Biography of William Herschel

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William Herschel, Bandsman.

Old Isaac Herschel, the oboe-player of the King’s Guard in Hanover, had served with his regiment for many years in the chilly climate of North Germany, and was left at last broken down in health and spirits by the many hardships of several severe European campaigns. Isaac Herschel was a man of tastes and education above his position; but he had married a person in some respects quite unfitted for him. His good wife, Anna, though an excellent housekeeper and an estimable woman in her way, had never even learned to write; and when the pair finally settled down to old age in Hanover, they were hampered by the cares of a large family of ten children. Respectable poverty in Germany is even more pressing than in England; the decent poor are accustomed to more frugal fare and greater privations than with us; and the domestic life of the Herschel family circle must needs have been of the most careful and penurious description. Still, Isaac Herschel dearly loved his art, and in it he found many amends and consolations for the sordid shifts and troubles of a straitened German household. All his spare time was given to music, and in his later days he was enabled to find sufficient pupils to eke out his little income with comparative comfort.

William Herschel, the great astronomer (born in 1738), was the fourth child of his mother, and with his brothers he was brought up at the garrison school in Hanover, together with the sons of the other common soldiers. There he learned, not only the three R’s, but also a little French and English. Still, the boy was not content with these ordinary studies; in his own playtime he took lessons in Latin and mathematics privately with the regimental schoolmaster. The young Herschels, indeed, were exceptionally fortunate in the possession of an excellent and intelligent father, who was able to direct their minds into channels which few people of their position in life have the opportunity of entering. Isaac Herschel was partly of Jewish descent, and he inherited in a marked degree two very striking Jewish gifts–a turn for music, and a turn for philosophy. The Jews are probably the oldest civilized race now remaining on earth; and their musical faculties have been continuously exercised from a time long before the days of David, so that now they produce undoubtedly a far larger proportion of musicians and composers than any other class of the population whatsoever. They are also deeply interested in the same profound theological and philosophical problems which were discussed with so much acuteness and freedom in the Book of Ecclesiastes and the subtle argument of Job and his friends. There has never been a time when the Jewish mind has not exercised itself profoundly on these deep and difficult questions; and the Hanover bandsman inherited from his Jewish ancestry an unusual interest in similar philosophical subjects. Thus, while the little ones were sleeping in the same common room at night, William and his father were often heard discussing the ideas of such abstruse thinkers as Newton and Leibnitz, whose names must have sounded strange indeed to the ordinary frequenters of the Hanover barracks. On such occasions good dame Herschel was often compelled to interpose between them, lest the loudness of their logic should wake the younger children in the crib hard by.

William, however, possessed yet another gift, which he is less likely to have derived from the Jewish side of the house. He and his brother Alexander were both distinguished by a natural taste for mechanics, and early gave proof of their learning by turning neat globes with the equator and ecliptic accurately engraved upon them, or by making model instruments for their own amusement out of bits of pasteboard. Thus, in early opportunities and educational advantages, the young Herschels certainly started in life far better equipped than most working men’s sons; and, considering their father’s doubtful position, it may seem at first sight rather a stretch of language to describe him as a working man at all. Nevertheless, when one remembers the humble grade of military bandsmen in Germany, even at the present day, and the fact that most of the Herschel family remained in that grade during all their lives, it is clear that William Herschel’s life may be fairly included within the scope of the present series. “In my fifteenth year,” he says himself, “I enlisted in military service,” and he evidently looked upon his enlistment in exactly the same light as that of any ordinary soldier.

England and Hanover were, of course, very closely connected together at the middle of the last century. The king moved about a great deal from one country to the other; and in 1755 the regiment of Hanoverian Guards was ordered on service to England for a year. William Herschel, then seventeen years of age, and already a member of the band, went together with his father; and it was in this modest capacity that he first made acquaintance with the land where he was afterwards to attain the dignity of knighthood and the post of the king’s astronomer. He played the oboe, like his father before him, and no doubt underwent the usual severe military discipline of that age of stiff stocks and stern punishments. His pay was very scanty, and out of it he only saved enough to carry home one memento of his English experiences. That memento was in itself a sufficient mark of the stuff from which young Herschel was compounded. It was a copy of “Locke on the Human Understanding.” Now, Locke’s famous work, oftener named than read, is a very tough and serious bit of philosophical exposition; and a boy of seventeen who buys such a book out of his meagre earnings as a military bandsman is pretty sure not to end his life within the four dismal bare walls of the barrack. It is indeed a curious picture to imagine young William Herschel, among a group of rough and boisterous German soldiers, discussing high mathematical problems with his father, or sitting down quietly in a corner to read “Locke on the Human Understanding.”

In 1757, during the Seven Years’ War, Herschel was sent with his regiment to serve in the campaign of Rossbach against the French. He was not physically strong, and the hardships of active service told terribly upon the still growing lad. His parents were alarmed at his appearance when he returned, and were very anxious to “remove” him from the service. That, however, was by no means an easy matter for them to accomplish. They had no money to buy his discharge, and so, not to call the transaction by any other than its true name, William Herschel was forced to run away from the army. We must not judge too harshly of this desertion, for the times were hard, and the lives of men in Herschel’s position were valued at very little by the constituted authorities. Long after, it is said, when Herschel had distinguished himself by the discovery of the planet Uranus, a pardon for this high military offence was duly handed to him by the king in person on the occasion of his first presentation. George III. was not a particularly wise or brilliant man; but even he had sense enough to perceive that William Herschel could serve the country far better by mapping out the stars of heaven than by playing the oboe to the royal regiment of Hanoverian Guards.

William was nineteen when he ran away. His good mother packed his boxes for him with such necessaries as she could manage, and sent them after him to Hamburg, but, to the boy’s intense disgust, she forgot to send the copy of “Locke on the Human Understanding.” What a sturdy deserter we have here, to be sure! “She, dear woman,” he says plaintively, “knew no other wants than good linen and clothing!” So William Herschel the oboe player started off alone to earn his living as best he might in the great world of England. It is strange he should have chosen that, of all European countries; for there alone he was liable to be arrested as a deserter: but perhaps his twelvemonth’s stay in London may have given him a sense of being at home amongst us which he would have lacked in any other part of Europe. At any rate, hither he came, and for the next three years picked up a livelihood, we know not how, as many other excellent German bandsmen have done before and since him. Our information about his early life is very meagre, and at this period we lose sight of him for a while altogether.

About the year 1760, however, we catch another incidental glimpse of the young musician in his adopted country. By that time, he had found himself once more a regular post as oboist to the Durham militia, then quartered for its muster at Pontefract. A certain Dr. Miller, an organist at Doncaster, was dining one evening at the officers’ mess; when his host happened to speak to him in high praise of a young German they had in their band, who was really, he said, a most remarkable and spirited performer. Dr. Miller asked to see (or rather hear) this clever musician; so Herschel was called up, and made to go through a solo for the visitor’s gratification. The organist was surprised at his admirable execution, and asked him on what terms he was engaged to the Durham militia. “Only from month to month,” Herschel answered. “Then leave them at the end of your month,” said Miller, “and come to live with me. I’m a single man; I think we can manage together; and I’m sure I can get you a better situation.” Herschel frankly accepted the offer so kindly made, and seems to have lived for much of the next five years with Miller in his little two-roomed cottage at Doncaster. Here he took pupils and performed in the orchestra at public concerts, always in a very quiet and modest fashion. He also lived for part of the time with a Mr. Bulman at Leeds, for whom he afterwards generously provided a place as clerk to the Octagon Chapel at Bath. Indeed, it is a very pleasing trait in William Herschel’s character that to the end he was constantly engaged in finding places for his early friends, as well as for the less energetic or less fortunate members of his own family.

During these years, Herschel also seems to have given much attention to the organ, which enabled him to make his next step in life in 1765, when he was appointed organist at Halifax. Now, there is a great social difference between the position of an oboe-player in a band and a church organist; and it was through his organ-playing that Herschel was finally enabled to leave his needy hand-to-mouth life in Yorkshire. A year later, he obtained the post of organist to the Octagon Chapel at Bath, an engagement which gave him new opportunities of turning his mind to the studies for which he possessed a very marked natural inclination. Bath was in those days not only the most fashionable watering-place in England, but almost the only fashionable watering-place in the whole kingdom. It was, to a certain extent, all that Brighton, Scarborough, Buxton, and Harrogate are to-day, and something more. In our own time, when railways and steamboats have so altered the face of the world, the most wealthy and fashionable English society resorts a great deal to continental pleasure towns like Cannes, Nice, Florence, Vichy, Baden, Ems, and Homburg; but in the eighteenth century it resorted almost exclusively to Bath. The Octagon Chapel was in one sense the centre of life in Bath; and through his connection with it, Herschel was thrown into a far more intelligent and learned society than that which he had left behind him in still rural Yorkshire. New books came early to Bath, and were read and discussed in the reading-rooms; famous men and women came there, and contributed largely to the intellectual life of the place; the theatre was the finest out of London; the Assembly Rooms were famous as the greatest resort of wit and culture in the whole kingdom. Herschel here was far more in his element than in the barracks of Hanover, or in the little two-roomed cottage at rustic Doncaster.

He worked very hard indeed, and his work soon brought him comfort and comparative wealth. Besides his chapel services, and his later engagement in the orchestra of the Assembly Rooms, he had often as many as thirty-eight private pupils in music every week; and he also composed a few pieces, which were published in London with some modest success. Still, in spite of all these numerous occupations, the eager young German found a little leisure time to devote to self-education; so much so that, after a fatiguing day of fourteen or sixteen hours spent in playing the organ and teaching, he would “unbend his mind” by studying the higher mathematics, or give himself a lesson in Greek and Italian. At the same time, he was also working away at a line of study, seemingly useless to him, but in which he was afterwards to earn so great and deserved a reputation. Among the books he read during this Bath period were Smith’s “Optics” and Lalande’s “Astronomy.” Throughout all his own later writings, the influence of these two books, thoroughly mastered by constant study in the intervals of his Bath music lessons, makes itself everywhere distinctly felt.

Meanwhile, the family at Hanover had not been flourishing quite so greatly as the son William was evidently doing in wealthy England. During all those years, the young man had never forgotten to keep up a close correspondence with his people in Germany. Already, in 1764, during his Yorkshire days, William Herschel had managed out of his savings as an oboe-player to make a short trip to his old home; and his sister Carolina, afterwards his chief assistant in his astronomical labours, notes with pleasure the delight she felt in having her beloved brother with her once more, though she, poor girl, being cook to the household apparently, could only enjoy his society when she was not employed “in the drudgery of the scullery.” A year later, when William had returned to England again, and had just received his appointment as organist at Halifax, his father, Isaac, had a stroke of paralysis which ended his violin-playing for ever, and forced him to rely thenceforth upon copying music for a precarious livelihood. In 1767 he died, and poor Carolina saw before her in prospect nothing but a life of that domestic drudgery which she so disliked. “I could not bear the idea of being turned into a housemaid,” she says; and she thought that if only she could take a few lessons in music and fancy work she might get “a place as governess in some family where the want of a knowledge of French would be no objection.” But, unhappily, good dame Herschel, like many other uneducated and narrow-minded persons, had a strange dread of too much knowledge. She thought that “nothing further was needed,” says Carolina, “than to send me two or three months to a sempstress to be taught to make household linen; so all that my father could do was to indulge me sometimes with a short lesson on the violin when my mother was either in good humour or out of the way. It was her certain belief that my brother William would have returned to his country, and my eldest brother would not have looked so high, if they had had a little less learning.” Poor, purblind, well-meaning, obstructive old dame Herschel! what a boon to the world that children like yours are sometimes seized with this incomprehensible fancy for “looking too high”!

Nevertheless, Carolina managed by rising early to take a few lessons at daybreak from a young woman whose parents lived in the same cottage with hers; and so she got through a little work before the regular daily business of the family began at seven. Imagine her delight then, just as the difficulties after her father’s death are making that housemaid’s place seem almost inevitable, when she gets a letter from William at Bath, asking her to come over to England and join him at that gay and fashionable city. He would try to prepare her for singing at his concerts; but if after two years’ trial she didn’t succeed, he would take her back again to Hanover himself. In 1772, indeed, William in person came over to fetch her, and thenceforth the brother and sister worked unceasingly together in all their undertakings to the day of the great astronomer’s death.

About this time Herschel had been reading Ferguson’s “Astronomy,” and felt very desirous of seeing for himself the objects in the heavens, invisible to the naked eye, of which he there found descriptions. For this purpose he must of course have a telescope. But how to obtain one? that was the question. There was a small two-and-a-half foot instrument on hire at one of the shops at Bath; and the ambitious organist borrowed this poor little glass for a time, not merely to look through, but to use as a model for constructing one on his own account. Buying was impossible, of course, for telescopes cost much money: but making would not be difficult for a determined mind. He had always been of a mechanical turn, and he was now fired with a desire to build himself a telescope eighteen or twenty feet long. He sent to London for the lenses, which could not be bought at Bath; and Carolina amused herself by making a pasteboard tube to fit them in her leisure hours. It was long before he reached twenty feet, indeed: his first effort was a seven-foot, attained only “after many continuous determined trials.” The amateur pasteboard frame did not fully answer Herschel’s expectations, so he was obliged to go in grudgingly for the expense of a tin tube. The reflecting mirror which he ought to have had proved too dear for his still slender purse, and he thus had to forego it with much regret. But he found a man at Bath who had once been in the mirror-polishing line; and he bought from him for a bargain all his rubbish of patterns, tools, unfinished mirrors and so forth, with which he proceeded to experiment on the manufacture of a proper telescope. In the summer, when the season was over, and all the great people had left Bath, the house, as Carolina says ruefully, “was turned into a workshop.” William’s younger brother Alexander was busy putting up a big lathe in a bedroom, grinding glasses and turning eyepieces while in the drawing-room itself, sacred to William’s aristocratic pupils, a carpenter, sad to relate, was engaged in making a tube and putting up stands for the future telescopes. Sad goings on, indeed, in the family of a respectable music-master and organist! Many a good solid shopkeeper in Bath must no doubt have shaken his grey head solemnly as he passed the door, and muttered to himself that that young German singer fellow was clearly going on the road to ruin with his foolish good-for-nothing star-gazing.

In 1774, when William Herschel was thirty-six, he had at last constructed himself a seven-foot telescope, and began for the first time in his life to view the heavens in a systematic manner. From this he advanced to a ten-foot, and then to one of twenty, for he meant to see stars that no astronomer had ever yet dreamt of beholding. It was comparatively late in life to begin, but Herschel had laid a solid foundation already, and he was enabled therefore to do an immense deal in the second half of those threescore years and ten which are the allotted average life of man, but which he himself really overstepped by fourteen winters. As he said long afterwards with his modest manner to the poet Campbell, “I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me; I have observed stars of which the light, it can be proved, must take two millions of years to reach this earth.” That would have been a grand thing for any man to be able truthfully to say under any circumstances: it was a marvellous thing for a man who had laboured under all the original disadvantages of Herschel–a man who began life as a penniless German bandsman, and up to the age of thirty-six had never even looked through a telescope.

At this time, Herschel was engaged in playing the harpsichord in the orchestra of the theatre; and it was during the interval between the acts that he made his first general survey of the heavens. The moment his part was finished, he would rush out to gaze through his telescope; and in these short periods he managed to observe all the visible stars of what are called the first, second, third, and fourth magnitudes. Henceforth he went on building telescope after telescope, each one better than the last; and now all his glasses were ground and polished either by his own hand or by his brother Alexander’s. Carolina meanwhile took her part in the workshop; but as she had also to sing at the oratorios, and her awkward German manners might shock the sensitive nerves of the Bath aristocrats, she took two lessons a week for a whole twelvemonth (she tells us in her delightfully straightforward fashion) “from Miss Fleming, the celebrated dancing mistress, to drill me for a gentlewoman.” Poor Carolina, there she was mistaken: Miss Fleming could make her into no gentlewoman, for she was born one already, and nothing proves it more than the perfect absence of false shame with which in her memoirs she tells us all these graphic little details of their early humble days.

While they were thus working at Bath an incident occurred which is worth mentioning because it shows the very different directions in which the presence or the want of steady persistence may lead the various members of the very self-same family. William received a letter from his widowed mother at Hanover to say, in deep distress, that Dietrich, the youngest brother, had run away from home, it was supposed for the purpose of going to India, “with a young idler no older than himself.” Forthwith, the budding astronomer left the lathe where he was busy turning an eye-piece from a cocoa-nut shell, and, like a good son and brother as he always was, hurried off to Holland and thence to Hanover. No Dietrich was anywhere to be found. But while he was away, Carolina at Bath received a letter from Dietrich himself, to tell her ruefully he was “laid up very ill” at a waterside tavern in Wapping–not the nicest or most savoury East End sailor-suburb of London. Alexander immediately took the coach to town, put the prodigal into a decent lodging, nursed him carefully for a fortnight, and then took him down with him in triumph to the family home at Bath. There brother William found him safe and sound on his return, under the sisterly care of good Carolina. A pretty dance he had led the two earnest and industrious astronomers; but they seem always to have treated this black sheep of the family with uniform kindness, and long afterwards Sir William remembered him favourably in his last will.

In 1779 and the succeeding years the three Herschels were engaged during all their spare time in measuring the heights of about one hundred mountains in the moon, which William gauged by three different methods. In the same year, he made an acquaintance of some importance to him, as forming his first introduction to the wider world of science in London and elsewhere. Dr. Watson, a Fellow of the Royal Society, happened to see him working at his telescope; and this led to a visit from the electrician to the amateur astronomer. Dr. Watson was just then engaged in getting up a Philosophical Society at Bath (a far rarer institution at that time in a provincial town than now), and he invited William Herschel to join it. Here Herschel learned for the first time to mix with those who were more nearly his intellectual equals, and to measure his strength against other men’s.

It was in 1781 that Herschel made the great discovery which immediately established his fame as an astronomer, and enabled him to turn from conducting concerts to the far higher work of professionally observing the stars. On the night of Tuesday, March 13th, Herschel was engaged in his usual systematic survey of the sky, a bit at a time, when his telescope lighted among a group of small fixed stars upon what he at first imagined to be a new comet. It proved to be no comet, however, but a true planet–a veritable world, revolving like our own in a nearly circular path around the sun as centre, though far more remote from it than the most distant planet then known, Saturn. Herschel called his new world the Georgium Sidus (King George’s star) in honour of the reigning monarch; but it has since been known as Uranus. Astronomers all over Europe were soon apprised of this wonderful discovery, and the path of the freshly found planet was computed by calculation, its distance from the sun being settled at nineteen times that of our own earth.

In order faintly to understand the importance attached at the time to Herschel’s observation of this very remote and seemingly petty world, we must remember that up to that date all the planets which circle round our own sun had been familiarly known to everybody from time immemorial. To suggest that there was yet another world belonging to our system outside the path of the furthest known planet would have seemed to most people like pure folly. Since then, we have grown quite accustomed to the discovery of a fresh small world or two every year, and we have even had another large planet (Neptune), still more remote than Herschel’s Uranus, added to the list of known orbs in our own solar system. But in Herschel’s day, nobody had ever heard of a new planet being discovered since the beginning of all things. A hundred years before, an Italian astronomer, it is true, had found out four small moons revolving round Saturn, besides the big moon then already known; but for a whole century, everybody believed that the solar system was now quite fully explored, and that nothing fresh could be discovered about it. Hence Herschel’s observation produced a very different effect from, say, the discovery of the two moons which revolve round Mars, in our own day. Even people who felt no interest in astronomy were aroused to attention. Mr. Herschel’s new planet became the talk of the town and the subject of much admiring discussion in the London newspapers. Strange, indeed, that an amateur astronomer of Bath, a mere German music-master, should have hit upon a planet which escaped the sight even of the king’s own Astronomer Royal at Greenwich.

Of course there were not people wanting who ascribed this wonderful discovery of Herschel’s to pure chance. If he hadn’t just happened to turn his telescope in that particular direction on that particular night, he wouldn’t have seen this Georgium Sidus they made such a fuss about at all. Quite so. And if he hadn’t built a twenty-foot telescope for himself, he wouldn’t have turned it anywhere at any time. But Herschel himself knew better. “This was by no means the result of chance,” he said; “but a simple consequence of the position of the planet on that particular evening, since it occupied precisely that spot in the heavens which came in the order of the minute observations that I had previously mapped out for myself. Had I not seen it just when I did, I must inevitably have come upon it soon after, since my telescope was so perfect that I was able to distinguish it from a fixed star in the first minute of observation.” Indeed, when once Herschel’s twenty-foot telescope was made, he could not well have failed in the long run to discover Uranus, as his own description of his method clearly shows. “When I had carefully and thoroughly perfected the great instrument in all its parts,” he says, “I made a systematic use of it in my observation of the heaven, first forming a determination never to pass by any, the smallest, portion of them without due investigation. This habit, persisted in, led to the discovery of the new planet (Georgium Sidus).” As well might one say that a skilled mining surveyor, digging for coal, came upon the seam by chance, as ascribe to chance the necessary result of such a careful and methodical scrutiny as this.

Before the year was out, the ingenious Mr. Herschel of Bath was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was also presented with the Copley gold medal. From this moment all the distinguished people in Bath were anxious to be introduced to the philosophical music-master; and, indeed, they intruded so much upon his time that the daily music lessons were now often interrupted. He was soon, however, to give up lessons for ever, and devote himself to his more congenial and natural work in astronomy. In May, 1782, he went up to London, to be formally admitted to his Fellowship of the Royal Society. There he stayed so long that poor Carolina was quite frightened. It was “double the time which my brother could safely be absent from his scholars.” The connection would be broken up, and the astronomy would be the ruin of the family. (A little of good old dame Herschel’s housewifely leaven here, perhaps.) But William’s letters from London to “Dear Lina” must soon have quieted her womanly fears. William had actually been presented to the king, and “met with a very gracious reception.” He had explained the solar system to the king and queen, and his telescope was to be put up first at Greenwich and then at Richmond. The Greenwich authorities were delighted with his instrument; they have seen what Herschel calls “my fine double stars” with it. “All my papers are printing,” he tells Lina with pardonable pride, “and are allowed to be very valuable.” But he himself is far from satisfied as yet with the results of his work. Evidently no small successes in the field of knowledge will do for William Herschel. “Among opticians and astronomers,” he writes to Lina, “nothing now is talked of but what they call my great discoveries. Alas! this shows how far they are behind, when such trifles as I have seen and done are called great. Let me but get at it again! I will make such telescopes and see such things!” Well, well, William Herschel, in that last sentence we get the very keynote of true greatness and true genius.

But must he go back quietly to Bath and the toils of teaching? “An intolerable waste of time,” he thought it. The king happily relieved him from this intolerable waste. He offered Herschel a salary of L200 a year if he would come and live at Datchet, and devote himself entirely to astronomical observations. It was by no means a munificent sum for a king to offer for such labour; but Herschel gladly accepted it, as it would enable him to give up the interruption of teaching, and spend all his time on his beloved astronomy. His Bath friend, Sir William Watson, exclaimed when he heard of it, “Never bought monarch honour so cheap.” Herschel was forty-three when he removed to Datchet, and from that day forth he lived almost entirely in his observatory, wholly given up to his astronomical pursuits. Even when he had to go to London to read his papers before the Royal Society, he chose a moonlight night (when the stars would be mostly invisible), so that it might not interfere with his regular labours.

Poor Carolina was horrified at the house at Datchet, which seemed terribly desolate and poor, even to her modest German ideas; but William declared his willingness to live permanently and cheerfully upon “eggs and bacon” now that he was at last free to do nothing on earth but observe the heavens. Night after night he and Carolina worked together at their silent task–he noting the small features with his big telescope, she “sweeping for comets” with a smaller glass or “finder.” Herschel could have had no more useful or devoted assistant than his sister, who idolized him with all her heart. Alexander, too, came to stay with them during the slack months at Bath, and then the whole strength of the family was bent together on their labour of love in gauging the heavens.

But what use was it all? Why should they wish to go star-gazing? Well, if a man cannot see for himself what use it was, nobody else can put the answer into him, any more than they could put into him a love for nature, or for beauty, or for art, or for music, if he had it not to start with. What is the good of a great picture, a splendid oratorio, a grand poem? To the man who does not care for them, nothing; to the man who loves them, infinite. It is just the same with science. The use of knowledge to a mind like Herschel’s is the mere possession of it. With such as he, it is a love, an object of desire, a thing to be sought after for its own sake; and the mere act of finding it is in
itself purely delightful. “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies; and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.” So, to such a man as Herschel, that peaceful astronomer life at Datchet was indeed, in the truest sense of those much-abused words, “success in life.” If you had asked some vulgar-minded neighbour of the great Sir William in his later days whether the astronomer had been a successful man or not, he would doubtless have answered, after his kind, “Certainly. He has been made a knight, has lands in two counties, and has saved L35,000.” But if you had asked William Herschel himself, he would probably have said, with his usual mixture of earnestness and humility, “Yes, I have been a very fortunate man in life. I have discovered Uranus, and I have gauged all the depths of heaven, as none before ever gauged them, with my own great telescope.”

Still, those who cannot sympathize with the pure love of knowledge for its own sake–one of the highest and noblest of human aims–should remember that astronomy is also of immense practical importance to mankind, and especially to navigation and commerce. Unless great astronomical calculations were correctly performed at Greenwich and elsewhere, it would be impossible for any ship or steamer to sail with safety from England to Australia or America. Every defect in our astronomical knowledge helps to wreck our vessels on doubtful coasts; every advance helps to save the lives of many sailors and the cargoes of many merchants. It is this practical utility of astronomy that justifies the spending of national money on observatories and transits of Venus, and it is the best apology for an astronomer’s life to those who do not appreciate the use of knowledge for its own beauty.

At Datchet, Herschel not only made several large telescopes for sale, for which he obtained large prices, but he also got a grant of L2000 from the king to aid him in constructing his huge forty-foot instrument. It was here, too, in 1783, that Herschel married. His wife was a widow lady of scientific tastes like his own, and she was possessed of considerable means, which enabled him henceforth to lay aside all anxiety on the score of money. They had but one child, a son, afterwards Sir John Herschel, almost as great an astronomer as his father had been before him. In 1785, the family moved to Clay Hall, in Old Windsor, and in 1786 to Slough, where Herschel lived for the remainder of his long life. How completely his whole soul was bound up in his work is shown in the curious fact recorded for us by Carolina Herschel. The last night at Clay Hall was spent in sweeping the sky with the great glass till daylight; and by the next evening the telescope stood ready for observations once more in the new home at Slough.

To follow Herschel through the remainder of his life would be merely to give a long catalogue of his endless observations and discoveries among the stars. Such a catalogue would be interesting only to astronomers; yet it would truly give the main facts of Herschel’s existence in his happy home at Slough. Honoured by the world, dearly loved in his own family, and engrossed with a passionate affection for his chosen science, the great astronomer and philosopher grew grey in peace under his own roof, in the course of a singularly placid and gentle old age. In 1802 he laid before the Royal Society a list of five thousand new stars, star-clusters, or other heavenly bodies which he had discovered, and which formed the great body of his personal additions to astronomical knowledge. The University of Oxford made him Doctor of Laws, and very late in life he was knighted by the king–a too tardy acknowledgment of his immense services to science. To the very last, however, he worked on with a will; and, indeed, it is one of the great charms of scientific interest that it thus enables a man to keep his faculties on the alert to an advanced old age. In 1819, when Herschel was more than eighty, he writes to his sister a short note–”Lina, there is a great comet. I want you to assist me. Come to dine and spend the day here. If you can come soon after one o’clock, we shall have time to prepare maps and telescopes. I saw its situation last night. It has a long tail.” How delightful to find such a living interest in life at the age of eighty!

On the 25th of August, 1822, this truly great and simple man passed away, in his eighty-fifth year. It has been possible here only to sketch out the chief personal points in his career, without dwelling much upon the scientific importance of his later life-long labours; but it must suffice to say briefly upon this point that Herschel’s work was no mere mechanical star-finding; it was the most profoundly philosophical astronomical work ever performed, except perhaps Newton’s and Laplace’s. Among astronomers proper there has been none distinguished by such breadth of grasp, such wide conceptions, and such perfect clearness of view as the self-taught oboe-player of Hanover.




MLA Source Citation:

AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 23 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/genealogy/biography-of-william-herschel.htm - Last updated on Oct 4th, 2012


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