1902 Encyclopedia > Sir (Frederick) William Herschel

Sir Frederick William Herschel
(usually known as: Sir William Herschell)
British astronomer
(1738-1822)




SIR FREDERICK WILLIAM HERSCHEL (1738-1822), generally known as Sir William Herschel, one of the most illustrious of astronomers, was born at Hanover, November 15, 1738. His father was a musician employed as hautboy player in the Hanoverian guards. The family had migrated from Bohemia in the early part of the 17th century, on account of religious troubles, they themselves being Protestants. Herschel's earlier education was necessarily of a very limited character, chiefly owing to the troubles in which his country at that time was involved ; but, being at all times an indomitable student, he, by his own exertions, more than repaired this deficiency of his youth. He became a very skilful musician, both theoretical and practical; while his attainments as a self-taught mathematician were fully adequate to the prosecution of those branches of astronomy which, by his labours and his genius, he so eminently advanced and adorned. Whatever he did he did methodically and thoroughly : and in this methodical thoroughness lay the secret of what Arago very properly terms his astonishing scientific success.

In 1755, at the age of seventeen, he joined the band of the Hanoverian guards, and with his detachment visited England, accompanied by his father and eldest brother; in the following year he returned to his native country, but two years later, impelled by the troubles that surrounded him, he finally quitted Hanover to seek his fortunes in England. As might have been expected, the earlier part of his career in his adopted country was attended with formid-able difficulties and much privation. We find him engaged in several towns in the north of England as organist and teacher of music, but these were occupations not attended with any lucrative results. In 1766 the tide of his fortunes began to flow, inasmuch as he obtained the appointment of organist to the Octagon Chapel in Bath, at that time the resort of the wealth and fashion of the city, and of its numerous distinguished visitors.
The next five or six years of his life were spent in establishing his reputation as a musician, and he thereby eventually became the leading musical authority in the place, and the director of all the chief public musical entertainments. His circumstances having thus become easier, he revisited Hanover for the purpose of bringing back with him his sister Caroline, with the view of her rendering him such services as she could in his multifarious undertakings. She arrived in Bath with her brother in August 1772, being at that time in her twenty-third year. She thus describes her brother's life soon after her arrival:—" He used to retire to bed with a bason of milk or a glass of water, with Smith's Harmonics and Ferguson's Astronomy, &c, and so went to sleep buried under his favourite authors; and his first thoughts on waking were how to obtain instruments for viewing those objects himself of which he had been reading." It is not without significance that we find him thus reading Smith's Harmonics; to that study loyalty to his profession would impel him; as a reward for his thoroughness this led him to Smith's Optics ; and this, by a natural sequence, again led him to astronomy, for the purposes of which the chief optical instruments were devised. It was in this way that he was introduced to the writings of Ferguson and Keill, and subsequently to those of Lalande, whereby he was educating himself for an astronomer and for undying fame. In those days telescopes were very rare, very expensive, and not very efficient, for the Dollonds had not as yet perfected even their beautiful little achromatics of 2f inches aperture. So Herschel was obliged to content himself with hiring a small Gregorian reflector of about 2 inches aperture, which he had seen exposed for loan in a tradesman's shop. Not satisfied with this implement, he procured a small lens of about 18 feet focal length, and set his sister to work on a pasteboard tube of that length, so as to make him a telescope. A tube of this construction naturally bent, and it was useless for all purposes but for the determined eyes of William Herschel. This material was soon displaced for tin, and thus a sorry sort of vision was obtained of Jupiter and Saturn and the moon. He then sought for a reflector of much larger dimensions from artists in London. No such instrument, however, was for sale; and the terms demanded for the construction of a reflecting telescope of 5 or 6 feet focal length he regarded as too exorbitant even for the gratification of such desires as his own. So he was driven to the only alternative that remained; he must construct a large telescope for himself. His first step in this direction was to purchase the debris of an amateur's implements for grinding and polishing small mirrors; and thus, by slow degrees, and by indomitable perseverance, he in 1774 had, as he says, the satisfaction of viewing the heavens with a Newtonian telescope of 6 feet focal length constructed by his own hands. But he was not a man to be contented with viewing the heavens as a mere star-gazer ; on the contrary, he had from the very first conceived the gigantic project and the hope of surveying the entire heavens, and, if possible, of ascertaining the plan of their general structure on a settled and systematic mode of procedure, if only he could but provide himself with adequate instrumental means. With this view he, his brother, and his sister toiled for many years at the grinding and polishing of hundreds of specula, always retaining the best, and recasting the others, until the best of the previous performances had been surpassed. This was the work of the daylight in those seasons of the year when the fashionable visitors of Bath had quitted the place, and had thus freed the family from professional duties. After 1774 every available hour of the night was devoted to the long-hoped-for scrutiny of the skies. In those days no machinery had been invented for the construction of telescopic mirrors; the man who had the hardihood to undertake the polishing doomed himself to walk leisurely and uniformly round an upright post for many hours, without removing his hands from the mirror, until his work was done. On these occasions Herschel received his food from the hands of his faithful sister. But his reward was nigh.





In May 1780 his first two papers containing some of the results of his astronomical observations during the last six years were communicated to the Boyal Society through the influential introduction of Dr Watson. Herschel had made the acquaintance of this excellent man and skilful physician in a characteristic manner. In order to obtain a sight of the moon the astronomer had taken his telescope into the street opposite his house; the physician happening to pass at the time, and seeing his eye removed for a moment from the instrument, requested permission to take his place. The mutual courtesies and intelligent conversation which ensued soon ripened this casual acquaintance into a solid and enduring regard.

The subject of this first memoir was the varying lustre of several of the stars, and especially that of Mira in the constellation of Cetus. It had been long known to fade in brightness from nearly that of a star of the first magnitude down to invisibility in such telescopes as then existed. Herschel had examined it, and many other variable stars, for himself; it was not, however, a simple or isolated phenomenon that engaged his attention; but, regarding the stars as so many suns, he examined stellar phenomena as possibly leading him to some intelligent conception of what might be occurring in our own sun. The sun, he knew, rotated on its axis, and he knew that dark spots often exist on its photosphere; the questions that he put to himself were—Are there dark spots also on these variable stars? do the stars also rotate on their axes? or are they sometimes partially eclipsed by the intervention of some opaque and invisible bodies 1 And then he asked himself— What are these singular spots upon the sun ? and have they any practical relation to us, the inhabitants of this planet 1 To these questions he applied his telescopes and his thoughts ; and as light from time to time dawned upon his apprehension, he communicated the results to the Royal Society in no less than six memoirs, occupying very many pages in the Philosophical Transactions, and extending in date from 1780 to 1801. It was in the latter year that these remarkable papers culminated in the inquiry whether any relation could be traced in the recurrence of sunspots, regarded as evidences of solar activity (allied to volcanic), and the varying seasons of our planet, as exhibited by the varying price of corn? Herschel's solution of the question was scarcely final, and the question has recently cropped up again, with more than a renewal of its former interest.

In the following year (1781) he communicated to the Royal Society the first of a series of papers containing the I results of his telescopic inquiries in relation to the rotation of the planets and of their several satellites. The object I which he had in view was not so much to ascertain the | velocities or times of their rotation, as rather to discover j whether those rotations are strictly uniform. From the result he expected to gather, by analogy, the probability of an alteration in the length of our own day. These inquiries occupy the greater part of seven memoirs extending from 1781 to 1797. In the course of these telescopic observations he lighted on the curious appearance of a white spot near to each of the poles of the planet Mars. On investigating the inclination of its axis to the plane of its orbit, and finding that it closely resembled that of our earth, he concluded that its changes of climate also would resemble our own, and that these white patches were probably polar snow. Modern investigations have confirmed his conclusion. He also discovered that, as far as his observations extended, the times of the rotations of the various satellites round their axes are in analogy with our own moon, viz., equal to the times of their revolution round their primaries. Here again we observe that his discoveries arise out of the complete and systematic and comprehensive nature of the I investigation in which he is engaged. Nothing with such a man is accidental.

In the same year (1781) Herschel made a discovery which, as we shall see, soon completely altered the character of his professional life. In the course of his systematic examination of the heavens with a view to the discovery of the plan of their construction, he lighted on an object which at first he supposed to be a comet, but which, by its subsequent motions and appearance, turned out to be a new planet, moving outside of the orbit of Saturn. To this planet he in due time assigned the name of Georgium Sidus; but this name has by general consent been laid aside in favour of Uranus. It was discovered with a favourite 7-foot reflector having an aperture of Clinches ; subsequently, when he had provided himself with a much more powerful telescope, of 20 feet focal length, he discovered what he believed to be no less than six satellites. Modern observations have shorn this gloomy planet of four of these supposed attendants, but at the same time have added two others apparently not observed by Herschel. No less than seven memoirs on the subject were | communicated by him to the Eoyal Society, extending from the dite of the discovery in 1781 to 1815. There is a peculiarity worthy of notice in Herschel's mode of observation which led to the discovery of this planet. He had observed that the spurious diameters of stars are not much affected by increasing the magnifying powers, but that the case is different with other celestial objects; hence if anything in his telescopic field attracted his notice by peculiarity of appearance, he immediately varied the magnifying power in order to decide the nature of the object. Thus Uranus was discovered; and had a similar method been applied to Neptune, that planet would have been discovered at Cambridge some months before it was recognized at Berlin.

We now come to the commencement of Herschel's most important series of observations, culminating in what ought probably to be regarded as his most capital discovery. A material part of the task which he had set himself as the work of his astronomical life embraced the determination of the relative distances of the stars from our sun and from each other. Now, in the course of his scrutiny of the heavens, he had observed many stars in apparently very close contiguity, but often greatly differing in their relative brightness. He concluded that, on the average, the brighter star would be the nearer to us, and the smaller enormously more distant. He considered that an astronomer on the earth, in consequence of its immense orbital displacement of some 180 millions of miles every six months, would see such a pair of stars under different perspective aspects; and this variety of perspective aspect observed and measured j would, he thought, lead to an approximate determination of their distance. With this view he mapped down the places and aspects of all the double stars that he met with, and communicated in 1782 and 1785 very extensive catalogues of the results. Indeed, the very last scientific memoir that he ever wrote, sent to the Royal Astronomical Society in the year 1822, at the time when he was its first president and already in the eighty-fourth year of his age, related to these investigations. In the first of these memoirs he throws out the hint that these apparently contiguous stars must, if constituted after the material laws of our solar system, circulate round each other through the effects of gravitation ; but he significantly adds that the time had not yet arrived for settling the question. Thus the philosopher abides his time in patience and confidence, and a dozen years afterwards (1793) he remeasures the relative positions of many of these contiguous pairs, and we may conceive what his feelings must have been at finding the verification of his prediction. For he found that some of these stars had circulated round each other, after the manner required by the laws of gravitation. Thus Herschel had demonstrated the action of the same mechanical laws among the distant members of the starry firmament which bind together the harmonious motions of our solar system. This sublime discovery would of itself suffice to immortalize his memory in the respectful homage of all future races of intelligent men. If only Herschel had lived long enough to learn the approximate distances of some of these binary combinations, he would at once have been able to calculate their masses when compared with that of our own sun; and thus, knowing, as we now do, that these stars in their weights are strictly comparable with the weight of our own sun, he would have found another of his analogical conjectures realized.





In the year 1782, in consequence of his fame, Herschel was invited to Windsor by George III., and then accepted the offer made by the king to become his private astronomer, and henceforth devote himself wholly to a scientific career. The salary offered and accepted was £200 per annum, to I which an addition of £50 per annum was subsequently made for the astronomical assistance of his faithful sister. Dr Watson, to whom alone the amount of this salary was mentioned, made the natural remark, " Never before was honour purchased by a monarch at so cheap a rate." In this way the great philosophical astronomer removed from Bath first to Datchet and soon afterwards permanently to Slough, within the easy access of his royal patron at Windsor.

The old pursuits at Bath were soon resumed at Slough, but with renewed vigour and without the old professional interruptions. The greater part, in fact, of the papers already referred to are dated from Datchet and Slough, for the magnificent astronomical speculations in which he was engaged, though for the most part conceived in the earlier portion of his philosophical career, required years of patient observation before they could be fully examined and realized.

It was at Slough in 1783 that he wrote his first memorable paper on the " Motion of the Solar System in Space," —a sublime speculation, yet through his genius realized by considerations of the utmost simplicity. He returned to the same subject with fuller details in 1805. It was also after his removal to Slough that he published his Erst memoir containing his speculative ideas on the construction of the heavens, which from the first had been the chief aim of his toils both of mind and body. In a long series of remarkable papers, addressed as usual to the Royal Society, and extending from the year 1784 to 1818, when he was eighty years of age, he demonstrated the fact that our sun j is a star situated not far from the bifurcation of the Milky Way, and that all the stars visible to us lie more or less in clusters scattered throughout a comparatively thin stratum, but in the other two dimensions stretching immeasurably further into space. At one time he imagined that his powerful instruments had pierced through this stellar stratum of the Milky Way, and that he had approximately determined the form of some of its boundaries. In the last of his memoirs he had convinced himself of his error, and he admitted that to his telescopes our stratum of stars is "fathomless." Over this stratum of stars and their planetary attendants, the whole being in ceaseless motion round some common centre of gravity as the resultant point of the combined gravitation, Herschel discovered on either side a canopy of discrete nebulous masses, from the condensation of at least a part of which the whole stellar universe had been formed,—a magnificent conception, pursued with a force of genius and put to the practical test of observation with an industry almost incredible. It was the work of a single mind, carried to its termination with no assistance beyond that of a loyal sister, almost as remarkable a personage as himself.

Hitherto we have said nothing about that grand reflecting telescope, of 40 feet focal length and 4 feet aperture, which is too often regarded as the chief effort of his genius and his perseverance. The full description of this celebrated instrument will be found in the 85th volume of the Transactions of the Royal Society. Gigantic as it really was, we are disposed to regard it as among the least of his great works. On the day that it was finished (August 28, 1789) Herschel saw at the first view, in a grandeur not witnessed before, the Saturnian system with all its six satellites, five of which had been discovered long before by Huygens or Cassini, while the sixth, latterly named Enceladus, he had, two years before, sighted by glimpses in his exquisite little telescope of 6 h inches aperture, but now saw in unmistakable brightness with the towering giant he had just completed. On the 17th of September he discovered a seventh, which proved to be the nearest of all the satellites of Saturn. It has since that time received the name of Mimas. It is somewhat remarkable that, notwithstanding his long and repeated scrutinies of this planet, the eighth satellite, Hyperion, and the crape ring should have escaped him.

Herschel married the widow of Mr John Pitt, a wealthy London merchant, on May 8, 1788, by whom he had an only son, John Frederick William. The prince regent conferred a Hanoverian knighthood upon him in 1816. But a far more valued and less tardy distinction was the Copley medal assigned to him by his associates in the Royal Society in 1781.

He died at Slough on August 25, 1822, in the eighty-fourth year of his age, and was buried under the tower of St Laurence Church, Upton, within a few hundred yards of the old site of the 40-foot telescope. A mural tablet on the wall of the church bears a Latin inscription from the pen of the late Dr Goodall, provost of Eton College. A collected edition of his astronomical memoirs would speak of his genius in unmistakable language; but this has not yet been published.



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