William Herschel is known today for the contribution he made to Astronomy, although for at least half his professional life he was a musician and composer. He was born in Hanover in 1738, and began working life there as a military musician, before coming to England in 1757, working as a musician, and becoming organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath in 1866. He joined local orchestras, and was soon directing concerts. His brother Alexander, and later his sister Caroline, both joined him, initially also as musicians. At the same time he was developing an interest in astronomy and, finding that he could not afford a really powerful telescope, decided to make one for himself.
After much experimentation, and much work by Alexander their first useful instrument was produced in 1774. More telescopes were to follow, as William began his systematic review of the heavens. On 13 March 1781, from the back garden 19 New King Street, he discovered what became known as the planet Uranus . This discovery was the first of its kind since antiquity and it doubled the known size of the Solar System. The discovery of Uranus made William famous around Europe, and brought him to the attention of King George III, and a move with Caroline eventually to Slough. There he built his most successful telescope, the 20ft. You can see a 3D virtual model of it created by Bath Spa students here:3D virtual model of 20ft telescope.
William was also the first to recognise the Milky Way for what it was, and identified and classified many stars and nebulae.
Another of Herschel’s discoveries was infrared radiation, from an experiment with splitting sunlight through a Newtonian prism to measure the temperatures of the various colours displayed. The ‘invisible light’ he chanced upon beyond the red light opened a hitherto unknown vista of the electromagnetic spectrum.
After William’s death in 1822, Caroline moved back to Hannover, where she died in 1848 as a much lauded astronomer in her own right. The Herschel Museum has recently acquired a major part of the manuscript of Caroline’s memoirs detail here : Caroline-Herschels-memoirs
You can see a useful video particularly for teachers by Dr Mark Whalley of the IoP putting the Herschels’ story in a wider context here: https://youtu.be/exUiu4f77lo
Alexander is also an important figure in this story, both as a musician and telescope maker. You can see more detail about him here – Johann Alexander Herschel – Biography 2021.
John Herschel is recognised today as the first modern scientist and pivotal to the creation of the scientific enterprise, yet he is paradoxically under-examined, with no comprehensive treatment of his life and work . John’s vast career means that readers encounter his work in surveys of astronomy, mathematics, physics, and scientific methodology (Herschel’s 1830 Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy was the first book in English on this topic and had a formative influence on Charles Darwin) as well as his influence in Romanticism, art (primarily though his technical and stylistic influence on portrait photography), and literature. He played a leading role in the institutionalization of scientific research through his involvement in the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Society, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His popular textbooks were translated into dozens of languages and became the means by which a new reading public formed their views on science and by which scientists came to be perceived as models of good character. Both through what he wrote and who he was, Herschel defined what it meant to “do science” and “be a scientist” throughout the 19th century.
A series of events in 2024 should raise John’s profile. The Cambridge University Press are publishing a Companion to John Herschel in Spring 2024. This will comprise 12 individual chapters on various aspects of his diverse career. Our Society, with the cooperation of the authors and publishers, will hold a one-day conference Saturday 8 June at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, with contributions from many of the individual section authors, to build on the impact of the new publication with a conference on its themes. This will offer an excellent opportunity of widening access to the content, and increasing knowledge and understanding of this key figure in Victorian Society who is little known today outside academic circles.
The Herschel Museum has during 2022 acquired several new informative items on the Herschels, including a more comprehensive Herschel-Family-Tree.pdf; a map showing William Herschels UK travels ;and a Herschel-Bath-Walks- leaflet
You can find sources of original papers on the Herschels’ life and work, on our Herschel Resources page.