Antique star atlases

THE four examples of celestial cartography described below all follow in what might be termed the Flamsteed tradition – that is, they are descendants of the epochal Atlas Coelestis produced by John Flamsteed (1646–1719), who was the first Astronomer Royal of Great Britain. Flamsteed’s atlas was published posthumously in 1729 as an accompaniment to his catalogue of 2,935 stars, Historia Coelestis Britannica, the most accurate and comprehensive celestial audit of its day. Resulting from the establishment of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich by King Charles II in 1675, Flamsteed’s catalogue and atlas could be seen as a demonstration that the realm of the British Empire extended to the heavens as well as spanning the terrestrial globe.

The ‘French Flamsteed’ (1776, 1795)

Flamsteed’s atlas was large and expensive, and the constellation figures were somewhat austere in appearance. A smaller, more popular edition was called for. Nearly half a century later it appeared – not in Britain but in France, under the authorship of Jean-Baptiste Fortin (1740–1817), a French cartographer and instrument maker.[note] Fortin’s Atlas Céleste de Flamstéed (sometimes known as the ‘French Flamsteed’) was first published in 1776, with a revised edition in 1795 in which a number of new constellations were added. Its charts were about one-third the size of Flamsteed’s imposing originals and hence far more convenient for casual use. Whereas Flamsteed’s atlas contained 25 constellation charts Fortin had 26, splitting the long figure of Hydra into two separate charts (the head and the tail) instead of Flamsteed’s awkward foldout.

Like Flamsteed, Fortin confined himself to the constellations visible from Greenwich, although he appended a copy of Lacaille’s planisphere of the southern sky. Somewhat confusingly, Fortin’s 1776 atlas is described as the Second Edition and the 1795 printing the Third Edition; this is because he regarded Flamsteed’s original as the First Edition. A Portuguese edition of Fortin’s 1795 atlas was published in 1804, translated by the Portuguese astronomer and cartographer Francisco António Ciera (1763–1814).

  • Scans of the Atlas Céleste de Flamstéed 1776 edition here.
  • Scans of the Atlas Céleste de Flamstéed 1776 edition (1778 revision) here.
  • Scans of the Atlas Céleste de Flamstéed 1795 edition here.
  • Scans of the 1804 Portuguese edition here.

Bode’s Vorstellung der Gestirne (1782, 1805)

In Germany, Johann Elert Bode (1747–1826), director of the Berlin Observatory and an indefatigable popularizer of astronomy, was inspired by Fortin’s success to produce a German-language atlas of his own with the same format. The result, Vorstellung der Gestirne, was published in 1782. A second edition with additional constellations, some of them invented by Bode himself, appeared in 1805. To capitalize on the market established by the Fortin atlas, this 1805 edition was printed in French as well as German.

Bode improved on Fortin in one significant way, by introducing constellation boundaries snaking between the stars. As Deborah Jean Warner tells us in her monumental book The Sky Explored, Bode was not the first to do this – Didier Robert de Vaugondy in 1764 and Noel André in 1778 had preceded him – but he was the best-known and hence most influential. However, since Flamsteed had inadvertently assigned some stars to the wrong constellations, the results were sometimes absurd, with boundaries overlapping neighbouring figures, as in the cases of Lynx and Leo Minor. Incidentally, Bode went on to produce an entirely new atlas called Uranographia, a blockbuster which is generally regarded as the greatest pictorial star atlas of all time, but as with Flamsteed’s atlas it was large and expensive and not intended for popular consumption.

  • Scans of the 1782 edition here.
  • Scans of the 1805 edition here.

Alexander Jamieson’s Celestial Atlas (1822)

Bode’s Vorstellung der Gestirne in turn inspired a British imitator, the Celestial Atlas of Alexander Jamieson (1782–1850) published in 1822, bringing the cycle full circle back to Great Britain. Jamieson’s charts are probably the most attractive of the trio. I deal with Jamieson and his atlas more fully on a separate page.

Urania’s Mirror (1825)

The fourth item on my list, Urania’s Mirror, is not a true atlas but a set of perforated constellation cards for a lay audience, published anonymously but now attributed to the Rev. Richard Rouse Bloxam (1765–1840). Its depictions of the constellations were derived from Alexander Jamieson’s atlas and can be considered as the final flourishing of the Flamsteed tradition. I deal with Urania’s Mirror more fully on a separate page.

For a fuller history of celestial mapping, see Chapter Two of my Star Tales.

Vanity Fair cartoons

As an entertaining footnote, here are caricatures of two great characters from the history of British astronomy, published in 1875 and 1883 by the English weekly magazine Vanity Fair in its ‘Man of the Day’ feature. Sir George Airy was the greatest professional astronomer of the 19th century, while Richard Proctor was arguably the greatest astronomy popularizer of the same era, and an ardent author of sky guides and charts.