Starry nights: astronomy in the popular imagination

Science Museum

From 19th-century magic lantern shows to amateur astronomy, this journey through our collection explores the ways astronomical discoveries and spectacles have thrilled and inspired us.

Astronomy has long been a subject for popular entertainment as well as serious science. In the 19th century, new discoveries made astronomy a fashionable topic.

The greatest shows on Earth
In the 19th century, joining friends at an astronomy show was all the rage. Audiences of hundreds paid a few shillings to see lecturers demonstrate the latest discoveries, using special equipment such as coloured projection slides.

This slide’s geared system demonstrates the motion and relative speeds of planets and moons. Travelling lecturer Mr Keevil used it in Holywell, Wales on 3 May 1838. For this fashionable event gentlemen paid two shillings, and ladies one.

This hand-painted lantern slide is one of a set of five depicting astronomical subjects. It shows Saturn, Uranus, and the comets of 1680 and 1811.

Here, George Bartley advertises giant projections of the zodiac and a moving model of the solar system. Bartley was a comedian for most of the year, but when shows stopped during Lent he performed astronomy lectures to supplement his meagre income.

Audiences expected increasingly sophisticated shows. Charles Dickens recalled a childhood birthday outing as ‘slow torture’, with a shabby model ‘at least one thousand stars and twenty-five comets behind the age’ and a lecturer tapping away at it ‘like a wearisome woodpecker’.

Comet crazes
The Great Comet of 1811 was visible between March and August that year. In America the spectacular comet was blamed for a devastating earthquake, while French wine-makers claimed it produced a particularly fine vintage. The comet featured on a range of fashionable goods, such as this illustrated fan.

The illustration shows a group of spectators observing the Great Comet, with a seated lady representing Venus. The inscription, in French, translates as ‘today’s craze: Venus, or the pretend comet’.

This snuffbox shows a crowd observing the Comet of 1811 from the Pont-Neuf in Paris. While everyone’s attention is turned skywards, a pickpocket takes advantage.

The most famous comet is that named for Edmond Halley, who predicted its periodic return. This watch fob, engraved with a portrait of Halley, was probably made for the comet’s 1835 appearance.

Chasing eclipses 
Huge crowds flocked to view the total solar eclipse of 1927, the first in Britain for 203 years. Travel agents organised eclipse tours, the BBC broadcast eclipse programmes on the radio, and the Navy carried astronomers from the Royal Greenwich Observatory to watch from the North Sea.

Produced for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), this poster promotes rail travel to areas of north-eastern England during the 1927 eclipse. The track of totality ran from Hartlepool to Liverpool and South Wales.

This fetching tea towel is one of many souvenirs made for the August 1999 solar eclipse. The designers didn’t know their Scottish geography very well, though – can you spot the mistake?

Fun and games
This pack of astronomical playing cards reflects the 19th-century fashion for educational toys. Changing the order of the planets generates a number of different games. The instruction book says the game ‘requires silence, attention and the exercise of memory’.

Divided into four suits according to the seasons, the cards depict a mix of planets and constellations. This close-up shows four cards depicting the four seasons.

Pocket globes were popular accessories in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some globes showed the routes of famous explorers such as Captain Cook.

In this example, the inside of the case shows how constellations would appear in the night sky.

In this astronomy version of the board game Monopoly, you can purchase a comet, planet or galaxy rather than property. But be careful – causing light pollution will land you a $200 fine!

Do-it-yourself stargazing
A quality telescope can be bulky to transport – but not this folding version, built by noted amateur astronomer Horace Dall. He used it for stargazing around the world and remarked that no customs officer had ever detected it in his luggage.

When 18-year-old Phil Shepherdson wanted a good telescope, he decided to build his own. Take a closer look at the tube – it's made of everyday items such as baked bean cans and coat hangers.

Making and polishing the telescope’s mirror took years, but the hard work was worth it: the finished instrument gave Phil ‘breathtaking’ views of the Moon and Jupiter.

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