What gift do you present to the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world?
That was the challenge faced by the United States’ army chief of staff, General George C Marshall, in the midst of the Second World War. Twice.
Charged with sending a Christmas gift from the US army to both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, Marshall decided to give them the world – or the closest approximation as was possible in 1942. The general commissioned a pair of globes from the Weber Costello Company of Chicago, a manufacturer of furniture and educational equipment that was renowned for the artistry of its scientific instruments.
Using the latest maps compiled by the US Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of today’s CIA, Weber Costello produced two globes that stood five feet high, weighed 340 kilograms each and measured 13 feet in circumference. It wasn’t just their enormous size that made the Weber Costello globes unique – it was their mounting as well. Instead of rotating around a fixed axis like a traditional globe, Marshall’s gifts rested on a series of rubber roller bearings that allowed them to be rotated in any direction.
In many ways the gifts were an obvious choice. Globes had been used to signify a particularly potent blend of knowledge, power, control and prestige for millennia, and Marshall’s conceit was to celebrate Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s status by placing the world, quite literally, at their fingertips.
The general’s intention, however, was rather more than a simple exercise in ornamentation and flattery. Recent events such as Pearl Harbor, and advances in aviation and weapons technology had effectively redrawn the map by rendering the distances between continents an irrelevance; the result was an urgent need for a change in geographical and strategic perspective that reflected this new political reality.
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