THE four examples of celestial cartography listed 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 globe.
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 Nicolas Fortin (1750–1831), a maker of scientific instruments and globes. 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. 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.
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 an 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 1774 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.
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.
The fourth item on my list, Urania’s Mirror, is not a true atlas but a set of illustrated cards for a lay audience. Its
depictions of the constellations were derived from Alexander Jamieson’s atlas and can be considered as the final flourishing of the Flamsteed
For a brief history of celestial mapping, see Chapter Two of my Star Tales.
1. Atlas Céleste de Flamstéed (1776, 1795). Jean Fortin.
Scans of the 1776 edition at Linda Hall Library here.
Scans of the 1795 edition at Linda Hall Library here.
2. Vorstellung der Gestirne (1782, 1805). Johann Elert Bode.
Scans of the 1782 edition at Linda Hall Library here.
Scans of the 1805 edition at Linda Hall Library here.
4. Urania’s Mirror (1825). A set of perforated constellation cards, now attributed to the Rev. Richard
Vanity Fair cartoons:
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 R. A. Proctor was arguably the greatest astronomy popularizer of
the same era.