William Herschell, Astronomer to the King

A German immigrant music teacher working in Bath by the name of William Herschell (1738-1822) had an interest in astronomy. He discovered a bright astronomical object in 1781, which he at first thought was a comet. Further observation determined that the object was a newly discovered planet. He originally named it Georgium Sidus after the British King, George III, but his name was not accepted. It was years later that the name Uranus was finally adopted.

In 1782 George III invited Herschell to Windsor to hear of the discovery, and subsequently appointed him Royal astronomer. This position allowed Herschell to stop teaching music and concentrate on astronomy. He was given 200 pounds per annum, to which 50 pounds per annum was later added for his assistant who was his sister Caroline. He established his observatory at Slough, within easy access of his royal patron at Windsor, and built his telescope.

"This wonderful instrument, though gigantic in its size, is moved with great facility in all directions, by means of rollers, ropes, and pullies. The ascent to the uppermost end is by means of steps or rather a ladder; and to this end there is a seat attached, on which the astronomer is placed to make his observations on the starry world. Of course he looks in, and not through the tube; in the lower end of which, near the ground, is placed the mirror which reflects the light through a small tube, upon his eyes. The mirror weighs two thousand five hundred pounds, and is worth, according to the doctor's valuation, ten thousand pounds.

While he views the firmament with its glittering orbs, he communicates his observations to his sister, Miss Herschell, who is his amanuensis, and who has her station in a small lodge built in the lower framework of the machinery. This he does by a speaking trumpet, one end of which is applied to his mouth, and the other to her ear; thus they are recorded without either having to leave their seats.

It will be supposed, from what I have said, that the tube is not under cover; but to prevent injury from the weather, the end which contains the mirror is always closed, and the opposite one is only opened with it is to be used. The tube is made of sheet iron, and covered with strong canvass, well painted. The length of it is forty feet, and the circumference ten feet four inches...

This celebrated instrument is not less wonderful in its powers, than it is ingenious and curious in its construction. The learned inventer explained the former by saying that he had "seen stars, the light of which would take two millions of years to reach this earth;" calculating that light takes seven and a half minutes to travel from the sun to our globe, a distance of ninety-six millions of miles."

--Description of Herschall's telescope at Slough from Joshua White's Letters on England, written in 1810.

Caroline Herschell's (1750-1848) face was scarred by smallpox and her growth stunted by typhus when she was a child. Her parents thought she would never marry and felt she should keep house for the family. Her brother William brought her to England to be his housekeeper, but William Herschell provided his much younger sister with an advanced education. She developed into a talented singer who sang in Herschell's concerts and later his astronomy assistant. She became an astronomer in her own right discovering three nebulae in 1783, and eight comets between 1786 – 1797 --among them Comet Encke.



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