Astronomy throughout History
The study of planets, stars, galaxies, and intergalactic and interstellar space falls under the field of astronomy. Thousands of years ago, the earliest civilizations observed the heavens. Because astronomers of the past set the foundation for today's astronomy, it is an interesting journey to take a look through the history of astronomy. How did they figure out how big around the Earth is? Who was the first astronomer to recognize galaxies outside our own? What must've it been like to look through Galileo's first telescope to see the craters on the Moon? Were people stunned when Halley correctly predicted the return of a comet?
Archeoastronomy is different than looking at the history of astronomy. It sets to find out just how astronomy fit into a certain culture's life. Were women ever allowed or encouraged to be astronomers in ancient times? Did the builders of Stonehenge incorporate into its structure an eclipse prediction system? How did the Mayan calculate the length of a year with such accuracy without a computer?
This section will take you on a journey through time, across the continents and into the lives of people from all times and places. It will touch on the history of astronomy, archeoastronomy and more. Please choose which way you would like to begin your journey:
Journey through Time Journey by Region Meet the People
The movements of the heavenly bodies are an admirable thing, well known and manifest to all peoples. There are no people, no matter how barbaric and primitive, that do not raise up their eyes, take note, and observe with some care and admiration the continuous and uniform course of the heavenly bodies." - Bernabe Cobo (1653)
From the beginning, man has observed the heavens. Early man observed the heavens because the Sun, Moon and stars gave indication of coming seasons to farmers and hunters. The sky aided in navigation especially for nomads and sailors. And many ancient civilizations thought the sky gave signs of life, war, earthquakes, the fate of kingdoms...and more.
The new field of archeoastronomy started in the 1960s with discoveries at Stonehenge. Archeoastronomy has been called the 'anthropology of astronomy' to distinguish it from the history of astronomy. This means that archeoastronomy pays attention to the astronomical practices, mythologies, and religions of ancient cultures. It sets to find out just how astronomy fit into a certain culture's life. And so it touches on ancient calendar systems, concepts of time and space, mathematics (especially counting systems and geometry), navigation, and architecture. Archeoastronomers will look at imagery and writing left by a civilization. They will look at architecture, especially to see if the buildings have any orientations towards the Sun or Moon or even Venus. The most common orientation is to look for alignment with sun rise on the date of a solstice.
This is a timeline of important events in astronomical history. Some events which are not specifically astronomical in nature are listed to give historical perspective as to what was happening in those times.
Newgrange is built.
Stonehenge is built.
Egypt and Mesopotamia
First solar-lunar calendars
Aristrachus suggests the Earth revolves around the Sun. He provides first estimation of Earth-Sun distance.
Cyrene (now Shahhat, Libya)
Eratosthenes measures the circumference of the earth with surprising accuracy!
Hipparchus develops the first acccurate star map and star catalogue with over 850 of the brightest stars.
Introduction of the Julian calendar, a purely solar calendar, to the Roman Empire.
Ptolemy suggests geocentric theory of the universe in famous work Mathematike Syntaxis.
Al Mamon founds the Baghdad school of astronomy.
Chinese astronomers observe supernova in Taurus.
Copernicus publishes his heliocentric theory of the Universe.
Tycho Brahe discovers a supernova in constellation of Cassiopeia.
Pope Gregory XIII introduces the Gregorian calendar.
Johann Bayer introduces Bayer designation of stars, assigning Greek letters to stars, still in use today.
Hans Lippershey, a Dutch spectacles maker invents the telescope.
Galileo uses telescope for astronomical purposes. He discovers 4 Jovian moons, the Moon's craters and the Milky Way galaxy.
Kepler's First and Second Laws of Planetary Motions are announced.
The Third Law of Planetary Motion is announced by Kepler in his work Harmonice Mudi (Harmony of the World).
Christian Huygens discovers Saturn's rings and Titan, the fourth satellite of Saturn.
Huygens notes markings on Mars.
Martian polar ice caps are noted by Cassini.
The first reflecting telescope was built by Newton.
Geminiano Montanari discovers the star Algol is not steady in brightness, thus recognizing the first variable star.
While in Paris, Danish astronomer Ole Romer measures the speed of light.
Cassini discovers that Saturn's rings are split into two parts, so that today the gap is called the "Cassini Division".
Newton publishes his theory of universal gravitation in the work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. This is seen to be the start of Modern Astronomy.
Halley correctly predicts the return of a comet (Halley's comet) in 1758.
Johann Palitzsch observes Halley's comet as predicted by Halley in 1705.
The discovery of Uranus by Herschel
Messier discovers galaxies, nebula and star clusters while looking comets. He compiles a catalogue of these objects (Messier objects).
Piazzi discovers first asteroid, Ceres.
Discovery of the 'Doppler Effect' by Austrian physicist and mathematician, Christian Doppler.
Samuel Heinrich Schwabe describes the sunspot cycle.
Johann Galle observes and discovers Neptune. His observations were prompted by mathematical calculations by French astronomer Joseph Leverrier and English astronomer John Couch Adams.
The beginning of spectral analysis of stars by Sir William Huggins
Jansen and Lockyer observe solar prominences.
Henry Draper takes a photograph of the stellar spectrum of Vega. This is the first of its kind.
Asaph Hall discovers Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars.
Shiaparelli observes the canals on Mars.
The Great Red Spot on Jupiter becomes prominent.
Region where they lived
'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi
10th century A.D.
Leonardo Da Vinci
En Hedu' Anna
Cyrene (now Shahhat, Libya)
Astronomy Regions of Interest
These regions are ones that are of most interest in the astronomy of long ago, i.e., it will mainly cover regions where people were practicing astronomy from 4,000 B.C. to the age of modern astronomy (1687 when Newton issued his universal Law of Gravitation). We will of course be adding to this section frequently! If you would like to see a region or event added to this list, please submit your suggestion to our comments system.
Points of Interest
Ancient Egyptian Astronomy
Aristrachus - first estimation of Earth-Sun distance
Eratosthenes - circumference of the Earth
Ancient Babylonian Astronomy
Newgrange Passage Tomb
Stonehenge Stone Monument
The founding of archeoastronomy
Ancient Mayan Astronomy
Ancient Chinese Astronomy
Tycho Brahe - incredible naked-eye astronomer
Johann Bayer - Bayer system of star designation
Kepler - Laws of Planetary Motion
Hipparchus - first star map
Ptolemy - geocentric theory of the universe
Galileo - used one of the 1st telescopes
Hans Lippershey, inventor of the telescope
Copernicus - heliocentric theory of the universe
Julian calendar (solar calendar)