Herschel Family

Alternative names

Biographical notes:

Sir William Herschel, 1738-1822

The fourth of ten children, Sir William Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany, on 15 November 1738 to Isaac Herschel (1707–1767) and his wife Anna Ilse Moritzen. He was baptized as Friedrich Wilhelm. Herschel's father was an oboist in the Hanoverian Foot Guards and 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 the guards, where his salary helped to pay for lessons in French. In 1756 his unit was stationed in England, where he also took the opportunity to learn English. In 1757 the guards were recalled because of the invasion of Hanover during the Seven Years' War, and at his father's 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 to England and his father secured his formal discharge in 1762.

Herschel arrived in England almost penniless but soon found success as a member of the band of the Durham militia. He began to perform and teach across northern England and by 1760 he 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 with her family in Hanover. Concerned for her welfare, he decided to bring her back with him to Bath despite his family's opposition. This move proved to be a happy decision for both, 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. He soon 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 in his 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. On the 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 his findings to the Astronomer Royal. The object was confirmed to be special-Herschel became the first person ever to discover an unseen planet of the solar system with a telescope. As a 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,' William continued to build ever-larger telescopes. In 1783 he built a 20-foot reflector and in 1789 he completed a 40-foot reflecting telescope that for the next fifty years would remain the largest ever constructed. Herschel's astronomical achievements were widely recognized: in 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 many 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 recognize the significance of his findings on nebulas, variable stars, infra-red rays from the sun, and the direction in which the solar system is travelling.

Herschel's life seems to have been devoid of any romantic attachments until 1786. In that year his friend and neighbor John Pitt died, and two years later Herschel married his widow, Mary (1750-1832). Their only child, Sir John Frederick William Herschel, was born in 1792. Mary's pleasant nature combined with the money she brought to the marriage helped to ease some of the pressures in Herschel's life.

Long nights of observing in cold and damp conditions took a toll on Herschel's health, and in 1816, with his ailments worsening, his son John Herschel returned home to care for him and to learn from him so that he could continue his father's astronomical work. Six years later, on 25 August 1822, William Herschel died at the Observatory House, his Slough home.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel, 1750-1848

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was born on 16 March 1750 in Hanover, Germany, the eighth child of Isaac Herschel (1707-1767) and his wife, Anna Ilse Moritzen. Unlike her brother, William Herschel, Caroline was not encouraged to pursue her intellectual curiosities, but instead received a minimum of education and was pressed into service as the household servant by her illiterate mother.

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 this 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 with 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 her 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. In addition to her musical duties, she waited on Herschel hand-and-foot during the long hours 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 full time, William took it for granted that Caroline would also give up her career in music and 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 easy 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 for finding comets, and using the powerful new instrument she was able to sweep a quarter of the heavens each night. Caroline soon became famous as the discoverer of eight comets along with 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 to her new career. In 1787 she received a royal pension of £50 a year, making her the first woman in Britain to receive a pension for scientific work.

Caroline continued to assist William in his observations. In 1783, interested in the study of nebulae, her brother constructed a 20-foot reflector with a stable mounting expressly for this purpose. William would wait at the eyepiece and watch the sky drift past until a nebula came into view. He would then shout out his observations to Caroline who would record them, seated at a desk by a nearby open window. In addition to her work as a scribe, she would perform calculations, create charts, and write up fair copies for publication.

Caroline's well-established routine of managing domestic affairs was disrupted in 1788 when William decided to marry the widow of a neighbor. Caroline, long accustomed to being both his household companion and career-partner, had to move into new lodgings. Although this was 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 born in 1792.

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 working 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 nebulae. 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 her work.

Caroline enjoyed good health, showing signs of energy and vitality late into life. A respected astronomer in her own right, she died peacefully at the age of ninety-seven in 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 only 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, having become internationally prominent as the discoverer of Uranus in 1781. John attended Mr. Bull's school at Newbury, and for a short period of time, Eton College, before enrolling at 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 as an exceptionally talented scholar. In the year of his graduation, John was elected a member of 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 to have 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 take up his father's unfinished astronomical observations. He continued to make contributions to 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 known as the Royal Astronomical Society). From its founding in 1820 until 1827, he served as its 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. In 1820, they collaborated on the construction of a 20-foot telescope which he used as his main telescope between 1820 and 1838. John also took up his father's research interests in stellar astronomy, publishing two great catalogues-one on nebulae and star clusters and one 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 as well. Beginning in the 1820s, he emerged as Britain's first modern physical scientist. His articles on light and sound were received enthusiastically by continental scientists and published in French and German. One of his most lasting contributions during this period was 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 healthy balance in John's intensely academic life. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Grahame introduced John to Margaret Brodie Stewart, the daughter of Scottish Presbyterian minister Alexander Stewart and his wife. The two immediately took a liking to one other and not long after were married on March 3, 1829. The marriage proved to be a happy one, and over the 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 out a complete survey of all the celestial objects in the Southern Hemisphere. The period from 1833 until their return to England in 1838 proved to be one of the most productive and happy times in John's life. Herschel set up his telescope at their home, Feldhausen, an old estate on Table Mountain, and began his observations. When the Herschel family returned to London on 15 May 1838, John was immediately hailed by his scientific contemporaries as the foremost 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 of a Telescopic Survey of the Whole Surface of the Visible Heavens, Commenced in 1825 by Sir J. 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 involved in photochemistry; seeking new ways to improve photographic science he conducted hundreds of 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, and 1842) published by the Royal Society. He also made important contributions through his extensive experimentation on the light sensitivity of various metals and vegetable dyes and coined many standard terms in photography, namely, 'positive,' 'negative,' 'snap-shot,' and '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 of 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 the position. Regardless, Herschel's short tenure as Master of the Mint was not good for his health. The stresses of his involvement in the planned reform compounded by the need to 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 disliked being separated from his family in Collingwood. Late in 1854, with Herschel already in frail 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 and articles, receive visitors regularly, and correspond with his colleagues. Herschel died at Collingwood on 11 May 1871, likely as a result of chronic bronchial problems. His funeral in London was attended by most of the leading British scientists of his day. Herschel was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Sir Isaac Newton.

From the guide to the Herschel Family Papers Manuscript Collection MS-1931., 1721-1951 (bulk 1810-1871), (The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center)

Biographical notes are generated from the bibliographic and archival source records supplied by data contributors.


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  • Physics
  • Great Britain. Royal Mint
  • Chemistry
  • Astronomy
  • Photography
  • Mathematics


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