Happy Birthday, Sir William Herschel!

On this day in 1738, an astronomy legend was born – Sir William Herschel. Among this British astronomer and musician’s many accomplishments, Herschel was credited with the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781; detecting the motion of the Sun in the Milky Way in 1785; finding Castor’s binary companion in 1804 – and he was the first to record infrared radiation. Herschel was well known as the discoverer of many clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. This came through his countless nights studying the sky and writing catalogs whose information we still use today. Let’s take a brief, closer look at just who he was…

Born as Frederick William Herschel, this Hanover, Germany native had nine brothers and sisters. During his teenage years, he and his brother, Jakob, were oboists in a military band. When war ensued, his father sent the pair to England to escape. Once there, Herschel continued his musical career by playing cello and harpsichord – eventually composing 24 symphonies, a handful of concertos and religious music. He continued to be a musician, with many appointments, until middle age. Most of his family also migrated to England, the most famous of which is his sister Caroline, who came to live with him in 1772.

But it wasn’t music that was Herschel’s passion. After he met English Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, he began construction on his own reflector telescope, spending up to 16 hours a day grinding and polishing the speculum metal primary mirrors. By age 35 he’d begun his astronomical journey in earnest – and a year later he began recording his observations from the Great Orion Nebula to the rings of Saturn. Sir William’s interest was taken by the study of double stars and with a 160mm telescope of his own construction, he began a systematic search for binaries among “every star in the Heavens” in October, 1779 and continued listing discoveries through 1792, eventually compiling three catalogs.

During this time he continued to support himself and his sister with his music. In her biography, Caroline recounts how he would rush home between acts to scan the skies – and how she often had to clean pitch from mirror-making from his clothes to make him presentable. From 1782 to 1802, Sir William swept the skies, recording all he saw and sharing his discoveries with other astronomers. So devoted was he, that he even gave Caroline her own telescope in 1783, encouraging her to also make her own observations and discoveries. Herschel published his discoveries as three catalogues, a walloping 2400 entries, filled with distant nebulae and cosmic wonders. Over the time of his astronomical career, Herschel constructed more than four hundred telescopes – the most famous of which had an almost 50 inch diameter mirror and a 40 foot focal length!

In later years, he and Caroline moved on to Windsor Road in Slough… a residence which would eventually be come to known as “Observatory House”. It was during this time he married and eventually had a son – John. Caroline also moved on, yet continued to be his secretarial assistant. Sir William’s astronomical career was quite illustrious – so much so that this article only highlights a few of his accomplishments. He observed and recorded the satellites of his discovery, Uranus, along with more obscure moons belonging to Saturn. He did work with infrared radiation, popularized the term “asteroid”, studied the martian polar caps – revealing them as seasonal – and may very well have been the first to discover the rings of Uranus. His lack of a formal “astronomical education” never slowed Sir William Herschel down!

“I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me. I have observed stars of which the light, it can be proved, must take two million years to reach the Earth.”

Herschel’s life ended at a ripe old age of 84… Passing on at his beloved Observatory House. His son, John Herschel, would carry on in his father’s footsteps and also became a famous astronomer. While few of us will ever be able to match Herschel’s passion for astronomy, at least we can take a moment to look at the stars and wish this astronomy “great” a very happy birthday!

12 Replies to “Happy Birthday, Sir William Herschel!”

  1. If you happen to be in Bath, make sure to fo to the astronomer house and see where he lived and work!

    1. Bath is a truly beautiful city, worth a visit in its own right and if you want some serious astronomy on your visit, look up the Bath Astronomers community on the web, they hold public star gatherings and observations for paid-up members of the William Herschel society.

      1. Unfortunately there was no activity over my (too short) period there. The must are the Roman Baths and the Cathedral which together is half a day. In the evening there are a ghost tour and a really weird Bizarre Bath tour. The astronomer house visit takes about an hour.

  2. Third paragraph, “By age 35 he’d began his astronomical journey”… should be begun. I wouldn’t have mentioned it but I saw the same thing in another article so it is obviously more than a typo. Who needs 400 telescopes??!? He could have given up the music if he’d just sold his sky-pieces!

    1. correction made. thank you. (it is nearly impossible to read a bit of factual information and not occassionally use the same word. πŸ˜‰

      1. I don’t mean to be a rude here but, I prefer to read comments that pertain to the subject of the articles. Would the grammar police please give it a rest? It’s annoying and really getting out of control.
        Have you considered joining a Occupy movement in your area?

  3. lol, astronomy maniac. πŸ˜€ I guess, music taught him something. He must have been some kind of Renaissance man or polymath.

  4. Composer of 24 symphonies; three catalogs recording 2400 entries from his systematic sky surveys; builder of more than 400 telescopes?! He also came to see the Sun as one star (with its family of worlds) moving within a dynamic field of stars, and mentally glimpsed the outline of our vast Galaxy “from stellar statistics”, and even pondered Island Universes out in space. A Self-educated man of indomitable spirit and impressive accomplishments. A great, sky-gazing pioneer of Astronomy in his day of history, during the morning years of Science:

    “Herschel removed the speckled tent-roof from the world and exposed the immeasurable deeps of space, dim-flecked with fleets of colossal suns sailing their billion-leagued remoteness” — ” ‘The Secret History of Eddypus’, Mark Twain and David Ketterer (ed.), Tales of Wonder (2003),…”

    “Coelorum perrupit claustra” ( “He broke through the barriers of the heavens.” ) — Epitaph in Upton Church …

Comments are closed.