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:
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!
- The photographs included in this post were taken on a light table so as to better demonstrate the design. The full set of 32 cards known as Urania’s Mirror is part of the collection of the Prints and Photographs Division. Please enjoy digital versions of most of the cards in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. (The text of A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy by Jehoshapat Aspin (London, 1833) is in the Library’s General Collections.)
- Read all about the meteor shower in the latest post from Jennifer Harbster at Inside Adams, the Library’s blog for Science, Technology & Business: Wishing upon the Shooting Stars: The Geminid Meteor Shower.