There were originally two such constellations, both introduced in 1789 by the Hungarian-born astronomer Maximilian Hell (1720–1792), director of the Vienna Observatory, in commemoration of William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus eight years earlier. Hell first showed them on charts contained in the Ephemerides astronomicae (a yearly almanac) for the year 1790, published by the Vienna Observatory in 1789. They were positioned either side of the area where the new planet had been found, near the star Zeta Tauri.

Tubus Hershelii Major, as Hell called it, represented Herschel’s 20-ft-long telescope and lay between Gemini, Lynx, and Auriga. Tubus Hershelii Minor (again, Hell’s spelling), crammed awkwardly between Orion and the head of Taurus, represented Herschel’s 7-ft reflector. Judging by the inaccurate representations, though, Hell had not seen either telescope – in the case of Tubus Hershelii Minor he even got the type of telescope wrong, depicting it as a refractor whereas Herschel used only reflectors of his own construction.

Johann Bode reduced the constellations to one in his Uranographia atlas of 1801 under the name Telescopium Herschelii, located where Hell had placed Tubus Hershelii Major. Bode, having bought telescopes from Herschel, knew what they looked like and he realistically depicted the 7-ft reflector with which Herschel actually made the discovery of Uranus.

In Bode’s representation, the constellation’s brightest star was the present-day 50 Aurigae, magnitude 4.8, which he labelled with the lowercase letter ‘a’. Eventually its stars were returned to Auriga, Gemini, and Lynx, from where they had been borrowed.


Telescopium Herschelii, depicting the reflecting telescope with which William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, on Chart V of the Uranographia atlas of Johann Bode (1801).

© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved