The Dazzlingly Colorful Atlases That Brought the Night Sky Within Reach

Cetus

Great read on the history of celestial map-making from Atlas Obscura.

If you lived in London in 1822, you might have found solace in imagination. With skies dark with soot, rivers sludgy with sewage, and streets crowded with people, carts, and waste of all sorts, perhaps you looked to the heavens for some kind of escape.

For a relatively modest fee, you could stoke your flights of fancy by flipping through a celestial atlas. These volumes placed an otherworldly landscape in the palms of your hands, and invited readers to search the sky for the constellations on its pages. When night fell—assuming you could glimpse anything through the smog and London’s cloudy weather—you could find crabs and bulls and mythological heroes far above your head.

Constellations were first described in ancient times, but it wasn’t until the early 17th century that these images were compiled into comprehensive atlases. In 1603, Johann Bayer, a German cartographer, partnered with the artist Alexander Mair to produce a hefty volume called Uranometria, which spanned the entire heavens. Its 51 copper-plate engravings wrangled stars into recognizable, wondrous creatures and scenes, often drawn from the ancient myths that gave the constellations their names.

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