Henry Draper’s Photograph of M42

I just remembered that last night I happened across an interesting episode of The Essay on Radio 3. It was about the first ever photograph of an astronomical nebula, which happened to be of the Orion Nebula (M42). The programme features Omar Nasim, a lecturer in History at Kent University, and is available on iPlayer or as a download here. It’s only 15 minutes long, but absolutely fascinating.

Here is the photograph concerned, taken by Henry Draper in 1880:

Henry_Drape_Orion_nebula_1880_inverted

The stars of the constellation Orion are clearly over-exposed in order to reveal the much fainter light from the nebula, and the resolution is poor compared to, e.g., this glorious Hubble Space Telescope image:

Hubble's sharpest view of the Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula seen by Hubble. Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble Space Telscope

Nevertheless the Draper photograph is of great historical importance, as it changed the way astronomers made images of such objects (by photography rather than by drawing) and ushered in a new era of scientific research.

Hat’s off to Henry Draper!

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