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Monday, 6 July 2015

William Herschel

William Herschel (1738-1822)  was born on November 15, 1738 in the Electorate of Hanover in Germany, part of the Holy Roman Empire, one of ten children of Isaac Herschel by his marriage to Anna Ilse Moritzen.

His father was an oboist in the Hanover Military Band. William grew up in Hanover and came to England as a refugee in 1757, in the aftermath of the French victory in the Seven Years War.

An organist, composer, conductor, and teacher of music, at first Herschel scratched a living, first by copying music in London, and then as organist and teacher of music in the north of England.


In 1766 Herschel's fortune changed when he was appointed organist to the fashionable Octagon Chapela chapel in the spa resort of Bath. This meant he was secure enough to develop his other interests,especially in astronomy.

The organist devoted most of his limited time he could spare for astronomy to improving his telescopes. However, his discovery on March 13, 1781 of the planet Uranus, was a spectacular triumph, and soon every astronomer in Europe had heard of William Herschel.

Replica of the telescope used by Herschel to discover Uranus

Herschel wanted to name the planet “George’s Star” after King George III,

William Herschel discovered Saturn's sixth largest moon on August 28, 1789, during the first use of his new 1.2 m (47 in) telescope, then the largest in the world. It was later named Enceladus, after the giant Enceladus of Greek mythology by William Herschel's son John Herschel in his 1847 publication Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope. The name was chosen because Saturn, known in Greek mythology as Cronus, was the leader of the Titans.

Voyager 2 view of Enceladus in 1981

King George III. himself a Hanoverian, granted Herschel a life pension of £200 a year that would allow him to give up music and devote himself to astronomy.

When King George III made Herschel his personal astronomer, he moved close to Windsor Castle so the royal Family could make use of his telescopes.



William Herschel's sister, Caroline Lucretia Herschel (March 16, 1750 – January 9, 1848) was a German astronomer with whom he worked throughout his career. Her most significant contributions to astronomy were the discoveries of several comets, including the periodic comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, which bears her name.

William and Caroline Herschel polishing a telescope lens. By http://wellcomeimages.org, Wikipedia 

Caroline Herschel was the first woman to be paid for her contribution to science, and in 1835 she was the first to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society (with Mary Somerville).

William Herschel's only son, John was born on March 7, 1792. Highly intelligent, he placed first in mathematics exams and at twenty-one, he became the youngest person admitted to the Royal Society.

John Herschel took up astronomy in 1816, building a reflecting telescope. He named seven moons of Saturn and four moons of Uranus and invented the actinometer to measure the direct heating power of the sun's rays. Herschel also made many contributions to the science of photography, and investigated color blindness and the chemical power of ultraviolet rays.

John Frederick William Herschel by Alfred Edward Chalon 1829

William Herschel discovered two Uranian moons on January 11, 1787, which were later named, by his son, after characters from the Shakespeare play A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon and Titania.

Herschel died at Observatory House, Windsor Road, Slough on August 25, 1822,

He was buried at nearby St Laurence's Church, Upton, Slough.

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