atlases & charts

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Atlas designed to illustrate the geography of the heavens

Elijah H. Burritt
New York: Francis J. Huntington and Mason Brothers, 1850
Atlas of 8 maps, partially hand-colored
From the collection of the University of Michigan Map Library

Improvements in observing technology in the 18th and 19th centuries led to ever greater numbers of stars crowding themselves onto celestial maps. From the sixteenth century to the present, the number of newly discovered stars increased exponentially in a classic “hockey stick” curve, one that remained essentially flat (at about one thousand stars) from ancient times until around 1600, when it began to explode upward. By the beginning of the nineteenth century more than one hundred thousand stars had been discovered.1

With so much new information to convey, the genre of the star atlas began to fracture into professional charts, which omitted the traditional constellation figures in an effort to be complete, and popular star atlases, which retained the constellations but made no attempt to chart every star. The Atlas designed to illustrate the geography of the heavens of Elijah Burritt (first published 1833; the edition at right is from 1850) is a well-known example of the latter group: The constellations feature prominently on Burritt's maps, but the emphasis is on naked eye astronomy and only the brightest stars are shown.2

Elijah Burritt (1794-1838), a Connecticut schoolteacher, created his atlas as a low-cost alternative to celestial globes, which were then the preferred means of teaching astronomy but were too expensive for many schools to afford. Along with its accompanying textbook The Geography of the Heavens, Burritt’s atlas sold for $1.25 in 1833 — more expensive than other introductory astronomy texts but still much cheaper than a globe. Armed with star charts of their own, students were encouraged to become directly involved in astronomy by making their own observations. The atlas proved immensely popular: between 1833 and 1856 it went through several editions and by 1876 there were 300,000 copies in print. It received rave reviews and was widely praised among American educators for promoting popular knowledge of astronomy.3

This 1850 edition of Burritt’s atlas is composed of six celestial maps, including two hemispheres (centered on the equatorial poles), as well as a Plan of the Solar System Exhibiting its Relative Magnitudes and Distances and a Celestial Planisphere or Map of the Heavens. The maps are very much geared toward observation: They show the skies visible from North America during specific months of the year, and are titled accordingly. The constellation figures evince little originality; those of the first edition were copied from Francis Wollaston’s A Portraiture of the Heavens (1811), and in later editions Burritt copied most of his figures from Alexander Jamieson’s A Celestial Atlas published in 1822. But this did little to diminish the work’s broad appeal, and the Geography of the Heavens remained in print until 1876.4

1 Burnham 15-16.

2 Ashworth 98.

3 BUAG 2005 75.

4 Kidwell, Peggy Aldrich. “Elijah Burritt and the ‘Geography of the Heavens.’” Sky & Telescope, 69.1 (1985): 26-28.

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