow missed a few obvious candidates. Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, for example, descended to the bottom of the ocean (35,800 ft.) in the Bathyscaphe in 1960, but their names do not appear over the Marianas Trench. Jacques Cousteau’s name doesn’t appear although he certainly qualified on the basis of many ocean explorations. Astronaut Neil Armstrong definitely should have signed when he returned from the moon in 1969. Cosmonaut Valentina Vladmirovna Tereshkova should have signed as the first woman in space in 1963.
Some, like Cousteau, are lost forever, but the Society has begun a process to remedy as many oversights as possible.
Who is worthy today?
Are we, today, still accomplishing feats of comparable magnitude. I’ve asked friends and colleagues which modern explorers and aviators are worthy to sign. Robert Ballard has been suggested, as have Sylvia Earle and Graham Hawkes for their separate and joint accomplishments in deep ocean exploration. For aviation, Bertrand Piccard (son of Jacques Piccard) and Brian Jones have been suggested for their unprecedented circumnavigation of the earth by balloon earlier this year. It’s comforting to know the quest continues in both arenas.
Two other candidates definitely would qualify, if only they were human. NASA’s Mars Rover and Hubble Telescope have explored distant places in the old fashioned sense of being there and recording what they saw, albeit digitally and remotely. Herein lies a hint of things to come as “being there” becomes less important (and less effective) than probing and reporting what lies beyond our human grasp.
A Tough Millennium to Follow
As millennia go, the second one has been pretty good, especially for geography. The value added in geographical knowledge from 1001 AD to 2000 AD is phenomenal. Can we top it in the next millennium?
A recent review in The New Yorker (Hertzberg 1999) belittled the National Geographic Society’s new Adventure magazine, not for its writing or photography or style, but rather because, “...the exploration of unknown territory, conducted of necessity under conditions of extreme hardship...is...obsolete...” That sounds like what folks were saying in 1491, and it’s simply not true. Not long ago (Dobson 1999), I called for the exploration of Aquaterra, a global feature that is profoundly unknown and that will be at least as difficult to explore as Antarctica. We’ll need some divers, but the bulk of this endeavor will involve GIS, remote sensing, and robotics.
Yes, the nature of exploration has changed, but there is still much left to discover. In the Age of Exploration it was a stunning accomplishment simply to observe a new landmass and report it’s existence. Today, exploration is more demanding than ever as we probe places that are deeper (oceans floors, Inner Earth) and higher (atmosphere, planetary bodies), search for tangible evidence of historic and pre-historic landscapes, and seek new geographic understanding of complex earth processes. Through technology, exploration can now be extended to places where humans cannot go, to phenomena that cannot be observed directly by human senses, and to macroscopic processes so large they can be observed and investigated only through remote sensing, GIS, and advanced geo-visualization.
The age of digital exploration is upon us. Expect marvelous discoveries in the third millennium, though not always a human hand to sign the The Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe.
Dobson, J. E. “Explore Aquaterra–Lost Land Beneath the Sea,” GeoWorld Vol. 12, No. 1, January 1999.
Hertzberg, Hendrik. “The National Geographic Society Goes Where Many Have Gone Before.” The New Yorker, August 23 & 30, 1999, p. 62.