In 1801, Johann Elert Bode published ‘Uranographia’, a celestial atlas that showed both the positions of the stars with scientific accuracy, and his own artistic interpretations of the stellar constellation figures.

Uranographia by Johann Elert Bode, 1801 | Royal Institution Rare Book Collections

Johann Elert Bode (German 19 January 1747 – 23 November 1826) was the German astronomer known for reforming and popularising the Titius–Bode law, and naming Uranus.

Bode was directly involved in research leading from the discovery of a Uranus in 1781. Although it was the first planet to be discovered by telescope, Uranus is just about visible with the naked eye. Bode consulted older star charts and found numerous examples of the planet’s position being given while being mistaken for a star, for example John Flamsteed, Astronomer Royal in Britain, had listed it in his catalog of 1690 as a star with the name 34 Tauri. These earlier sightings allowed an exact calculation of the orbit of the new planet.

Bode was also responsible for giving the new planet its name. The discoverer William Herschel proposed to name it after George III which was not accepted so readily in other countries. Bode opted for Uranus, with the apparent logic that just as Saturn was the father of Jupiter, the new planet should be named after the father of Saturn. There were further alternatives proposed, but ultimately Bode’s suggestion became the most widely used - however it had to wait until 1850 before gaining official acceptance in Britain when the Nautical Almanac Office switched from using the name Georgium Sidus to Uranus. In 1789, Bode’s Royal Academy colleague Martin Klaproth was inspired by Bode’s name for the planet to name his newly discovered element “uranium”.

From 1787 to 1825 Bode was director of the Astronomisches Rechen-Institut. In 1794, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In April, 1789 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Bode died in Berlin on 23 November 1826, aged 79.

Keep an eye out for more illustrations from Uranographia over the next few days.