William Herschel


Sir William Herschel attained great renown in his lifetime for the discovery of Uranus, a previously unknown planet. What makes the story of his life so remarkable however, is that he was an entirely self-educated astronomist who supported himself as a music teacher. He taught himself the basics of Astronomy, and learned the difficult art of making telescopes. The telescope that he built for his own use with only his own resources was one of the finest in the world. He worked for years out of his home, making very careful charts of the night sky, and trained his sister to help him with his nightly observations.

John Herschel
Herschel was born in Germany into a large musical family, but he emigrated as a young adult to England to the city of Bath. There he supported himself teaching music, and eventually invited his younger sister Caroline to come and keep house with him. During this time he began reading books of mathematics and astronomy for recreation, and occasionally rented a telescope. After examining it carefully, he resolved upon the idea of making a telescope for himself, which was a complex undertaking and required building a workshop in his home. After his first success however, he began to build and sell telescopes to supplement his income as a music teacher.

About this time he began to make nightly records of the skies, and trained his sister Caroline to help him. Together they made detail charts of the night skies and made many new discovers. He first observed Uranus in 1781 and when he was certain of its significance, made public the fact that a new planet had been identified. This news caused a great sensation and brought him instant world-wide fame and a stipend from the British government. With his new income he was able to give up teaching music, move closer to London, and work on his astronomical projects full time. He continued to make many other important contributions to Astronomy, including finding the two moons of Saturn and discovering infrared radiation.

William's sister Caroline became a respected astronomer in her own right, and is credited with the discovery of several comets as well as producing many high quality astrological charts. She was elected to the board of the Royal Astrological Society, along with Mary Somerville in 1835. William died in 1822, and Caroline in 1848.

Key events during the life of Sir William Herschel:

William Hershel born to a musical family in Germany.
Moves from Germany to England.
  Taught and composed music.
Began building telescopes as a hobby.
Discovered Uranus, a previously unknown planet.
Honored as 'Royal Astronomer', given a stipend to study astronomy full time.
Trained sister Caroline to use a telescope and make measurements.
  Discovered two moons of Saturn.
  Discovered infrared radiation.
Royal Astronomical Society created; William appointed first president.
Death of William Herschel

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
William and Caroline Herschel  in  Stories of the Great Scientists  by  Charles R. Gibson
Herschel and the Story of the Stars  in  Children's Stories of the Great Scientists  by  Henrietta Christian Wright

Image Links

Sir John Herschel
 in The Reign of Queen Victoria

Short Biography
Caroline Herschel Sister of William Herschel who assisted him in his observations.
George III Monarch whose long reign encompassed Revolutionary, and Napoleonic Wars.