An ancient Egyptian calendar of lucky and unlucky days composed some 3,200 years ago may be the oldest preserved historical document of the discovery of a variable star,
the eclipsing binary Algol.
Of the modern astronomers, the first variable star was identified in 1638 when Johannes Holwarda noticed that Omicron Ceti (later named Mira) pulsated in a cycle taking 11 months; the star had previously been described as a nova by David Fabricius in 1596. This discovery, combined with supernovae observed in 1572 and 1604, proved that the starry sky was not eternally invariable as Aristotle and other ancient philosophers had taught. In this way, the discovery of variable stars contributed to the astronomical revolution of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
The second variable star to be described was the eclipsing variable Algol, by Geminiano Montanari in 1669; John Goodricke gave the correct explanation of its variability in 1784. Chi Cygni was identified in 1686 by G. Kirch, then R Hydrae in 1704 by G. D. Maraldi. By 1786 ten variable stars were known. John Goodricke himself discovered Delta Cephei and Beta Lyrae. Since 1850 the number of known variable stars has increased rapidly, especially after 1890 when it became possible to identify variable stars by means of photography.
The latest edition of the General Catalogue of Variable Stars (2008) lists more than 46,000 variable stars in the Milky Way, as well as 10,000 in other galaxies, and over 10,000 'suspected' variables.