William Herschel

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William Herschel
William Herschel01.jpg
1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott
Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel

(1738-11-15)15 November 1738
Died25 August 1822(1822-08-25) (aged 83)
Slough, England, UK
Resting place St Laurence's Church, Slough
Residence Observatory House
Nationality Hanoverian; later British
Known for
Spouse(s)Mary Baldwin Herschel
Children John Herschel (son)
Awards Copley Medal (1781)
Scientific career
Fields Astronomy and music
William Herschel Signature.svg

Frederick William Herschel, [1] KH , FRS ( /ˈhɜːrʃəl, ˈhɛər-/ ; [2] German : Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel; 15 November 1738 – 25 August 1822) was a German-born British [3] astronomer, composer and brother of fellow astronomer Caroline Herschel, with whom he worked. Born in the Electorate of Hanover, Herschel followed his father into the Military Band of Hanover, before migrating to Great Britain in 1757 at the age of nineteen.

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science'.

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking Community of Belgium and Liechtenstein. It is one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages that are most similar to the German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch, including Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

Astronomer Scientist who studies celestial bodies

An astronomer is a scientist in the field of astronomy who focuses their studies on a specific question or field outside the scope of Earth. They observe astronomical objects such as stars, planets, moons, comets, and galaxies – in either observational or theoretical astronomy. Examples of topics or fields astronomers study include planetary science, solar astronomy, the origin or evolution of stars, or the formation of galaxies. Related but distinct subjects like physical cosmology, which studies the Universe as a whole.


Herschel constructed his first large telescope in 1774, after which he spent nine years carrying out sky surveys to investigate double stars. Herschel published catalogues of nebulae in 1802 (2,500 objects) and in 1820 (5,000 objects). The resolving power of the Herschel telescopes revealed that many objects called nebulae in the Messier catalogue were actually clusters of stars. On 13 March 1781 while making observations he made note of a new object in the constellation of Gemini. This would, after several weeks of verification and consultation with other astronomers, be confirmed to be a new planet, eventually given the name of Uranus. This was the first planet to be discovered since antiquity and Herschel became famous overnight. As a result of this discovery, George III appointed him Court Astronomer. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and grants were provided for the construction of new telescopes.

Nebula Interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases

A nebula is an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases. Originally, the term was used to describe any diffuse astronomical object, including galaxies beyond the Milky Way. The Andromeda Galaxy, for instance, was once referred to as the Andromeda Nebula before the true nature of galaxies was confirmed in the early 20th century by Vesto Slipher, Edwin Hubble and others.

Messier object Astronomical objects catalogued by Charles Messier

The Messier objects are a set of 110 astronomical objects catalogued by the French astronomer Charles Messier in his Catalogue des Nébuleuses et des Amas d'Étoiles. Because Messier was only interested in finding comets, he created a list of non-comet objects that frustrated his hunt for them. The compilation of this list, in collaboration with his assistant Pierre Méchain, is known as the Messier catalogue. This catalogue of objects is one of the most famous lists of astronomical objects, and many Messier objects are still referenced by their Messier number. The catalogue includes some astronomical objects that can be observed from Earth's Northern Hemisphere such as deep-sky objects, a characteristic which makes the Messier objects extremely popular targets for amateur astronomers.

Uranus Seventh planet from the Sun in the Solar System

Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun. It has the third-largest planetary radius and fourth-largest planetary mass in the Solar System. Uranus is similar in composition to Neptune, and both have bulk chemical compositions which differ from that of the larger gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. For this reason, scientists often classify Uranus and Neptune as "ice giants" to distinguish them from the gas giants. Uranus' atmosphere is similar to Jupiter's and Saturn's in its primary composition of hydrogen and helium, but it contains more "ices" such as water, ammonia, and methane, along with traces of other hydrocarbons. It has the coldest planetary atmosphere in the Solar System, with a minimum temperature of 49 K, and has a complex, layered cloud structure with water thought to make up the lowest clouds and methane the uppermost layer of clouds. The interior of Uranus is mainly composed of ices and rock.

Herschel pioneered the use of astronomical spectrophotometry, using prisms and temperature measuring equipment to measure the wavelength distribution of stellar spectra. In addition, Herschel discovered infrared radiation. [4] Other work included an improved determination of the rotation period of Mars, [5] the discovery that the Martian polar caps vary seasonally, the discovery of Titania and Oberon (moons of Uranus) and Enceladus and Mimas (moons of Saturn). Herschel was made a Knight of the Royal Guelphic Order in 1816. He was the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society when it was founded in 1820. He died in August 1822, and his work was continued by his only son, John Herschel.

Astronomical spectroscopy science of temporal, spatial, and spectral distributions of radiation

Astronomical spectroscopy is the study of astronomy using the techniques of spectroscopy to measure the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light and radio, which radiates from stars and other celestial objects. A stellar spectrum can reveal many properties of stars, such as their chemical composition, temperature, density, mass, distance, luminosity, and relative motion using Doppler shift measurements. Spectroscopy is also used to study the physical properties of many other types of celestial objects such as planets, nebulae, galaxies, and active galactic nuclei.

Infrared electromagnetic radiation with longer wavelengths than those of visible light

Infrared radiation (IR), sometimes called infrared light, is electromagnetic radiation (EMR) with longer wavelengths than those of visible light. It is therefore generally invisible to the human eye, although IR at wavelengths up to 1050 nanometers (nm)s from specially pulsed lasers can be seen by humans under certain conditions. IR wavelengths extend from the nominal red edge of the visible spectrum at 700 nanometers, to 1 millimeter (300 GHz). Most of the thermal radiation emitted by objects near room temperature is infrared. As with all EMR, IR carries radiant energy and behaves both like a wave and like its quantum particle, the photon.

Mars Fourth planet from the Sun in the Solar System

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in the Solar System after Mercury. In English, Mars carries a name of the Roman god of war and is often referred to as the 'Red Planet'. The latter refers to the effect of the iron oxide prevalent on Mars' surface, which gives it a reddish appearance distinctive among the astronomical bodies visible to the naked eye. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having surface features reminiscent both of the impact craters of the Moon and the valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps of Earth.

Early life and musical activities

Herschel was born in the Electorate of Hanover in Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, one of ten children of Isaac Herschel by his marriage to Anna Ilse Moritzen, of German Lutheran ancestry. It has been proposed by Hershel's biographer Holden that his father's family traced its roots back to Jews from Moravia who converted to Christianity in the seventeenth century, [6] [7] and they themselves were Lutheran Christians. [8]

Electorate of Hanover former Electorate of the Holy Roman Empire

The Electorate of Hanover was an Electorate of the Holy Roman Empire, located in northwestern Germany and taking its name from the capital city of Hanover. It was formally known as the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg. For most of its existence, the electorate was ruled in personal union with Great Britain following the Hanoverian Succession.

Holy Roman Empire Complex of territories in Europe from 962 to 1806

The Holy Roman Empire was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in Western and Central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was the Kingdom of Germany, though it also included the neighboring Kingdom of Bohemia and Kingdom of Italy, plus numerous other territories, and soon after the Kingdom of Burgundy was added. Its size gradually diminished over time, particularly from 1648 onward, and by the time of its dissolution, it largely contained only German-speaking territories, plus the Kingdom of Bohemia which was bordered by the German lands on three sides.

Edward S. Holden American astronomer

Edward Singleton Holden was an American astronomer and the fifth president of the University of California.

Herschel's father was an oboist in the Hanover Military Band. In 1755 the Hanoverian Guards regiment, in whose band Wilhelm and his brother Jakob were engaged as oboists, was ordered to England. At the time the crowns of Great Britain and Hanover were united under King George II. As the threat of war with France loomed, the Hanoverian Guards were recalled from England to defend Hanover. After they were defeated at the Battle of Hastenbeck, Herschel's father Isaak sent his two sons to seek refuge in England in late 1757. Although his older brother Jakob had received his dismissal from the Hanoverian Guards, Wilhelm was accused of desertion [9] (for which he was pardoned by George III in 1782). [10]

Oboe musical instrument of the woodwind family

The Oboe is a type of double reed woodwind instrument. Oboes are usually made of wood, but may also be made of synthetic materials, such as plastic or resin. The most common oboe plays in the treble or soprano range. A soprano oboe measures roughly 65 cm long, with metal keys, a conical bore and a flared bell. Sound is produced by blowing into the reed at a sufficient air pressure, causing it to vibrate with the air column. The distinctive tone is versatile and has been described as "bright". When the word oboe is used alone, it is generally taken to mean the treble instrument rather than other instruments of the family, such as the bass oboe, the cor anglais, or oboe d'amore

Kingdom of Great Britain Constitutional monarchy in Western Europe between 1707 and 1801

The Kingdom of Great Britain, officially called Great Britain, was a sovereign state in western Europe from 1 May 1707 to 1 January 1801. The state came into being following the Treaty of Union in 1706, ratified by the Acts of Union 1707, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland to form a single kingdom encompassing the whole island of Great Britain and its outlying islands, with the exception of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The unitary state was governed by a single parliament and government that was based in Westminster. The former kingdoms had been in personal union since James VI of Scotland became King of England and King of Ireland in 1603 following the death of Elizabeth I, bringing about the "Union of the Crowns". Since its inception the kingdom was in legislative and personal union with Ireland and after the accession of George I to the throne of Great Britain in 1714, the kingdom was in a personal union with the Electorate of Hanover.

A personal union is the combination of two or more states that have the same monarch while their boundaries, laws, and interests remain distinct. A real union, by contrast, would involve the constituent states being to some extent interlinked, such as by sharing some limited governmental institutions. In a federation and a unitary state, a central (federal) government spanning all member states exists, with the degree of self-governance distinguishing the two. The ruler in a personal union does not need to be a hereditary monarch.

Wilhelm, nineteen years old at this time, was a quick student of the English language. In England he went by the English rendition of his name, Frederick William Herschel. In addition to the oboe, he played the violin and harpsichord and later the organ. [11] He composed numerous musical works, including 24 symphonies and many concertos, as well as some church music. [12] Six of his symphonies were recorded in April 2002 by the London Mozart Players, conducted by Matthias Bamert (Chandos 10048). [13]

Harpsichord musical instrument played by means of a keyboard

A harpsichord is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. Like a pipe organ, a harpsichord may have more than one keyboard manual and harpsichords may have stop buttons which add or remove additional octaves. Some harpsichords may have a lute stop, which simulates the sound of a plucked lute. This activates a row of levers that turn a trigger mechanism that plucks one or more strings with a small plectrum made from quill or plastic. The strings are under tension on a soundboard, which is mounted in a wooden case; the soundboard amplifies the vibrations from the strings so that the listeners can hear it.

Organ (music) musical keyboard instrument

In music, the organ is a keyboard instrument of one or more pipe divisions or other means for producing tones, each played with its own keyboard, played either with the hands on a keyboard or with the feet using pedals. The organ is a relatively old musical instrument, dating from the time of Ctesibius of Alexandria, who invented the water organ. It was played throughout the Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman world, particularly during races and games. During the early medieval period it spread from the Byzantine Empire, where it continued to be used in secular (non-religious) and imperial court music, to Western Europe, where it gradually assumed a prominent place in the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Subsequently it re-emerged as a secular and recital instrument in the Classical music tradition.

Symphony extended musical composition

A symphony is an extended musical composition in Western classical music, most often written by composers for orchestra. Although the term has had many meanings from its origins in the ancient Greek era, by the late 18th century the word had taken on the meaning common today: a work usually consisting of multiple distinct sections or movements, often four, with the first movement in sonata form. Symphonies are almost always scored for an orchestra consisting of a string section, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments which altogether number about 30 to 100 musicians. Symphonies are notated in a musical score, which contains all the instrument parts. Orchestral musicians play from parts which contain just the notated music for their own instrument. Some symphonies also contain vocal parts.

Original manuscript of Symphony No. 15 in E flat major (1762) William Herschel - Symphony No. 15 - British Library Add MS 49626 f25r.jpg
Original manuscript of Symphony No. 15 in E flat major (1762)

Herschel moved to Sunderland in 1761 when Charles Avison immediately engaged him as first violin and soloist for his Newcastle orchestra, where he played for one season. In "Sunderland in the County of Durh: apprill [ sic ] 20th 1761" he wrote his Symphony No. 8 in C Minor. He was head of the Durham Militia band from 1760 to 1761. [14] He visited the home of Sir Ralph Milbanke at Halnaby Hall near Darlington in 1760, [8] :14 where he wrote two symphonies, as well as giving performances himself. After Newcastle, he moved to Leeds and Halifax where he was the first organist at St John the Baptist church (now Halifax Minster). [7] :411

In 1766, Herschel became organist of the Octagon Chapel, Bath, a fashionable chapel in a well-known spa, in which city he was also Director of Public Concerts. [15] He was appointed as the organist in 1766 and gave his introductory concert on 1 January 1767. As the organ was still incomplete, he showed off his versatility by performing his own compositions including a violin concerto, an oboe concerto and a harpsichord sonata. [16] On 4 October 1767, he performed on the organ for the official opening of the Octagon Chapel. [17]

His sister Caroline arrived in England on 24 August 1772 to live with William in New King Street, Bath. [1] :1–25 The house they shared is now the location of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. [18] Herschel's brothers Dietrich, Alexander and Jakob (1734–1792) also appeared as musicians of Bath. [19] In 1780, Herschel was appointed director of the Bath orchestra, with his sister often appearing as soprano soloist. [20] [21]


Replica in the William Herschel Museum, Bath, of a telescope similar to that with which Herschel discovered Uranus HerschelTelescope.jpg
Replica in the William Herschel Museum, Bath, of a telescope similar to that with which Herschel discovered Uranus
Herschel's mirror polisher, on display in the Science Museum, London William Herschel's Mirror-polisher.jpg
Herschel's mirror polisher, on display in the Science Museum, London

Herschel's reading in natural philosophy during the 1770s indicates his personal interests but also suggests an intention to be upwardly mobile socially and professionally. He was well-positioned to engage with eighteenth-century "philosophical Gentleman" or philomaths, of wide-ranging logical and practical tastes. [21] Herschel's intellectual curiosity and interest in music eventually led him to astronomy. After reading Robert Smith's Harmonics, or the Philosophy of Musical Sounds (1749), he took up Smith's A Compleat System of Opticks (1738), which described techniques of telescope construction. [22] He also read James Ferguson's Astronomy explained upon Sir Isaac Newton's principles and made easy to those who have not studied mathematics (1756) and William Emerson's The elements of trigonometry (1749), The elements of optics (1768) and The principles of mechanics (1754). [21]

Herschel took lessons from a local mirror-builder and having obtained both tools and a level of expertise, started building his own reflecting telescopes. He would spend up to 16 hours a day grinding and polishing the speculum metal primary mirrors. He relied on the assistance of other family members, particularly his sister Caroline and his brother Alexander, a skilled mechanical craftsperson. [21]

He "began to look at the planets and the stars" [23] in May 1773 and on 1 March 1774 began an astronomical journal by noting his observations of Saturn's rings and the Great Orion Nebula (M42). [21] The English Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne visited the Herschels while they were at Walcot (which they left on 29 September 1777). [24] By 1779, Herschel had also made the acquaintance of Sir William Watson, who invited him to join the Bath Philosophical Society. [21] Herschel became an active member, and through Watson would greatly enlarge his circle of contacts. [22] [25]

Double stars

Herschel's early observational work soon focused on the search for pairs of stars that were very close together visually. Astronomers of the era expected that changes over time in the apparent separation and relative location of these stars would provide evidence for both the proper motion of stars and, by means of parallax shifts in their separation, for the distance of stars from the Earth. The latter was a method first suggested by Galileo Galilei. [26] From the back garden of his house in New King Street, Bath, and using a 6.2-inch aperture (160 mm), 7-foot-focal-length (2.1 m) (f/13) Newtonian telescope "with a most capital speculum" of his own manufacture, [27] in October 1779, Herschel began a systematic search for such stars among "every star in the Heavens", [26] :5 with new discoveries listed through 1792. He soon discovered many more binary and multiple stars than expected, and compiled them with careful measurements of their relative positions in two catalogues presented to the Royal Society in London in 1782 (269 double or multiple systems) [28] and 1784 (434 systems). [29] A third catalogue of discoveries made after 1783 was published in 1821 (145 systems). [30] [31]

The Rev. John Michell of Thornhill published work in 1767 on the distribution of double stars, [32] and in 1783 on "dark stars" (black holes), that may have influenced Herschel. [33] After Michell's death in 1793, Herschel bought a ten-foot-long, 30-inch reflecting telescope from Michell's estate. [34]

In 1797, Herschel measured many of the systems again, and discovered changes in their relative positions that could not be attributed to the parallax caused by the Earth's orbit. He waited until 1802 (in Catalogue of 500 new Nebulae, nebulous Stars, planetary Nebulae, and Clusters of Stars; with Remarks on the Construction of the Heavens) to announce the hypothesis that the two stars might be "binary sidereal systems" orbiting under mutual gravitational attraction, a hypothesis he confirmed in 1803 in his Account of the Changes that have happened, during the last Twenty-five Years, in the relative Situation of Double-stars; with an Investigation of the Cause to which they are owing. [26] :8–9 In all, Herschel discovered over 800 confirmed [35] double or multiple star systems, almost all of them physical rather than optical pairs. His theoretical and observational work provided the foundation for modern binary star astronomy; [17] :74 new catalogues adding to his work were not published until after 1820 by Friedrich Wilhelm Struve, James South and John Herschel. [36] [37]


Uranus, discovered by Herschel in 1781 Uranus2.jpg
Uranus, discovered by Herschel in 1781

In March 1781, during his search for double stars, Herschel noticed an object appearing as a disk. Herschel originally thought it was a comet or a stellar disc, which he believed he might actually resolve. [38] He reported the sighting to Nevil Maskelyne the Astronomer Royal. [39] He made many more observations of it, and afterwards Russian Academician Anders Lexell computed the orbit and found it to be probably planetary. [40] [41]

Herschel agreed, determining that it must be a planet beyond the orbit of Saturn. [42] He called the new planet the "Georgian star" (Georgium sidus) after King George III, which also brought him favour; the name did not stick. [43] In France, where reference to the British king was to be avoided if possible, the planet was known as "Herschel" until the name "Uranus" was universally adopted. The same year, Herschel was awarded the Copley Medal and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. [41] In 1782, he was appointed "The King's Astronomer" (not to be confused with the Astronomer Royal). [44]

On 1 August 1782 Herschel and his sister Caroline moved to Datchet (then in Buckinghamshire but now in Berkshire). There he continued his work as an astronomer and telescope maker. [45] He achieved an international reputation for their manufacture, profitably selling over 60 completed reflectors to British and Continental astronomers. [46]

Deep sky surveys

NGC 2683 is an unbarred spiral galaxy discovered by William Herschel on 5 February 1788 NGC 2683 HST.jpg
NGC 2683 is an unbarred spiral galaxy discovered by William Herschel on 5 February 1788

From 1782 to 1802, and most intensively from 1783 to 1790, Herschel conducted systematic surveys in search of "deep-sky" or non-stellar objects with two 20-foot-focal-length (610 cm), 12-inch-aperture (30 cm) and 18.7-inch-aperture (47 cm) telescopes (in combination with his favoured 6-inch-aperture instrument). Excluding duplicated and "lost" entries, Herschel ultimately discovered over 2,400 objects defined by him as nebulae. [7] (At that time, nebula was the generic term for any visually diffuse astronomical object, including galaxies beyond the Milky Way, until galaxies were confirmed as extragalactic systems by Edwin Hubble in 1924. [47] )

Herschel published his discoveries as three catalogues: Catalogue of One Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (1786), Catalogue of a Second Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (1789) and the previously cited Catalogue of 500 New Nebulae ... (1802). He arranged his discoveries under eight "classes": (I) bright nebulae, (II) faint nebulae, (III) very faint nebulae, (IV) planetary nebulae, (V) very large nebulae, (VI) very compressed and rich clusters of stars, (VII) compressed clusters of small and large [faint and bright] stars, and (VIII) coarsely scattered clusters of stars. Herschel's discoveries were supplemented by those of Caroline Herschel (11 objects) and his son John Herschel (1754 objects) and published by him as General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters in 1864. This catalogue was later edited by John Dreyer, supplemented with discoveries by many other 19th-century astronomers, and published in 1888 as the New General Catalogue (abbreviated NGC) of 7,840 deep-sky objects. The NGC numbering is still the most commonly used identifying label for these celestial landmarks. [7] :418

He discovered NGC 12, NGC 13, NGC 14, NGC 16, NGC 23, NGC 24 (work in progress).

Works with his sister Caroline

William and Caroline Herschel polishing a telescope lens (probably a mirror); 1896 lithograph Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel. Wellcome V0002731 (cropped).jpg
William and Caroline Herschel polishing a telescope lens (probably a mirror); 1896 lithograph

Following the death of their father, William suggested that Caroline join him in Bath, England. In 1772, Caroline was first introduced to astronomy by her brother. [43] [48] [49]

Caroline spent many hours polishing the mirrors of high performance telescopes so that the amount of light captured was maximized. She also copied astronomical catalogues and other publications for William. After William accepted the office of King's Astronomer to George III, Caroline became his constant assistant. [50]

In October 1783, a new 20-foot telescope came into service for William. During this time, William was attempting to observe and then record all of the observations. He had to run inside and let his eyes readjust to the artificial light before he could record anything, and then he would have to wait until his eyes were adjusted to the dark before he could observe again. Caroline became his recorder by sitting at a desk near an open window. William would shout out his observations and she would write them down along with any information he needed from a reference book. [51]

Caroline began to make astronomical discoveries in her own right, particularly comets. In 1783, William built her a small Newtonian reflector telescope, with a handle to make a vertical sweep of the sky. Between 1783 and 1787, she made an independent discovery of M110 (NGC 205), which is the second companion of the Andromeda Galaxy. During the years 1786–1797, she discovered or observed eight comets. [52] She found fourteen new nebulae [53] and, at her brother's suggestion, updated and corrected Flamsteed's work detailing the position of stars. [54] [55] She also rediscovered Comet Encke in 1795. [52]

Caroline Herschel's eight comets were published between 28 August 1782 to 5 February 1787. Five of her comets were published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society . William was even summoned to Windsor Castle to demonstrate Caroline's comet to the royal family. William recorded this phenomenon himself, terming it "My Sister's Comet." She wrote letters to the Astronomer Royal to announce the discovery of her second comet, and wrote to Joseph Banks upon the discovery of her third and fourth comets. [49]

The Catalogue of stars taken from Mr Flamsteed's observations contained an index of more than 560 stars that had not been previously included. [53] [55] Caroline Herschel was honoured by the Royal Astronomical Society for this work in 1828. [56]

Caroline also continued to serve as William Herschel's assistant, often taking notes while he observed at the telescope. [57] For her work as William's assistant, she was granted an annual salary of £50 by George III. Her appointment made her the first female in England to be honored with a government position. [58] It also made her the first woman to be given a salary as an astronomer. [59]

In June 1785, owing to damp conditions, William and Caroline moved to Clay Hall in Old Windsor. On 3 April 1786, the Herschels moved to a new residence on Windsor Road in Slough. [45] Herschel lived the rest of his life in this residence, which came to be known as Observatory House. [60] It was demolished in 1963. [61]

On 8 May 1788, William Herschel married the widow Mary Pitt (née Baldwin) at St Laurence's Church, Upton in Slough. [62] The marriage caused a lot of tension in the brother-sister relationship. Caroline has been referred to as a bitter, jealous woman who worshipped her brother and resented her sister-in-law for invading her domestic life. With the arrival of Mary, Caroline lost her managerial and social responsibilities in the household, and with them much of her status. Caroline destroyed her journals between the years 1788 to 1798, so her feelings during this period are not entirely known. According to her memoir, Caroline then moved to separate lodgings, but continued to work as her brother's assistant. When her brother and his family were away from their home, she would often return to take care of it for them. In later life, Caroline and Lady Herschel exchanged affectionate letters. [49]

Caroline continued her astronomical work after William's death in 1822. She worked to verify and confirm his findings as well as putting together catalogues of nebulae. Towards the end of her life, she arranged two-and-a-half thousand nebulae and star clusters into zones of similar polar distances. She did this so that her nephew, John, could re-examine them systematically. Eventually, this list was enlarged and renamed the New General Catalogue . [63] In 1828, she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for her work. [64]

Herschel's telescopes

The most common type of telescope at that time was the refracting telescope, which involved the refraction of light through a tube using a convex glass lens. This design was subject to chromatic aberration, a distortion of an image due to the failure of light of different component wavelengths to converge. Optician John Dollond (1706–1761) tried to correct for this distortion by combining two separate lenses, but it was still difficult to achieve good resolution for far distant light sources. [43]

Reflector telescopes, invented by Isaac Newton in 1668, used a single concave mirror rather than a convex lens. The concave mirror gathered more light than a lens, reflecting it onto a flat mirror at the end of the telescope for viewing. A smaller mirror could provide greater magnification and a larger field of view than a convex lens. Newton's first mirror was 1.3 inches in diameter; such mirrors were rarely more than 3 inches in diameter. [43]

Because of the poor reflectivity of mirrors made of speculum metal, Herschel eliminated the small diagonal mirror of a standard newtonian reflector from his design and tilted his primary mirror so he could view the formed image directly. This "front view" design has come to be called the Herschelian telescope. [65] [66] :7

The creation of larger, symmetrical mirrors was extremely difficult. Any flaw would result in a blurred image. Because no one else was making mirrors of the size and magnification desired by Herschel, he determined to make his own. [43] This was no small undertaking. He was assisted by his sister Caroline and other family members. Caroline Herschel described the pouring of a 30-foot-focal-length mirror:

A day was set apart for casting, and the metal was in the furnace, but unfortunately it began to leak at the moment when ready for pouring, and both my brothers and the caster with his men were obliged to run out at opposite doors, for the stone flooring (which ought to have been taken up) flew about in all directions, as high as the ceiling. My poor brother fell, exhausted with heat and exertion, on a heap of brickbats. Before the second casting was attempted, everything which could ensure success had been attended to, and a very perfect metal was found in the mould, which had cracked in the cooling.

Caroline Herschel [49]

Herschel is reported to have cast, ground, and polished more than four hundred mirrors for telescopes, varying in size from 6 to 48 inches in diameter. [65] [67] Herschel and his assistants built and sold at least sixty complete telescopes of various sizes. [65] Commissions for the making and selling of mirrors and telescopes provided Herschel with an additional source of income. The King of Spain reportedly paid £3,150 for a telescope. [49]

An essential part of constructing and maintaining telescopes was the grinding and polishing of their mirrors. This had to be done repeatedly, whenever the mirrors deformed or tarnished during use. [43] The only way to test the accuracy of a mirror was to use it. [65]

40ft telescope

The 40-foot (12 m) telescope Lossy-page1-3705px-Herschel's Grand Forty feet Reflecting Telescopes RMG F8607 (cropped).jpg
The 40-foot (12 m) telescope

The largest and most famous of Herschel's telescopes was a reflecting telescope with a 49½-inch-diameter (1.26 m) primary mirror and a 40-foot (12 m) focal length. The 40-foot telescope was, at that time, the largest scientific instrument that had been built. It was hailed as a triumph of "human perseverance and zeal for the sublimest science". [43] [8] :215

In 1785 Herschel approached King George for money to cover the cost of building the 40-foot telescope. He received £4,000. [68] Without royal patronage, the telescope could not have been created. As it was, it took five years, and went over budget. [43]

The Herschel home in Slough became a scramble of "labourers and workmen, smiths and carpenters". [43] A 40-foot telescope tube had to be cast of iron. The tube was large enough to walk through. Mirror blanks were poured from Speculum metal, a mix of copper and tin. They were almost four feet in diameter and weighed 1,000 pounds. When the first disk deformed due to its weight, a second thicker one was made with a higher content of copper. The mirrors had to be hand polished, a painstaking process. A mirror was repeatedly put into the telescope and removed again to ensure that it was properly formed. When a mirror deformed or tarnished, it had to be removed, repolished and replaced in the apparatus. A huge rotating platform was built to support the telescope, enabling it to be repositioned by assistants as a sweep progressed. A platform near the top of the tube enabled the viewer to look down into the tube and view the resulting image. [43] [68]

Saturn orbiter's view of Mimas PIA06256 Mimas full view.jpg
Saturn orbiter's view of Mimas

In 1789, shortly after this instrument was operational, Herschel discovered a new moon of Saturn: Mimas, only 250 miles in diameter. [69] Discovery of a second moon (Enceladus) followed, within the first month of observation. [43] [70] [71]

The 40-foot telescope proved very cumbersome, and in spite of its size, not very effective at showing clearer images. [43] Herschel's technological innovations had taken him to the limits of what was possible with the technology of his day. The 40-foot would not be improved upon until the Victorians developed techniques for the precision engineering of large, high-quality mirrors. [72] William Herschel was disappointed with it. [43] [65] [73] Most of Herschel's observations were done with a smaller 18.5-inch (47 cm), 20-foot-focal-length (6.1 m) reflector. Nonetheless, the 40-foot caught the public imagination. It inspired scientists and writers including Erasmus Darwin and William Blake, and impressed foreign tourists and French dignitaries. King George was pleased. [43]

Herschel discovered that unfilled telescope apertures can be used to obtain high angular resolution, something which became the essential basis for interferometric imaging in astronomy (in particular aperture masking interferometry and hypertelescopes). [74]

Reconstruction of the 20-foot telescope

In 2012, the BBC television programme Stargazing Live built a replica of the 20-foot telescope using Herschel's original plans but modern materials. It is to be considered a close modern approximation rather than an exact replica. A modern glass mirror was used, the frame uses metal scaffolding and the tube is a sewer pipe. The telescope was shown on the programme in January 2013 and stands on the Art, Design and Technology campus of the University of Derby where it will be used for educational purposes. [75]

Life on other celestial bodies

Herschel was sure that he had found ample evidence of life on the Moon and compared it to the English countryside. [76] He did not refrain himself from theorising that the other planets were populated, [43] with a special interest in Mars, which was in line with most of his contemporary scientists. [76] At Herschel's time, scientists tended to believe in a plurality of civilised worlds; in contrast, most religious thinkers referred to unique properties of the earth. [76] Herschel went so far to speculate that the interior of the sun was populated. [76]

Sunspots, climate and wheat yields

Herschel started to examine the correlation of solar variation and solar cycle and climate. [77] Over a period of 40 years (1779–1818), Herschel had regularly observed sunspots and their variations in number, form and size. Most of his observations took place in a period of low solar activity, the Dalton Minimum, when sunspots were relatively few in number. This was one of the reasons why Herschel was not able to identify the standard 11-year period in solar activity. [78] [79] Herschel compared his observations with the series of wheat prices published by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations . [80]

In 1801, Herschel reported his findings to the Royal Society and indicated five prolonged periods of few sunspots correlated with the price of wheat. [77] Herschel's study was ridiculed by some of his contemporaries but did initiate further attempts to find a correlation. Later in the 19th century, William Stanley Jevons proposed the 11-year cycle with Herschel's basic idea of a correlation between the low number of sunspots and lower yields explaining recurring booms and slumps in the economy. [79]

Herschel's speculation on a connection between sunspots and regional climate, using the market price of wheat as a proxy, continues to be cited. According to one study, the influence of solar activity can actually be seen on the historical wheat market in England over ten solar cycles between 1600 and 1700. [78] [79] The evaluation is controversial [81] and the significance of the correlation is doubted by some scientists. [82]

Further discoveries

Planets discovered: 1
Uranus 13 March 1781
Moons discovered: 4
Oberon 11 January 1787
Titania 11 January 1787
Enceladus 28 August 1789
Mimas 17 September 1789

In his later career, Herschel discovered two moons of Saturn, Mimas [70] and Enceladus; [71] as well as two moons of Uranus, Titania and Oberon. [83] He did not give these moons their names; they were named by his son John in 1847 and 1852, respectively, after his death. [70] [71] Herschel measured the axial tilt of Mars [84] and discovered that the martian ice caps, first observed by Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1666) and Christiaan Huygens (1672), changed size with that planet's seasons. [5] It has been suggested that Herschel might have discovered rings around Uranus. [85]

Herschel introduced but did not create the word "asteroid", [86] meaning star-like (from the Greek asteroeides, aster "star" + -eidos "form, shape"), in 1802 (shortly after Olbers discovered the second minor planet, 2 Pallas, in late March), to describe the star-like appearance of the small moons of the giant planets and of the minor planets; the planets all show discs, by comparison. By the 1850s 'asteroid' became a standard term for describing certain minor planets. [87]

From studying the proper motion of stars, the nature and extent of the solar motion was first demonstrated by Herschel in 1783, along with first determining the direction for the solar apex to Lambda Herculis, only 10° away from today's accepted position. [88] [89] [90]

William Herschel's model of the Milky Way, 1785 Herschel-galaxy.jpg
William Herschel's model of the Milky Way, 1785

Herschel also studied the structure of the Milky Way and was the first to propose a model of the galaxy based on observation and measurement. He concluded that it was in the shape of a disk, but incorrectly assumed that the sun was in the centre of the disk. [91] [92] [93] [94] This Heliocentric view was eventually replaced by Galactocentrism due to the work of Harlow Shapley, Heber Doust Curtis and Edwin Hubble in the 1900s. All three men used significantly more far-reaching and accurate telescopes than Herschel's. [91] [92] [95]

Discovery of infrared radiation in sunlight

On 11 February 1800, Herschel was testing filters for the Sun so he could observe sunspot. When using a red filter he found there was a lot of heat produced. Herschel discovered infrared radiation in sunlight by passing it through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. This thermometer was meant to be a control to measure the ambient air temperature in the room. He was shocked when it showed a higher temperature than the visible spectrum. Further experimentation led to Herschel's conclusion that there must be an invisible form of light beyond the visible spectrum. [96] [97]


Herschel used a microscope to establish that coral was not a plant—as many at the time believed—because it lacked the cell walls characteristic of plants. [98]

Family and death

William Herschel and Mary had one child, John, born at Observatory House on 7 March 1792. William's personal background and rise as man of science had a profound impact on the upbringing of his son and grandchildren. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1788. [99] In 1816, William was made a Knight of the Royal Guelphic Order by the Prince Regent and was accorded the honorary title 'Sir' although this was not the equivalent of an official British knighthood. [100] He helped to found the Astronomical Society of London in 1820, [101] which in 1831 received a royal charter and became the Royal Astronomical Society. [102] In 1813, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

On 25 August 1822, Herschel died at Observatory House, Windsor Road, Slough, after a long illness. He was buried at nearby St Laurence's Church, Upton, Slough. Herschel's epitaph is

Coelorum perrupit claustra
(He broke through the barriers of the heavens) [103]

Caroline was deeply distressed by his death, and soon after his burial she returned to Hanover, a decision she later regretted. She had lived in England for fifty years. Her interests were much more in line with her nephew John Herschel, also an astronomer, than with her surviving family in Hanover. She continued to work on the organization and cataloguing of nebulae, creating what would later become the basis of the New General Catalogue . She died on 9 January 1848. [49] [52] [104]


William Herschel lived most of his life in Slough, a town then in Buckinghamshire. He died in the town and was buried under the tower of the Church of St Laurence, Upton-cum-Chalvey, near Slough. [105]

Herschel is quite respected in Slough and there are several memorials to him and his discoveries. In 2011 a new bus station, the design of which was inspired by the infrared experiment of William Herschel, was built in the centre of Slough. [106]

His house at 19 New King Street in Bath, Somerset, where he made many telescopes and first observed Uranus, is now home to the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. [107]

Musical works

Herschel's complete musical works were as follows: [108]

Various vocal works including a "Te Deum", psalms, motets and sacred chants along with some catches.

Keyboard works for organ and harpsichord:

Named after Herschel

William Herschel, portrait by James Sharples, c. 1805 William Herschel.jpg
William Herschel, portrait by James Sharples, c. 1805

See also

Related Research Articles

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<i>New General Catalogue</i> astronomical catalogue of deep sky objects

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Messier 93 open cluster

Messier 93 or M93, also known as NGC 2447, is an open cluster in the constellation Puppis. It was discovered by Charles Messier then added to his catalogue of comet-like objects on March 20, 1781. Caroline Herschel, the younger sister of William Herschel, independently discovered M93 in 1783, thinking it had not yet been catalogued by Messier. Walter Scott Houston described its appearance as follows:

Some observers mention the cluster as having the shape of a starfish. With a fair-sized telescope, this is its appearance on a dull night, but [a four-inch refractor] shows it as a typical star-studded galactic cluster.

NGC 2360 open cluster in Canis Major

NGC 2360, also known as Caroline's Cluster, is an open cluster in the constellation Canis Major. It was discovered on 26 February 1783, by Caroline Herschel who wrote, "A beautiful cluster of pretty compressed stars near 1/2 degree in diameter." Her notes were overlooked until her brother William included the cluster in his 1786 catalogue of 1000 clusters and nebulae and acknowledged her as the discoverer. The cluster lies 3.5 degrees east of Gamma Canis Majoris and less than one degree northwest of the eclipsing binary star R Canis Majoris; it has a combined apparent magnitude of 7.2. It is 13 arc minutes in diameter. By the western edge of the cluster is the unrelated star, 5.5-magnitude HD 56405.

NGC 3603 open cluster in the constellation Carina

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William Herbert Steavenson FRAS was an English amateur astronomer.

Sh2-279 galaxy

Sh2-279 is an HII region and bright nebulae that includes a reflection nebula located in the constellation Orion. It is the northernmost part of the asterism known as Orion's Sword, lying 0.6° north of the Orion Nebula. The reflection nebula embedded in Sh2-279 is popularly known as the Running Man Nebula.

The Herschel 400 catalogue is a subset of William Herschel's original Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, selected by Brenda F. Guzman (Branchett), Lydel Guzman, Paul Jones, James Morrison, Peggy Taylor and Sara Saey of the Ancient City Astronomy Club in St. Augustine, Florida, United States c. 1980. They decided to generate the list after reading a letter published in Sky & Telescope by James Mullaney of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.

The Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (CN) is an astronomical catalogue of nebulae first published in 1786 by William Herschel, with the assistance of his sister Caroline Herschel. It was later expanded into the General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (GC) by his son, John Herschel. The CN and GC are the precursors to John Louis Emil Dreyer's New General Catalogue (NGC) used by current astronomers.

NGC 4889 galaxy

NGC 4889 is an E4 supergiant elliptical galaxy. It was discovered in 1785 by the British astronomer Frederick William Herschel I, who catalogued it as a bright, nebulous patch. The brightest galaxy within the northern Coma Cluster, it is located at a median distance of 94 million parsecs from Earth. At the core of the galaxy is a supermassive black hole that heats the intracluster medium through the action of friction from infalling gases and dust. The gamma ray bursts from the galaxy extend out to several million light years of the cluster.

NGC 5053 is the New General Catalogue designation for a globular cluster in the northern constellation of Coma Berenices. It was discovered by German-British astronomer William Herschel on March 14, 1784 and cataloged as VI-7. In his abbreviated notation, he described it as, "an extremely faint cluster of extremely small stars with resolvable nebula 8 or 10′ diameter, verified by a power of 240, beyond doubt". Danish-Irish astronomer John Louis Emil Dreyer reported in 1888 that the cluster appeared, "very faint, pretty large, irregular round shape, growing very gradually brighter at the middle".

NGC 615 galaxy

NGC 615 is a spiral galaxy seen edge-on located in the constellation Cetus. It is located at a distance of circa 70 million light years from Earth, which, given its apparent dimensions, means that NGC 615 is about 75,000 light years across. It was discovered William Herschel on January 10, 1785. NGC 615 belongs at the NGC 584 galaxy group, which also includes the galaxies NGC 584, NGC 596, NGC 600, and NGC 636.


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Further reading