Bodes Charts and other Atlasses

Bode's Atlas "Vorstellung der Gestirne" was first published in 1782. The intention was to provide charts for the amateur astronomer who could not (or did not want to) afford a professional atlas. These atlasses had not only become expensive, but also pretty large: Bode himself published 1801 the one with the largest charts ever, the famous Uranographia measuring 103 by 67 cm.

Already 1776 the french artist Fortin had pulished a small version of Flamsteed's Atlas coelestis from 1726, measuring only 23 by 18 cm. Bode was going to publish such a work in German, but also corrected and extended the catalogue database, so that his charts show more stars and improved positions. In addition to the Fortin version Bode added four more plates: Two with detailed drawings of deep sky objects as clusters, nebulae, and visual binary stars as they are seen through a telescope (Plates XXX and XXXI); and two charts of the sky in the "ancient times Greeks of Romans" (Plates XXXIII and XXXIV, showing the sky for around 374 v.Chr., the society of these times was highly interested in antiquity). Since the rotational axis of Earth sways once in 23000 years, an effect called "precession", several of the southern constellations were visible better, others worse than nowadays.

The atlas itself was published in German, the accompanying text in German and French, the language of science in those times. Obviously, the "Vorstellung der Gestirne" must have been a success, since 1805 a second, improved edition was published. An overview of atlasses of this golden age of celestial cartography is given by an online exhition of the Linda Hall Library, also offering complete scans of the Uranometria by Johann Bayer (1603) and the Fortin Atlas von 1776. Also found there are scans of the Atlas by Kornelius Reissig form 1829 (in Russian and cyrillic writing), based on the charts by Fortin/Bode. Another general site for celestial cartography presents many links to other atlasses.

History of the original atlas

The copy presented here was originally in possession of the observatory of the Grand Duke of Mannheim, built 1772-1774. After a good start, however, the observatory became more and more neglected. It was moved to Karlsruhe in 1880, until the old instruments and the libary were given to the Königstuhl observatory, inaugurated 1898. Part of the intruments were given to the Landesmuseum für Technik und Arbeit in Mannheim, the oldest books (including e.g. a first edition copy of Newton's Principiae) were donated to the university library. Bode's atlas, with a publishing date of 1782 comparably young, is still at the institute, which has become the Landessternwarte Königstuhl.

In order to make the individual charts more accessible the atlas was unbound probably already early, so that it consists nowadays of 34 single chart plates and one title plate. To the atlas belongs the french text volume, describing the constellations and introducing the usage of the atlas, followed by a complete catalogue of stars. As printing was fully manual in 1782 the quality of the plates varies, for pressure was not always equal on the full plate area, so that sometimes one plate half is printed better than the other and such things. Most plates are of equal size, but some are different. For instace Plate XXIX is bigger than all others.


Since the invention of telescopes more and more celestial objects were found. To better keep overview new constellations were added to the 48 ancient ones. Today 88 constellations are commonly reckognized, of which for instance the Fox (Vulpecula, Plate X) or the Lesser Lion (Leo Minor, Plate V) are such recent additions. Some new constellations were also politically motivated, so was the shield (Scutum, Plate X) dedicated to the polish King Jan III Sobieski. Many southern constellations (see Plate XXIX) were added by de la Caille around 1750 to symbolize the technical advancement, for instance the chemical oven (Fornax) or the pump (Antila).

Yet the numbers of object increased so rapidly that these continuous additions turned out to be impractical, and thus the later ones were dropped, even if they are still engraved on Bode's plates. These include the Sceptre of Brandenburg (Plate XXIV) or the Royal bull of Poniatowski (Plate X). The second edition of the Bode atlas of 1805 even included more constellations, like "Balloon", "Printing press" and "Cat". None of those is still reckognized, however. Also the ancient constellation of Antinous (Plate X, placed by the Roman emperor Hadrian to honour his favourite tragedly drowned in the Nile) is not reckognized anymore

The giant constellation of Argo, the ship of the argonauts sailing to Colchis in pursuit of the golden fleece, was later divided into Vela (the sail), Puppis (the poopdeck) and Carina (the keel).

Some interesting details



Sometimes the owners of such maps had them coloured by artists. Such coloration, however, rendered the atlas a representative object rather than a tool of astronomical work. The copy of the Landessternwarte Heidelberg was kept uncoloured, except one plate: Plate XXI, Aquarius, was handcoloured. However, also this work is rather scarce compared to other works (see Cellarius' atlas, for instance).

The Orion nebula


Initially, all diffuse looking objects were called nebulae. For the astronomer Messier, interested rather in comets, nebulae even were a continuous source or annoyance, for they could easily be mistaken as faint comets. He decided, therefore, to compile a list of such nebulae to avoid misidentifications. Messier's famous catalogue contains the brightest and biggest such nebulae, being among the most beautyful objects in the sky. The large nebula in Orion, Messier No. 42, is visible already to the unaided eye, and was drawn through a telescope first by Cristian Huyghens in 1656.

Brahe's Supernova 1572

Brahe SN

Although it had faded away already two hundred years before, the then oldest known observation of a "Stella Nova" was still fascinating in 1782. Five days after first sightings elsewhere also Tycho Brahe discovered the "new star" on November 11, 1572, in the constellation of Cassiopeia, as bright as Jupiter. Brahe first distrusted his sight, but others he asked confirmed the phenomenon and Brahe described it as a "miracle, not seen before since the beginning of time". The new star became as bright as Venus and later faded. In fact Brahe had seen the exact opposite of a new star, namely the explosion that ends the life of a massive star: a supernova.

Kepler's Supernova 1604

Kepler SN

Only 32 years later, October 9, 1604, again a "new star" was discovered. Kepler studied the phoenomenon most intense (inspired by Brahe's reports), and gave the supernova his name, but in fact saw it only on October 17. Also this "Stella Nova", at time of first sighting about as bright as Jupiter, had faded long ago when Bode's atlas was printed. It is the until now last supernova in our own Milky Way. A similar bright supernova was seen in 1987, but this time in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of our closest neighbour galaxies.

Further variable stars


In addition to the Supernovae Bode marked the variable stars known with the year of the discovery of their variability. The list of these stars, six including the supernovae, had been published by Halley 1715. They include the two Mira objects omicron in the constellation of Cetus (which is Mira itself) and chi Cygni. Then P Cygni which brightened in 1600 and the Nova of 1670 in Vulpecula (nowadays called CK Vul). One more variable star is marked in the constellation of Hydra (Plate XXVII) at the tail. Although there is no star at this position, this is probably R Hydrae, being several degrees northwest from the marked position.

Comet Halley 1835


Obviously, the charts were in use. Next to many written entries in the catalogue there are two positions marked with a pencil on Plate IV, labelled "29. Sept" and "30". The position is too far north to be the one of a planet or of most asteroids, so that not too many possibilities remain. In fact, the positions mark the comet Halley in 1835, brightening rapidly after it had become visible in the morning sky to the naked eye on September 23, 1835.

Uranus 1690


Despite Uranus was recognized as a solar system object only in March 1781 by Herschel, it had been seen before, but was catalogued as star. The first of these mistakes was by John Flamsteed on December 23, 1690, when he included Uranus as 34 Tauri in his catalogue. Bode was the one to realize that Uranus must have been observed before (which enabled precise orbit calculations already soon after the discovery), but this was only later in 1785, so that in his Atlas of 1782 the Uranus position of 1690 is still engraved as star of seventh magnitude, almost exactly on the ecliptic circle. (see also catalogue, page 17, 34 Tauri). At closer inspection Bode found six entries in Flamsteed catalogue between 1690 and 1715, all being sightings of Uranus. Flamsteed was not the only one, however: James Bradley (three sightings 1748 to 1753), Tobias Mayer (one sighting 1756) und Pierre Charles Le Monnier (ten sightings 1764 to 1771!) also missed their chances. Herschel's luck, first suspecting Uranus to be a comet, was one of the best telescopes of his time in combination with a rather large magnification, so he immediately reckognized Uranus as extended object.

The name "Uranus" was proposed by Bode, but became common only 1850. Herschel himself named the new planet "Georgium Sidus" in honour of King George III of England, but sometimes (in particular by French and American astronomers) it was just called "Herschel's Planet"


Th. Rivinius