We are all familiar with the 1785 drawing of the Galaxy by William Herschel, often quoted as the "First drawing of the Milky Way"

enter image description here

Are there any other such historical drawings after this one? I mean, something between this date and ~1950?


1 Answer 1


The astronomy books from the second half of the 20th century which I own or have read all have charts, diagrams, or maps, of the Milky Way Galaxy. I find it hard to believe that the fashion for such maps and diagrams of hte Milky Way started after 1960. Instead it probably started decades before 1950. Any library which has old astronomy books from the first part of the 20th century should have some with depictions of the shape of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Here is a link to a reproduction of a map of the Milky Way Galaxy from radio observations dating to 1958:

Why the blank wedges in this very early 21 cm map of the Milky Way? (Oort et al. 1958)

I happen to own a book, Men of Other Planets by Kenneth Heuer, 1951, 1954, and so near the latest date you would accept. On page 134 it has two diagrams of the Milky Way Galaxy, one from the side of the galactic disc and one from the top of the galactic disc.

And I find it hard to believe that the illusrator, R.T. Crane, was the first person since Herschel to think of making a map or diagram of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The most important step in mapping the Milkty Way Galaxy was probably made by Harlow Shapley in the 1910s. Using Cepheid variables to map the distances to various star clusters, Shapley found that the globular star clusters of the Milky way form a roughly spherical system with a center tens of thousands of light years from Earth, far beyond the visible stars in Saggittarius and Ophiuchius.

And it is quite possible that there was some sort of diagram of the Milky Way Galaxy in at least one of his scientific papers in that period.

I own an astronomy book published in 1851, The Planetary and Stellar Worlds a series of lectures by famed scientist O.M. Mitchell. The tenth lecture mentions the theories about the structure of the galaxy by the German astronomer Maedler. As I remember, Maedler believed the gaalxy consisted of a dense spherical central mass of stars, surrounded by scatter strs including the Sun, and with an outer ring of stars around both. The illustrations at the back include an image of herschel's drawing of the galaxy, but there doesn't seem to any drawing of Maedler's concept of the galaxy.

This site reproduces a map or diagram of the Milky Way by Jacobus Kapteyn in 1922 based on counting stars in varius directions:


So that is at least one example of a Milky Way depiction between Herschel and about 1950.

I'm sorry I wasn't able to find more examples.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! You mentioned several interesting resources that I had overlooked. $\endgroup$
    – Gabriel
    Commented Jun 24, 2022 at 14:27

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