Looking into Urania’s Mirror: The Geminid Meteor Shower

Urania’s Mirror and assorted cards: Gemini, Taurus, Virgo. Hand-colored etchings by Sidney Hall from anonymous design. The cards were originally published with A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy by Jehoshapat Aspin, probably in 1825. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/03010686/

Every December, the Geminid Meteor Shower fills the evening sky with shooting stars (meteors). The first step to enjoying the shower, which will peak the evening of December 13 and into the morning of the 14th, is to locate the constellation of Gemini in the night sky, as the meteors will appear to radiate from there.

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to use a smartphone app to find specific stars in the night sky. Hold up your phone and the screen helpfully labels the stars.  Back in the early 1800’s, before smartphones were a glimmer in anyone’s eye, an anonymous woman designed a very clever – and beautiful – method of identifying constellations in the sky with the creation of Urania’s Mirror.

Urania’s Mirror, or A View of the Heavens, was first issued with the 1825 edition of A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy by Jehoshapat Aspin. The title page of the 1833 edition of the treatise describes the cards as follows:

A View of the Heavens: Consisting of Thirty-two cards, On which are represented all the constellations visible in Great Britain; On a plan perfectly original. Designed by a Lady.

The young Lady is never identified, though she is highly praised for her ingenious design. Each illustrated card has holes corresponding to the stars in the pictured constellation, and the hole size is determined by the star’s magnitude. The card is held up in the air, and the holes used to locate the proper stars. No app required!

The twin stars of Castor and Pollux are first magnitude, and so are easily spotted on Plate 18: Gemini below:

Gemini. Hand-colored etching by Sidney Hall from anonymous design. The cards were originally published with A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy by Jehoshapat Aspin, probably in 1825. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g10066

No matter your method, be sure to turn your gaze towards Gemini the rest of the nights this week to enjoy a first class light show!

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