This constellation first appeared on the Uranographia atlas of Johann Elert Bode in 1801, but it had been suggested to him in 1798 by the French astronomer Joseph Jérôme de Lalande (1732–1807) to honour the hot-air balloon invented in the 1780s by the Montgolfier brothers. The balloon floated in the sky south of the zodiacal constellation Capricornus, next to the tail of Piscis Austrinus, the southern fish.

In his Histoire Abrégée de l’Astronomie, Lalande recalled that Nicolas Louis de Lacaille had placed instruments of science and arts among the stars of the southern hemisphere, and explained: ‘I thought the greatest discovery of the French deserved to occupy a place’. At the same time, he and Bode agreed to introduce a constellation representing Gutenberg’s printing press; this became Bode’s Officina Typographica. History shows that the printing press has been more influential than the hot-air balloon, but neither remain among the recognized constellations.

Its brightest star, which Bode labelled with a lowercase ‘a’ (but looking like a Greek alpha) on his chart in Uranographia (below), was of only magnitude 4.7. This star was originally catalogued by Flamsteed as part of Piscis Austrinus. It has since been transferred to the adjacent Microscopium, where it is known as Epsilon Microscopii; Bode’s Epsilon Microscopii (right of chart below) is now left unlettered.


Globus Aerostaticus, rising into the sky with an empty basket, on Chart XVI of the Uranographia of Johann Bode (1801). To the left of the balloon is the tail of the southern fish, Piscis Austrinus, and to the right of it is Microscopium. Capricornus is at top.

© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved

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