Invented in 1799 by the Frenchman Joseph Jérôme de Lalande (1732–1807), Felis consisted of a scattering of faint stars between Hydra to the north and Antlia to the south. Lalande did not himself depict the constellation on any globe or chart but suggested it to Johann Bode, who first showed it on his Uranographia atlas of 1801. Its brightest stars were of only 5th magnitude and now belong to Hydra.
Lalande had supplied many star positions to Bode for his atlas and catalogue, including those in this area, and felt that this gave him the right to suggest some new constellations. As he noted in his Histoire Abrégée de l’Astronomie: ‘There were already thirty-three animals in the sky; I added a thirty-fourth, the cat’. He said he was inspired by a recent poem on cats by Claude-Antoine Guyot-Desherbiers.
In his book Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning the American historian R. H. Allen quotes Lalande as saying: ‘I am very fond of cats. I will let this figure scratch on the chart. The starry sky has worried me quite enough in my life, so that now I can have my joke with it.’ Allen gave no reference, but his source was probably Ludwig Ideler’s Untersuchungen über den Ursprung und die Bedeutung der Sternnamen (Berlin, 1809), p. 367. (I am grateful to Robert van Gent of Utrecht University, Netherlands, for pointing this out.)
A more accurate translation of the German might be:
‘I love cats very much. I will have this picture engraved on the star map. The starry sky has tired me enough in my life that I can probably be allowed a little fun now.’
The original quotation, in imperfect German, was from a letter by Lalande that appeared in Allgemeine geographische Ephemeriden (A.G.E.), vol. 3 (1799), p. 623.
A grumpy-looking Felis on Chart XIX of the Uranographia of Johann Bode (1801). The cat crouches under the snaking body of Hydra (top), with Antlia beneath it and Pyxis at lower right.
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved