The Mapparium was conceived by the architect of the Christian Science Publishing House, Chester Lindsay Churchill. Originally called “the Glass Room,” or “the Globe Room,” “Mapparium” comes from the Latin words “mappa” (map) and “arium” (a place for). In the early 1930s, Churchill visited the headquarters of the New York Daily News. There he saw a twelve-foot globe in the lobby. He liked the idea of a newspaper having a globe to indicate its reach and scope and suggested to the Building Committee of the Christian Science Publishing Society that a Mapparium would symbolize the international character and “world-consciousness” of the Publishing Society's activities.
The Mapparium was three years in the making (1932-1935). It opened to the public May 31, 1935, and cost $35,000 (at a time when a Hershey bar cost about five cents), including all labor and materials.
The Mapparium is a sphere, 30 feet in diameter (three stories high), with a bronze framework constructed to form ten-degree latitude and longitude divisions. Within this framework are 608 glass sections (one quarter inch thick) painted on the concave side to represent exactly the whole surface of the Earth. Its entrance and exit are connected by a glass bridge called “The Bridge of Amity” which is composed of a framework of aluminum and stainless steel, and structural glass one to one and a half inches thick. The glass was made by Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. Churchill claimed that the bridge (being made almost predominantly of glass) was one of the first, if not the first, of its kind.
The Rambusch Decorating Company, based in New York, was retained to produce the stained glass and lighting system for the Mapparium. Construction of the Mapparium was an elaborate process. Glass panels were shipped over from England by Henry Hope and Sons Glass Company starting in April 1934. Drawings of the map were prepared by Rand McNally, a map company based out of Chicago. The artists started working with a 1934 Rand McNally map, although updates were made to the map throughout its construction.1 Map data was drawn onto cartoons made to fit the size of the glass sections. Each cartoon was taped to the back of the glass panels and then the data was traced onto the front sides.
Next came the painting and firing of the glass panels by Rambusch. This took about eight months to complete. Colored powdered glass was sprayed and painted onto the glass between the boundary lines marking political divisions and land and water. The glass was then placed in a kiln in curved cradles and baked until the colors were fused into the glass. Each panel was fired in a kiln to fuse the color to the panel. Each color required a separate firing at temperatures ranging from 1100 to 1350 degrees Fahrenheit. Separate baking was required for each color tone, thus making the colors permanent and giving the effect of European glass of the fourteenth century.
Originally, Churchill designed the glass panels to be replaceable as the political boundaries of the world changed. There have been several points in the Mapparium’s history where the discussion of updating the map did arise. The final time was in the 1960s, when it was finally decided that the Mapparium was a priceless work of art and history, and so should never be updated.
Twenty-two clocks line the Equator, marking the different time zones. Originally the clocks changed mechanically every five minutes to reflect the true time in every part of the world. At some point the mechanical parts stopped working, so they remain at a set hour of day or night. The clocks mark fifteen degree intervals.2
A renovation of the Mapparium was initiated in 1998 and took four years to complete. Krent/Paffett Associates of Boston used the “Color Kinetics” lighting system in the exhibit, creating a way to tell stories in the globular space. Kevin Brown of Brown Innovations designed the sound system, solving the problem presented by the Mapparium’s unique acoustics.
As the first step in renovation, the entire globe was temporarily covered in plywood while heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems were upgraded. In 1935 the Mapparium was illuminated by about 300 40-watt and 60-watt electric light bulbs placed outside the sphere. Now in their place are 206 LED light fixtures that can be programmed to produce up to sixteen million colors. This programming produces many different effects. For example, an all-blue array causes the continents to recede into silhouette and the oceans to come forward (shifting attention from the geopolitical map to geographic forms). The LED panels are environmentally friendly – left on twenty-four hours a day, they would last for fifteen years. There are now four speakers in the Mapparium, and in place of a window there is a television screen.
To clean the glass, a cherry-picker is set up in the middle of the bridge. Workers go out on the machine’s arm and clean each panel with a gentle solution. This happens approximately every five years.
The shape of the Mapparium creates unusual sound effects. Speaking near the center of the room, voices are much louder than usual. This is because the curved glass walls do not absorb the sound waves produced by the voice but reflect them back to the individual.
Spherical rooms like the Mapparium are known as “whispering galleries.” Usually these are of the cylindrical type, and the acoustics are fairly simple. The Mapparium, however, is almost spherical, producing a more complex type of acoustics, as well as a very efficient transference of sound. In a spherical space, the sound starting near the center of the sphere returns to the source.
Sound waves that originate off-center travel around the sphere and arrive at the opposite end simultaneously. That’s why those at one end of the bridge can hear the whisper of those at the opposite end, loud and clear, while a listener standing in the center (such as on the bridge running through the center of the Mapparium) would hear a much weaker sound than a person on the edge.
1Just two months before opening day, Persia changed its name to Iran, and the artisans rushed to make the change. In the Mapparium the map reflects both of these names, with “Persia” in parentheses underneath “Iran.” Additionally, Italian East Africa was changed to Italian Somaliland. 2This spacing does skip a bit in the South Pacific of the Mapparium, explaining why there are only 22 time zones marked instead of 24. There is no record of why the decision was made to only mark 22.