It was 1957 and the Russians had beaten us into space with the successful and unexpected launch of the Sputnik satellite. Some Americans were shocked and embarrassed to have lost the first leg of the “Space Race.” There was fear also that the same technology could deliver a nuclear weapon. How could it have happened?
Some scientists, politicians, and the popular press said it was the Soviet’s “superior” educational system. Many boomers coming of age in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s recall a sudden emphasis on the sciences; new buildings and shiny new equipment sprang up on high school and college campuses throughout the country. It was all part of the National Defense Education Act, which Congress passed in 1958, in time authorizing over $1 billion dollars to improve math, science and foreign language education.
In 1959, UGA got some of that money to construct a six-building science complex, which included the Geography-Geology building whose interior focal point was a huge six-foot wide geophysical relief globe. It was one of about a hundred that were built and sold by Rand-McNally to universities and museums in both the U.S. and Canada. And while a teaching tool to begin with, over the decades, it has often served as a backdrop for photographs and television interviews, not to mention a meeting place for students.
By 2014, though, it was showing its age. “It had lost its original color,” said Tom Mote, geography professor and department head. Noting the surface had become faded, oxidized, chipped, and splattered, and that the mechanics worked only intermittently, “it was in desperate need of restoration.” Charged with finding a company to do the work before a regional geography conference convened that November, Hilda Kurtz, geography professor, called 10 different companies in five different states, each lacking the expertise and referring her to another. Finally, she reached Georgiana and Dimitri Nedelcu of Universal Fine Art Conservation in Estill, S.C.
Over three months, the couple made repeated trips to campus, cleaning the globe and repainting it to match the original colors. “This was one of our most fun projects,” says Georgiana Nedelcu. A weekly round trip allowed the team to match and then mix colors onsite. “Dimitri creates what we call ‘Rand-McNally’ blue for the oceans,” which had to be totally repainted with new latitude and longitude lines. The islands and countries required only touch up. “It takes a discerning eye to see the differences in color in a mountain crevice,” she notes. As one of only three companies in the country that restores antique globes, they have restored “zillions,” she says, the smallest with a six-inch diameter but most about 12 inches. The UGA globe is the largest.
UGA’s Facilities Management Department replaced belts and lubricated the mechanical system so that for the first time in decades, the globe again rotates several times each weekday. New flooring sets it off and a higher railing protects it; in time, new lighting will be installed.
Cold War culture
Florida State University graduate student Simon Whitehouse, who is studying geophysical globes of the era, writes at his website that “the globes that still stand represent the greatness of American cartographic history.” Improved aerial photography, satellite space imagery, new discoveries in tectonics and oceanography, and the artistry of the molding and painting showed “post-World War II earthlings, for the first time in human history, what their home actually looked like from space.” See black and white images of the large globes being constructed at: www.flickr.com/photos/60678966@N02/sets/72157626982271598/
As a teaching tool at the time, geophysical globes became part of a new course of study called “earth science,” which combined astronomy, geology, geophysics, meteorology, and paleontology, according to the National Museum of American History website. Today, of course, computerized images and satellite photographs of earth are much more precise and informative. Still, the globe serves a purpose. Recalling a student showing another where he served in Afghanistan, Kurtz says, “it gives students a chance to tell their own stories; it’s kind of like a hearth.” As an almost-boomer, Kurtz also thinks “it’s refreshing to have a physical object in this digital world, and it’s nice to see students relating to a thing instead of a screen.”
Globe wins preservation award
Princeton University has a very similar globe; it cost $10,600 in 1959 ($86,200 in today’s dollars), and had the highest degree of contoured accuracy achieved in a relief globe, according to Princeton’s Geosciences Department. However, when the UGA globe arrived, it was unpainted, probably to save money, says Mote, noting that a faculty member oversaw its painting. The recent restoration was underwritten by several alumni and alumnae Elaine Neal in memory of Evelyn Bird, the first woman to earn a graduate degree in geography from UGA in 1953. At its annual ceremony in June, the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation recognized the geography department with an “Outstanding Restoration” award.