Starry nights: astronomy in the popular imagination

Science Museum

Science Museum Group

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.

Astronomical costume design (1880/1889) by Leon SaultScience Museum

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.

Magic lantern solar system (1838)Science Museum

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.

Lantern slide showing astronomical subjects, 1815/1825, From the collection of: Science Museum
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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.

Handbill advertising lectures on astronomy, Lowndes, 1826, From the collection of: Science Museum
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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.

Lantern slide portrait of Charles Dickens, Unknown, 1860/1875, From the collection of: Science Museum
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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’.

Illustrated folding fan (1811/1815)Science Museum

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.

Close-up detail of illustration on folding fan (1811/1815)Science Museum

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’.

Painted snuffbox depicting Great Comet (1811/1825) by UnknownScience Museum

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.

Watch fob engraved with Edmond Halley and his comet (1835)Science Museum

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.

Poster promoting rail travel (1927) by London and North Eastern Railway and The Dangerfield Printing Co. Ltd.Science Museum

Chasing eclipses 

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.

Tea towel commemorating solar eclipse, Unknown, 1999, From the collection of: Science Museum
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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?

Astronomical playing cards (1829/1831) by Francis Graham Moon and J & G PickettScience Museum

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’.

Detail of astronomical playing cards (1829/1831) by Francis Graham Moon and J & G PickettScience Museum

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 terrestial globe, John Bleuler, 1824, From the collection of: Science Museum
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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.

Pocket globe: A world in miniature, Science Museum Group, From the collection of: Science Museum
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Astronomy version of Monopoly board game (2001) by USAopolyScience Museum

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!

Folding telescope (1960) by Horace Edward DallScience Museum

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.

Homemade telescope by Phil ShepherdsonScience Museum

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.

One man and his telescope, Science Museum Group, From the collection of: Science Museum
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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.

Credits: Story

All images © Science Museum Group.

Find out more about astronomy in our online collection, or visit our Exploring Space gallery.

The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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