William Herschel

William Herschel

Sir William Herschel
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel
(1738-11-15)15 November 1738
Hanover, Brunswick-Lüneburg, Holy Roman Empire
Died 25 August 1822(1822-08-25) (aged 83)
Slough, England
Resting place St Laurence's Church, Slough
Residence Observatory House
Nationality Hanoverian; later British
Fields Astronomy and music
Known for Discovery of Uranus
discovery of infrared radiation
Deep sky surveys
stellar evolution
Notable awards Copley Medal (1781)
Spouse Mary Baldwin Herschel
Children John Herschel (son)

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

Herschel became interested in astronomy in 1773, and after constructing his first large telescope in 1774, he spent nine years carrying out thorough sky surveys, where his purpose was the investigation of double stars. The resolving power of the Herschel telescopes revealed that the nebulae in the Messier catalogue were clusters of stars: catalogues of nebulae were published in 1802 (2,500 objects) and 1820 (5,000 objects). In the course of an observation on 13 March 1781 he realized that one celestial body he had observed was not a star, but a planet, Fellow of the Royal Society and grants were provided for the construction of new telescopes.

Herschel pioneered the use of astronomical spectrophotometry as a diagnostic tool, using prisms and temperature measuring equipment to measure the wavelength distribution of stellar spectra. Other work included an improved determination of the rotation period of Mars, 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). In addition, he was the first person to discover the existence of infrared radiation. Herschel was knighted in 1816. He died in August 1822, and his work was continued by his only son, John Herschel.


  • Early life and musical activities 1
  • Astronomy 2
    • Double stars 2.1
    • Uranus 2.2
    • Deep sky surveys 2.3
    • Work with his sister Caroline 2.4
    • Herschel's telescopes 2.5
      • Reconstruction of the 20ft telescope 2.5.1
    • Life on other celestial bodies 2.6
    • Sunspots, climate, and wheat yields 2.7
    • Further discoveries 2.8
  • Discovery of infrared radiation in sunlight 3
  • Biology 4
  • Family and death 5
  • Memorial 6
  • Musical works 7
  • Named after Herschel 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Sources 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13

Early life and musical activities

Herschel was born in the

  • William Herschel's Deep Sky Catalog
  • The William Herschel Double Star Catalogs Restored
  • Full text of Herschel by Hector Macpherson.
  • Full text of The Story of the Herschels (1886) from Project Gutenberg
  • Portraits of William Herschel at the National Portrait Gallery (United Kingdom)
  • Herschel Museum of Astronomy located in his Bath home
  • William Herschel Society
  • , Wilbert Davis Jerome ed.The Oboe Concertos of Sir William Herschel ISBN 0-87169-225-2
  • Works by or about William Herschel in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • A notebook of Herschel's, dated from 1759 is available in the digital collections of the Linda Hall Library.
  • Michael Lemonick: William Herschel, the First Observational Cosmologist, 12 Nov 2008, Fermilab Colloquium, Text
  • Musical pieces by William Herschel @YouTube:
    • Chamber Symphony in F minor No. 4- Allegro moderato (I) on YouTube
    • Hubble Images to Herschel Music on YouTube (Chamber Symphony in F, 2nd movement)
    • Richmond Sinfonia for Strings, Bassoon & Harpsichord n. 2 in D major on YouTube
    • Sinfonía para Cuerdas No. 8 en Do menor on YouTube
    • Sinfonia n. 12, primo movimento, Allegro on YouTube
    • Symphony No. 8, I: Allegro Assai on YouTube

External links

  • Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (2009) ISBN 978-1-4000-3187-0
  • "William Herschel" by Michael Hoskin. New dictionary of Scientific Biography Scribners, 2008. v. 3, pp. 289–291.
  • (1980) 13474Biography: JRASC

Further reading

  • Holden, Edward S. (1881). Wikisource link to Sir William Herschel, his life and works. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Wikisource.
  • Mullaney, James (2007). The Herschel objects and how to observe them.  


  1. ^ Hoskin, M. (ed.) (2003) Caroline Herschel's autobiographies, Science History Publications Cambridge, p. 13, ISBN 0905193067.
  2. ^ Lubbock, Constance Ann (1933). The Herschel Chronicle: The Life-story of William Herschel and His Sister, Caroline Herschel. CUP Archive. pp. 1–. 
  3. ^ Holden, pp. 6–7.
  4. ^ Hoskin, M. (2004). "Was William Herschel a deserter?". Journal for the History of Astronomy. 35, Part 3 (120): 356–358.  
  5. ^ Clerke, Agnes M (1908). "A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century" (4 (republished as eBook number 28247) ed.). London (republished eText): Adam and Charles Black (republished Project Gutenberg). p. 18. Archived from the original on 4 March 2009 
  6. ^ Halifax Minster.org - Organ History
  7. ^ "Bath". The British Society for the History of Mathematics. Retrieved 18 July 2009. 
  8. ^ a b The Light of Reason 8 August 2006 02:00 BBC Four
  9. ^ Aitken, Robert (1935) The Binary Stars. McGraw-Hill, pp. 4–9
  10. ^ Mullaney, p. 10
  11. ^ William Herschel's Double Star Catalog. Handprint.com (5 January 2011). Retrieved on 5 June 2011.
  12. ^ Discovering New Planets at the Wayback Machine (archived April 9, 2010). National Air and Space Museum.
  13. ^ Kuhn, Thomas (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press, p. 115, ISBN 0226458040.
  14. ^ Astronomical League National – Herschel Club – Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel. Astroleague.org. Retrieved on 5 June 2011.
  15. ^ Mullaney, p. 14
  16. ^ BBC builds William Herschel's telescope for Stargazing Live Ariel at BBC Learning, 10 January 2013
  17. ^ a b c d Civilized Life in the Universe : Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials: Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials, George Basalla, Professor of History University of Delaware (Emeritus), Oxford University Press, 20.12.2005, p.52 ff
  18. ^ "Mars in Rekordnähe zur Erde". science.orf.at. The idea of life on our neighbour planet [Mars] has inspired humans for a long time. The British astronomer Sir William Herschel (1738–1822) assumed that there are intelligent beings not only on Mars, but on all planets in our solar system 
  19. ^ Herschel, W. (1801). "Observations tending to investigate the nature of the Sun, in order to find the causes or symptoms of its variable emission of light and heat; With remarks on the use that may possibly be drawn from solar observations". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London 91: 265–318. 
  20. ^ a b c d 2003 Sun set food prices in the Middle Ages Changes in solar activity sent wheat prices soaring in medieval England. Nature doi:10.1038/news031215-12, article of Philip Ball about Pustilnik, L. A. & Yom Din, G. Influence of solar activity on state of wheat market in medieval England. Preprint, http://xxx.lanl.gov/abs/astro-ph/0312244 (2003).
  21. ^ The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 5, The Modern Physical and Mathematical Sciences, Roy Porter, Mary Jo Nye, Cambridge University Press, 2003. p. 508
  22. ^ Surv Geophys (2012) 33:503–534 DOI 10.1007/s10712-012-9181-3 Solar Influence on Global and Regional Climates, Mike Lockwood
  23. ^ Love, J. J. (2013). "On the insignificance of Herschel's sunspot correlation". Geophysical Research letters 40: 4171–4176.  
  24. ^ Rincon, Paul (18 April 2007). "'"Uranus rings 'were seen in 1700s. BBC News. 
  25. ^ In an oral presentation("HAD Meeting with DPS, Denver, October 2013 - Abstracts of Papers". Retrieved 14 October 2013. ), Clifford Cunningham presented his finding that the word has been coined by Charles Burney, jr., the son of a friend of Herschel, see "'"Local expert reveals who really coined the word 'asteroid. South Florida Sun-Sentinel. 8 October 2013. Retrieved 10 October 2013. . See also Wall, Mike (10 January 2011). "Who Really Invented the Word 'Asteroid' for Space Rocks?". SPACE.com. Retrieved 10 October 2013. 
  26. ^ Michael Rowan-Robinson (2013). "Night Vision: Exploring the Infrared Universe". p. 23. Cambridge University Press,
  27. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter H". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 28 July 2014. 
  28. ^ Hanham, A. and Hoskin, M. (2013). "The Herschel Knighthoods: Facts and Fiction". Journal for the History of Astronomy 44 (120): 149–164.  
  29. ^ "Sir William Herschel Quotes - 14 Science Quotes". Dictionary of Science Quotations and Scientist Quotes. TODAYINSCI. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  30. ^ Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel (1738–1822). Manfredholl.de. Retrieved on 5 June 2011.
  31. ^ Slough Council website – 'Slough Bus Station'
  32. ^ "WILLIAM HERSCHEL (1738–1822): Organ works". asterope.bajaobs.hu. Retrieved 1 May 2013. 
  33. ^ Serck, Linda (28 May 2011). "Slough bus station: Silver dolphin or beached whale?". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 13 August 2012. 


See also

William Herschel, portrait by James Sharples, c. 1805

Named after Herschel

  • 6 fugues for organ
  • 24 sonatas for organ (10 now lost)
  • 33 voluntaries and pieces for organ (incomplete)
  • 24 pieces for organ (incomplete)
  • 12 voluntaries (11 now lost)
  • 3 sonatas for harpsichord
  • 25 variations on an ascending scale
  • 2 minuets for harpsichord

Keyboard works for organ and harpsichord:

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

Herschel's complete musical works were as follows:[32]

Musical works

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.[31]

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. Herschel is very much respected in the town and there are several memorials to him and his discoveries.


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.

Herschel's son John Herschel also became a famous astronomer. One of William's brothers, Alexander Herschel, moved permanently to England, near his sister Caroline and nephew John. Caroline returned to Hanover after the death of her brother. She died on 9 January 1848.[30]

On 25 August 1822, Herschel died at Observatory House, Windsor Road, Slough, and is buried at nearby St Laurence's Church, Upton, Slough. Herschel's epitaph is

William Herschel and Mary had one child, Prince Regent and was accorded the honorary title 'Sir' although this was not the equivalent of an official British knighthood.[28] He helped to found the Astronomical Society of London in 1820, which in 1831 received a royal charter and became the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1813, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Family and death

Herschel used a microscope to establish that coral was not a plant, as many believed at the time, since it lacked the cell walls characteristic of plants.[8]


On 11 February 1800, Herschel was testing filters for the sun so he could observe sun spots. 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.[26] 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.

Discovery of infrared radiation in sunlight

He also coined the word "asteroid",[25] 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.

From studying the proper motion of stars, he was the first to realise that the solar system is moving through space, and he determined the approximate direction of that movement. He also studied the structure of the Milky Way and concluded that it was in the shape of a disk. He incorrectly assumed the sun was in the centre of the disc, a theory known as Galactocentrism, which was eventually corrected by the findings of Harlow Shapley in 1918.

Herschel measured the axial tilt of Mars and discovered that the martian ice caps, first observed by Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1666) and Christiaan Huygens (1672), changed size with the planet's seasons.

In 2007 evidence was cited by Dr. Stuart Eves that Herschel might have discovered rings around Uranus.[24]

In his later career, Herschel discovered two moons of Saturn, Mimas and Enceladus; as well as two moons of Uranus, Titania and Oberon. He did not give these moons their names; they were named by his son John in 1847 and 1852, respectively, after his death.

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

Further discoveries

According a study of the Israel Cosmic Ray Center about the influence of solar activity on the historical wheat market in England, all ten solar cycles between 1600 and 1700 show high wheat prices coinciding with low activity, and vice versa.[20] The topic is still subject of controversies [22] and the significance of the correlation is being doubted by some scientists.[23]

Herschels speculation on a connection between sunspots and regional climate, using the market price of wheat as a proxy continues to be cited regularly till today. [20].recurring booms and slumps in the economy and Herschels basic idea of a correlation between low amount of sunspots and lower yields to explain for 11-year- cycle proposed the William Stanley JevonsHerschel's study was ridiculed by some of his contemporaries but did initiate further attempts to find a correlation. Later in the 19th century,
The result of this review of the foregoing five periods is, that, from the price of wheat, it seems probable that some temporary scarcity or defect of vegetation has generally taken place, when the sun has been without those appearances which we surmise to be symptoms of a copious emission of light and heat.
1801 Herschel reported his findings to the Royal Society and indicated five prolonged periods of few sunspots correlated with costly wheat.

Herschel started to examine the correlation of solar variation and solar cycle and climate.[19] Over a period of 40 years (1779–1818), Hershel 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. Therefore solar activity behaved very unusually.[20] This was one of the reasons why Herschel was not able to identify the standard 11-year period in solar activity.[20] Herschel compared his observations with the series of wheat prices published by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations.[21]

Sunspots, climate, and wheat yields

Herschel was sure that he had found ample evidence of life on the Moon and compared it to the English countryside.[17] He did not refrain himself from theorizing that the other planets were populated,[18] with an special interest in Mars, which was competely in line with most of his contemporary scientists.[17] At Herschel's time, scientists tended to believe in a plurality of civilized worlds, while most religious thinkers referred to unique properties of the earth. [17] Herschel went so far to speculate that the interior of the sun was populated.[17]

Life on other celestial bodies

In 2012, the BBC Stargazing Live television programme 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.[16]

Reconstruction of the 20ft telescope

Herschel's 40-foot telescope

During his career, he constructed more than four hundred telescopes. The largest and most famous of these was a reflecting telescope with a 49 12-inch-diameter (1.26 m) primary mirror and a 40-foot (12 m) focal length. Because of the poor reflectivity of the speculum mirrors of that day, 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 design has come to be called the Herschelian telescope. On 28 August 1789, his first night of observation using this instrument, he discovered a new moon of Saturn. A second moon followed within the first month of observation. The "40-foot telescope" proved very cumbersome, and most of his observations were done with a smaller 18.5-inch (47 cm) 20-foot-focal-length (6.1 m) reflector. 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).

Herschel's telescopes

On 7 May 1788, he married the widow Mary Pitt (née Baldwin) at St Laurence's Church, Upton in Slough. His sister Caroline then moved to separate lodgings, but continued to work as his assistant.

In June 1785, owing to damp conditions, he and Caroline moved to Clay Hall in Old Windsor. In 1786, the Herschels moved to a new residence on Windsor Road in Slough. He lived the rest of his life in this residence, which came to be known as Observatory House. It is no longer standing.

In 1783 he gave Caroline a telescope, and she began to make astronomical discoveries in her own right, particularly comets. She discovered or observed eight comets, eleven nebulae and, at her brother's suggestion, updated and corrected Flamsteed's work detailing the position of stars. This was published as the British Catalogue of Stars. She was honoured by the Royal Astronomical Society for this work. Caroline also continued to serve as his assistant, often taking notes while he observed at the telescope.

William and Caroline Herschel polishing a telescope lens, 1896 Lithograph.

Work with his sister Caroline

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 7840 deep sky objects. The NGC numbering is still the most commonly used identifying label for these celestial landmarks.

From 1782 to 1802, and most intensively from 1783 to 1790, Herschel conducted systematic surveys in search of "deep sky" or nonstellar 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 2400 objects defined by him as nebulae. (At that time, nebula was the generic term for any visually extended or diffuse astronomical object, including galaxies beyond the Milky Way, until galaxies were confirmed as extragalactic systems by Edwin Hubble in 1924.)

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

Deep sky surveys

In March 1781, during his search for double stars, Herschel noticed an object appearing as a nonstellar disk.[12] Herschel originally thought it was a comet or a star. He made many more observations of it, and afterwards Russian Academician Copley Medal and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1782, he was appointed "The King’s Astronomer" (not to be confused with the Astronomer Royal). He and his sister subsequently moved to Datchet (then in Buckinghamshire but now in Berkshire) on 1 August 1782. He continued his work as a telescope maker and achieved an international reputation for their manufacture, profitably selling over 60 completed reflectors to British and Continental astronomers.[15]


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. In all, Herschel discovered over 800 confirmed[11] double or multiple star systems, almost all of them physical rather than virtual pairs. His theoretical and observational work provided the foundation for modern binary star astronomy; new catalogues adding to his work were not published until after 1820 by Friedrich Wilhelm Struve, James South and John Herschel.

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 (a method first suggested by Galileo Galilei).[9] 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,[10] in October 1779, Herschel began a systematic search for such stars among "every star in the Heavens", 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) and 1784 (434 systems). A third catalogue of discoveries made after 1783 was published in 1821 (145 systems).

Double stars

Herschel's music led him to an interest in mathematics and lenses. His interest in astronomy grew stronger after he made the acquaintance of the English Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne. He started building his own reflecting telescopes and would spend up to 16 hours a day grinding and polishing the speculum metal primary mirrors.[8] He "began to look at the planets and the stars" 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 (M 42).

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


. His brothers Dietrich, Alexander and Jakob (1734–1792) also appeared as musicians of Bath. In 1780, Herschel was appointed director of the Bath orchestra, with his sister often appearing as soprano soloist. Herschel Museum of Astronomy came to England in 1772 and lived with him there in New King Street, Bath. The house they shared is now the location of the Caroline His sister [7] After Newcastle he moved to Leeds and

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 1760–61 and visited the home of Sir Ralph Milbanke at Halnaby Hall in 1760, where he wrote two symphonies, as well as giving performances himself.

Original manuscript of Symphony No. 15 in E flat major (1762).

In addition to the oboe, he played the violin and symphonies and many concertos, as well as some church music. Six of his symphonies were recorded in April 2002 by the London Mozart Players, conducted by Matthias Bamert (Chandos 10048).

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. [5]