At first glance these intricate depictions of the moon might seem like photographs from the Apollo space program of 1961–75. In fact they were captured a century earlier by an ingenious and wholly land-based Scottish astronomer. Peering through a self-made telescope, James Nasmyth sketched the moon’s scarred, cratered and mountainous surface. Aiming to “faithfully reproduce the lunar effects of light and shadow” he then built plaster models based on the drawings, and photographed these against black backgrounds in the full glare of the sun. As the technology for taking photographs directly through a telescope was still in its infancy, the drawing and modelling stages of the process were essential for attaining the moonly detail he wanted.
The book was very popular in its day, running to four editions, and remains well worth a read. It contains enjoyable speculation on “the peculiar conditions which would attend a sojourn on the lunar surface,” and a consideration of the many benefits the moon daily bestows upon us earthlings. Beyond helping sailors to navigate at night and “cleansing the shores of our seas and rivers through the agency of the tides”, the most interesting and indeed prescient idea Nasmyth posits concerns the “stupendous reservoir of power that the tidal waters constitute.” He suggests that this energy “may be invoked by-and-by, when we have begun to feel more acutely the consequences of our present prodigal use of the fuel that was stored up for us by bountiful nature ages upon ages ago.”
Beyond exploring lunar mechanics and topography, the book can also be seen as an exploration into photomechanical printing (with which it was one of the first books to be illustrated). Published at a time when many were searching for the perfect form of reproduction — a photograph that could be both ink printed (not depending on light) and consistent over time. The first three editions of the book include a variety of processes including, engraving, photogravure, heliotype, lithograph, chromolithograph, and four different variations of the woodburytype. It is likely that the first two editions, published simultaneously, were partly experiments into which reproduction method was best. This seems to have been deemed the woodburytype given that the third edition, published more than ten years later, is comprised entirely of woodburytypes.
You can read the entirety of the first edition, from which we have reproduced the images below, at the Internet Archive, or buy a 2013 reprint. See the second edition, and the third edition with the woodburytypes. If your curiosity for 1870s lunar representations has been mightily piqued, consider launching yourself into Émile-Antoine Bayard’s wonderful illustrations for Jules Verne’s Around the Moon. And if you'd like a Nasmyth moon image on your wall then check out these three available in our online prints shop.
Finally, an intriguing point for all you conspiracy theorists out there who haven't yet noticed: the name of this man, who so studiously made convincing models of the lunar surface, is just one letter away from NASAMYTH.
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