Sir William Herschel, 1738-1822
||The fourth of ten children, Sir William Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany, on
November 1738 to Isaac Herschel (1707–1767) and his wife Anna Ilse Moritzen. He was
as Friedrich Wilhelm. Herschel's father was an oboist in the Hanoverian Foot Guards
although not wealthy, he encouraged his sons to pursue science and philosophy. William
Herschel attended the garrison school, where he proved to be a good student.
||At the age of fourteen William followed his father's career and joined the band of
guards, where his salary helped to pay for lessons in French. In 1756 his unit was
in England, where he also took the opportunity to learn English. In 1757 the guards
recalled because of the invasion of Hanover during the Seven Years' War, and at his
advice he fled the scene to avoid being pressed into service as a soldier. After returning
to his regiment to find they no longer had any use for a boy bandsman, he returned
England and his father secured his formal discharge in 1762.
||Herschel arrived in England almost penniless but soon found success as a member of
of the Durham militia. He began to perform and teach across northern England and by
had completed six symphonies—several of which were eventually published. In 1766 Herschel
moved to Bath, where his career continued to blossom. His success allowed him to pursue
other interests and before long he had learned Italian, Latin, and Greek. Having read
Smith's Opticks he learned how to construct telescopes and
began observing the planets and the moon.
||In 1772 he visited his sister, Caroline Lucretia Herschel, who was unhappily living
her family in Hanover. Concerned for her welfare, he decided to bring her back with
Bath despite his family's opposition. This move proved to be a happy decision for
beginning a long and fruitful partnership in both their musical and astronomical work.
||Herschel's interests in astronomy quickly began to compete with his musical career.
realized that he would need much larger telescopes to meet his observational needs.
Beginning in 1773 he spent much of his time grinding and polishing telescopic mirrors
basement. His reputation as a master craftsman in the construction of reflector telescopes
became widely recognized. Having begun observations of the Orion nebula in the 1770s,
William decided to familiarize himself with the brightest stars in the night sky.
night of 13 March 1781, he came across a star in the constellation Gemini whose appearance
seemed unusual. After several more nights of observing the object he decided to report
findings to the Astronomer Royal. The object was confirmed to be special—Herschel
first person ever to discover an unseen planet of the solar system with a telescope.
reward for his discovery of the planet now called Uranus, the king granted him a pension
that allowed him to leave his musical duties to pursue astronomy full time.
||In his efforts to explore what he referred to as 'the construction of the heavens,'
continued to build ever-larger telescopes. In 1783 he built a 20-foot reflector and
he completed a 40-foot reflecting telescope that for the next fifty years would remain
largest ever constructed. Herschel's astronomical achievements were widely recognized:
addition to receiving a pension, he received doctorates from the universities of Edinburgh
(1786) and Glasgow (1792), was a member of the American Philosophical Society among
others, and in 1816 was appointed a knight of the Royal Guelphic Order. Although Herschel
was most famous for his discovery of Uranus, later generations of scientists would
the significance of his findings on nebulas, variable stars, infra-red rays from the
and the direction in which the solar system is travelling.
||Herschel's life seems to have been devoid of any romantic attachments until 1786.
year his friend and neighbor John Pitt died, and two years later Herschel married
Mary (1750-1832). Their only child, Sir John Frederick William Herschel, was born
Mary's pleasant nature combined with the money she brought to the marriage helped
some of the pressures in Herschel's life.
||Long nights of observing in cold and damp conditions took a toll on Herschel's health,
in 1816, with his ailments worsening, his son John Herschel returned home to care
and to learn from him so that he could continue his father's astronomical work. Six
later, on 25 August 1822, William Herschel died at the Observatory House, his Slough
Caroline Lucretia Herschel, 1750-1848
||Caroline Lucretia Herschel was born on 16 March 1750 in Hanover, Germany, the eighth
of Isaac Herschel (1707-1767) and his wife, Anna Ilse Moritzen. Unlike her brother,
Herschel, Caroline was not encouraged to pursue her intellectual curiosities, but
received a minimum of education and was pressed into service as the household servant
||In 1767 her father Isaac died, leaving her future in the hands of her mother and her
brothers. She was begrudgingly given permission to attend a dressmaking school, but
lasted only a few weeks before she returned to her household duties. Her brother William,
who had now settled into his career as an accomplished organist at Bath and sympathized
Caroline's plight, requested that she be allowed to join him as a singer in his concerts.
His proposal was at first favorably received by the family, but when they became reluctant,
he succeeded in bringing Caroline to Hanover in 1772 only after promising to pay their
mother an annuity for a substitute servant.
||Although Caroline had some difficulty adjusting to life at Bath because of her limited
education and knowledge of English, William gave her singing lessons daily and taught
English and arithmetic. She was also given dancing lessons and began singing and leading
soprano parts in works such as Messiah, Samson, and Judas Maccabaeus at Bath and
Bristol as often as five nights a week.
||William's interest in astronomy began to compete with his musical career and Caroline
gradually found herself assisting him as he started constructing his own telescopes.
addition to her musical duties, she waited on Herschel hand-and-foot during the long
he spent polishing and grinding mirrors, eventually learning to grind and polish mirrors
herself. In 1781 their lives were transformed when William discovered the planet Uranus.
With a royal pension that allowed him to give up his musical career to pursue astronomy
time, William took it for granted that Caroline would also give up her career in music
partner with him.
||William and Caroline moved to Datchet, near Windsor Castle, in August 1782. As his
assistant astronomer, she was given a telescope to sweep for comets. It was not an
adjustment for Caroline and she complained of the cold, damp, and lonely nights spent
observing. But the following summer William built her a telescope especially designed
finding comets, and using the powerful new instrument she was able to sweep a quarter
heavens each night. Caroline soon became famous as the discoverer of eight comets
several comet-like nebulae. In 1783 she also discovered the companion to the Andromeda
nebula. Caroline's discoveries and the resulting recognition helped to reconcile her
new career. In 1787 she received a royal pension of £50 a year, making her the first
in Britain to receive a pension for scientific work.
||Caroline continued to assist William in his observations. In 1783, interested in the
of nebulae, her brother constructed a 20-foot reflector with a stable mounting expressly
this purpose. William would wait at the eyepiece and watch the sky drift past until
came into view. He would then shout out his observations to Caroline who would record
seated at a desk by a nearby open window. In addition to her work as a scribe, she
perform calculations, create charts, and write up fair copies for publication.
||Caroline's well-established routine of managing domestic affairs was disrupted in
William decided to marry the widow of a neighbor. Caroline, long accustomed to being
his household companion and career-partner, had to move into new lodgings. Although
a difficult time for Caroline (she destroyed her diary for the period), she eventually
adjusted to the change and became especially attached to her nephew John, who was
||In 1796, at the request of William, Caroline assembled a list of errors in John Flamsteed's
star catalogue, the standard work of the day, and published the list in 1798 after
on it for twenty months. This work earned her the profound respect of the professional
astronomers of her day.
||When William died in 1822, Caroline returned to Hanover and although her days of observing
were over, she managed to make one more contribution to astronomy. John Herschel enlisted
her help to undertake the massive task of rearranging William's great catalogues of
Eager to see her brother's work completed, she was able to finish the enormous undertaking
at the age of seventy-five. The Astronomical Society awarded her a gold medal for
||Caroline enjoyed good health, showing signs of energy and vitality late into life.
respected astronomer in her own right, she died peacefully at the age of ninety-seven
Hanover on 9 January 1848.
Sir John Frederick William Herschel, 1792-1871
||Sir John Frederick William Herschel was born on 7 March 1792 in Slough, England, the
son of astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822) and the widow Mary Baldwin Pitt (1750-1832).
John's father had already set aside a musical career by the time his son was born,
become internationally prominent as the discoverer of Uranus in 1781. John attended
Bull's school at Newbury, and for a short period of time, Eton College, before enrolling
Dr. Gretton's private school at Hitcham, Buckinghamshire. He also received private
instruction, especially in mathematics, from Alexander Rogers.
||John Herschel entered St John's College, Cambridge in 1809, where he received a fellowship.
By the time he graduated in 1813 as the Senior Wrangler, he was widely recognized
exceptionally talented scholar. In the year of his graduation, John was elected a
the Royal Society, primarily for his accomplishments in mathematics.
||Herschel's gift for mathematics was manifest not only in his success in Cambridge
mathematical competitions, but also as one of the instigators of the Analytical Society
along with his long-time friends Charles Babbage and George Peacock. The Society was
a significant impact on British mathematics, with its promotion of Leibnizian techniques
over Newtonian fluxional methods of mathematical analysis.
||Discouraged by the difficulties of finding employment as a mathematician, John began
preparing for the bar in 1814 but returned to Cambridge as a sub-lector in 1815. Teaching
proved to be a dissatisfying experience and within a year he resigned in order to
his father's unfinished astronomical observations. He continued to make contributions
mathematics and chemistry during this time; in 1819 he began publishing on his significant
discoveries in the prehistory of photography.
||John Herschel played a key role in the founding of the Astronomical Society (later
the Royal Astronomical Society). From its founding in 1820 until 1827, he served as
foreign secretary. The society's members went on to elect him three times as president
(1827, 1839, and 1847), reflecting his continued importance within the organization.
||John's decision to pursue astronomy under the direction of his father proved fruitful.
1820, they collaborated on the construction of a 20-foot telescope which he used as
telescope between 1820 and 1838. John also took up his father's research interests
stellar astronomy, publishing two great catalogues—one on nebulae and star clusters
on double stars. In 1833 he also published his Treatise on Astronomy, which became the authoritative English work
on astronomical science for nearly two decades.
||Not only did John continue William Herschel's pioneering work, he also made significant
contributions in meteorology and barometry, actinometry, and physics during this period
well. Beginning in the 1820s, he emerged as Britain's first modern physical scientist.
articles on light and sound were received enthusiastically by continental scientists
published in French and German. One of his most lasting contributions during this
his publication in 1830 of the Preliminary Discourse on the Study of
Natural Philosophy. Now recognized as a classic of the philosophy of science, it
promoted the importance of scientific inquiry. A number of major scientists and philosophers
were strongly influenced and inspired by it, including the young Charles Darwin.
||Despite all of Herschel's success, his friend James Grahame noticed the lack of a
balance in John's intensely academic life. In an attempt to remedy the situation,
introduced John to Margaret Brodie Stewart, the daughter of Scottish Presbyterian
Alexander Stewart and his wife. The two immediately took a liking to one other and
after were married on March 3, 1829. The marriage proved to be a happy one, and over
course of the next twenty-six years, the couple produced twelve children.
||On 13 November 1833 John Herschel, his wife, and their three small children left England
for the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of South Africa so that John could carry
complete survey of all the celestial objects in the Southern Hemisphere. The period
1833 until their return to England in 1838 proved to be one of the most productive
times in John's life. Herschel set up his telescope at their home, Feldhausen, an
on Table Mountain, and began his observations. When the Herschel family returned to
on 15 May 1838, John was immediately hailed by his scientific contemporaries as the
scientist of his day and awarded a baronetcy by the Queen. The enormous mass of observations
that he returned with took nearly a decade to reduce and analyze. The great work of
Herschel's career appeared in 1847: Results of Astronomical Observations
Made during the Years 1834, 5, 6, 7, 8 at the Cape of Good Hope; Being the Completion
Telescopic Survey of the Whole Surface of the Visible Heavens, Commenced in 1825 by
F. W. Herschel. The publication was received with the highest praise and the Royal
Society awarded him a second Copley Medal.
||From the years 1838 to 1850, Herschel enjoyed his status as Britain's most preeminent
scientist, while continuing to make contributions to many fields. He was especially
in photochemistry; seeking new ways to improve photographic science he conducted hundreds
experiments and proved that his sodium thiosulphate was the most powerful fixer for
silver-based photographic images. His efforts yielded three major papers (1839, 1840,
1842) published by the Royal Society. He also made important contributions through
extensive experimentation on the light sensitivity of various metals and vegetable
coined many standard terms in photography, namely, 'positive,' 'negative,' 'snap-shot,'
'photographer.' Herschel published another major work in 1849, his Outlines of Astronomy, which was hailed as the definitive
presentation of astronomy available in English.
||For reasons that are not entirely clear, late in 1850 Herschel accepted the mastership
the Royal Mint, a position once held by Isaac Newton. Likely, a combination of pressing
financial burdens and the desire to see financial reform in the Mint led him to accept
position. Regardless, Herschel's short tenure as Master of the Mint was not good for
health. The stresses of his involvement in the planned reform compounded by the need
expand production of coinage, to explore its decimalization, and to establish an Australian
branch of the Mint at Sydney turned out to be too heavy a burden. John also deeply
being separated from his family in Collingwood. Late in 1854, with Herschel already
health, the tensions and stresses of the position led to a nervous breakdown. He submitted
his resignation in early 1855. In April of that year he returned to his family in
Collingwood, hoping to restore his health.
||John continued to suffer from poor health, but managed to publish several more books
articles, receive visitors regularly, and correspond with his colleagues. Herschel
Collingwood on 11 May 1871, likely as a result of chronic bronchial problems. His
London was attended by most of the leading British scientists of his day. Herschel
buried in Westminster Abbey next to Sir Isaac Newton.