William Herschel

Frederick William Herschel, German: Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel; 15 November 1738 25 August 1822) was a German-born British astronomer, composer and brother of fellow astronomer Caroline Herschel, with whom he worked. Born in the Electorate of Hanover, Herschel followed his father into the Military Band of Hanover, before migrating to Great Britain in 1757 at the age of nineteen.

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. In addition to the oboe, he played the violin and harpsichord and later the organ. He composed numerous musical works, including 24 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).

Herschel took lessons from a local mirror-builder and having obtained both tools and a level of expertise, started building his own reflecting telescopes. He would spend up to 16 hours a day grinding and polishing the speculum metal primary mirrors. He relied on the assistance of other family members, particularly his sister Caroline and his brother Alexander, a skilled mechanical craftsperson.

In March 1781, during his search for double stars, Herschel noticed an object appearing as a disk. Herschel originally thought it was a comet or a stellar disc, which he believed he might actually resolve. He reported the sighting to Nevil Maskelyne the Astronomer Royal. He made many more observations of it, and afterwards Russian Academician Anders Lexell computed the orbit and found it to be probably planetary.

Caroline spent many hours polishing the mirrors of high performance telescopes so that the amount of light captured was maximized. She also copied astronomical catalogues and other publications for William. After William accepted the office of King's Astronomer to George III, Caroline became his constant assistant.

Caroline also continued to serve as William Herschel's assistant, often taking notes while he observed at the telescope. For her work as William's assistant, she was granted an annual salary of 50 by George III. Her appointment made her the first female in England to be honored with a government position. It also made her the first woman to be given a salary as an astronomer.

Caroline continued her astronomical work after William's death in 1822. She worked to verify and confirm his findings as well as putting together catalogues of nebulae. Towards the end of her life, she arranged two-and-a-half thousand nebulae and star clusters into zones of similar polar distances. She did this so that her nephew, John, could re-examine them systematically. Eventually, this list was enlarged and renamed the New General Catalogue. In 1828, she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for her work.

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

Herschel also studied the structure of the Milky Way and was the first to propose a model of the galaxy based on observation and measurement. He concluded that it was in the shape of a disk, but incorrectly assumed that the sun was in the centre of the disk. This Heliocentric view was eventually replaced by Galactocentrism due to the work of Harlow Shapley, Heber Doust Curtis and Edwin Hubble in the 1900s. All three men used significantly more far-reaching and accurate telescopes than Herschel's.

William Herschel and Mary had one child, John, born at Observatory House on 7 March 1792. William's personal background and rise as man of science had a profound impact on the upbringing of his son and grandchildren. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1788. In 1816, William was made a Knight of the Royal Guelphic Order by the Prince Regent and was accorded the honorary title 'Sir' although this was not the equivalent of an official British knighthood. 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.

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