While searching for Orion or the Great Dipper, it’s easy to forget that these constellations are just the arbitrary visions of astronomers drawing with stars. While Ptolemy referred to mythology for the classic constellations, later stargazers turned to their own visual culture. Up in the heavens, one 19th century astronomer even saw a printing press.
Until the International Astronomical Union designated 88 official constellations in 1930, space was a celestial free-for-fall. This is why we now have “obsolete” constellations. These include Roman emperor Hadrian’s tribute to his lost love Antinous, a slug added by 18th century naturalist John Hill, a flying squirrel, and a tribute to Frederick the Great. Some of these reflected new knowledge of animals — like Johannes Hevelius’s giraffe — others celebrated technology — like Maximilian Hell’s telescope. It’s in this latter category that “Officina Typographica” falls.
Latin for “printing office,” the constellation was added by German astronomer Johann Elert Bode in his 1801 star atlas Uranographia. Nick Kanas in his book Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography calls Bode the “champion of extraneous constellations” and states that the printing office constellation honored “the 350th anniversary of the invention of movable type.” It also seemed to be arbitrarily forced over some stars that only with an incredible squinting could morph into a box of type with all the printing press fixings.
Officina Typographica wasn’t the only addition among the over a hundred constellations in Uranographia that reflected a wonder as much with technology as it did with those distant stars. Bode also included “Machina Electrica,” an electrical machine, and “Globus Aerostaticus,” a hot air balloon. While Bode was coming at the close of illustrated celestial charts and the later 19th and 20th centuries would focus on less whimsical depictions of the stars, he was following many years of such fanciful constellation naming. And he also wasn’t the only astronomer to be inspired by art.
Two constellations that still are recognized also paid tribute to visual creation. Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille named both Equuleus Pictoris — now known as Pictor and represented as a painting easel — and Sculptor — illustrated as a bust being carved on a stand. Yet while you can still try to make out these artist’s materials in the darkness, Officina Typographica, that great printing press in the sky to the east of the Sirius star, is now part of Puppis. As we look forward to deeper visions into space with the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 and even imaging projects for black holes, it’s fascinating to gaze back at how our visual culture has long shaped how we perceive those distant luminosities.
View more images from Johann Elert Bode’s “Unographia” (1801) at the Univeristy of Oklahoma History of Science Collection’s Flickr.