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William Herschel

William Herschel, one of the greatest astronomers that has ever lived, was born at Hanover, on the 15th November, 1738. His father, Isaac Herschel, was a man evidently of considerable ability, whose life was devoted to the study and practice of music, by which he earned a somewhat precarious maintenance. He had but few worldly goods to leave to his children, but he more than compensated for this by bequeathing to them a splendid inheritance of genius. Touches of genius were, indeed, liberally scattered among the members of Isaac's large family, and in the case of his forth child, William, and of a sister several years younger, it was united with that determined perseverance and rigid adherence to principle which enabled genius to fulfill its perfect work.

A faithful chronicler has given us an interesting account of the way in which Isaac Herschel educated his sons; the narrative is taken from the recollections of one who, at the time we are speaking of, was an unnoticed little girl five or six years old. She writes:--

"My brothers were often introduced as solo performers and assistants in the orchestra at the Court, and I remember that I was frequently prevented from going to sleep by the lively criticisms on music on coming from a concert. Often I would keep myself awake that I might listen to their animating remarks, for it made me so happy to see them so happy. But generally their conversation would branch out on philosophical subjects, when my brother William and my father often argued with such warmth that my mother's interference became necessary, when the names--Euler, Leibnitz, and Newton--sounded rather too loud for the repose of her little ones, who had to be at school by seven in the morning." The child whose reminiscences are here given became afterwards the famous Caroline Herschel. The narrative of her life, by Mrs. John Herschel, is a most interesting book, not only for the account it contains of the remarkable woman herself, but also because it provides the best picture we have of the great astronomer to whom Caroline devoted her life.

This modest family circle was, in a measure, dispersed at the outbreak of the Seven Years' War in 1756. The French proceeded to invade Hanover, which, it will be remembered, belonged at this time to the British dominions. Young William Herschel had already obtained the position of a regular performer in the regimental band of the Hanoverian Guards, and it was his fortune to obtain some experience of actual warfare in the disastrous battle of Hastenbeck. He was not wounded, but he had to spend the night after the battle in a ditch, and his meditations on the occasion convinced him that soldiering was not the profession exactly adapted to his tastes. We need not attempt to conceal the fact that he left his regiment by the very simple but somewhat risky process of desertion. He had, it would seem, to adopt disguises to effect his escape. At all events, by some means he succeeded in eluding detection and reached England in safety. It is interesting to have learned on good authority that many years after this offence was committed it was solemnly forgiven. When Herschel had become the famous astronomer, and as such visited King George at Windsor, the King at their first meeting handed to him his pardon for deserting from the army, written out in due form by his Majesty himself.

It seems that the young musician must have had some difficulty in providing for his maintenance during the first few years of his abode in England. It was not until he had reached the age of twenty-two that he succeeded in obtaining any regular appointment. He was then made Instructor of Music to the Durham Militia. Shortly afterwards, his talents being more widely recognized, he was appointed as organist at the parish church at Halifax, and his prospects in life now being fairly favourable, and the Seven Years' War being over, he ventured to pay a visit to Hanover to see his father. We can imagine the delight with which old Isaac Herschel welcomed his promising son, as well as his parental pride when a concert was given at which some of William's compositions were performed. If the father was so intensely gratified on this occasion, what would his feelings have been could he have lived to witness his son's future career? But this pleasure was not to be his, for he died many years before William became an astronomer.

In 1766, about a couple of years after his return to England from This visit to his old home, we find that Herschel had received a further promotion to be organist in the Octagon Chapel, at Bath. Bath was then, as now, a highly fashionable resort, and many notable personages patronised the rising musician. Herschel had other points in his favour besides his professional skill; his appearance was good, his address was prepossessing, and even his nationality was a distinct advantage, inasmuch as he was a Hanoverian in the reign of King George the Third. On Sundays he played the organ, to the great delight of the congregation, and on week-days he was occupied by giving lessons to private pupils, and in preparation for public performances. He thus came to be busily employed, and seems to have been in the enjoyment of comfortable means

From his earliest youth Herschel had been endowed with that invaluable characteristic, an eager curiosity for knowledge. He was naturally desirous of perfecting himself in the theory of music, and thus he was led to study mathematics. When he had once tasted the charms of mathematics, he saw vast regions of knowledge unfolded before him, and in this way he was induced to direct his attention to astronomy. More and more this pursuit seems to have engrossed his attention, until at last it had become an absorbing passion. Herschel was, however, still obliged, by the exigency of procuring a livelihood, to give up the best part of his time to his profession as a musician; but his heart was eagerly fixed on another science, and every spare moment was steadily devoted to astronomy. For many years, however, he continued to labour at his original calling, nor was it until he had attained middle age and become the most celebrated astronomer of the time, that he was enabled to concentrate his attention exclusively on his favourite pursuit.

It was with quite a small telescope which had been lent him by a friend that Herschel commenced his career as an observer. However, he speedily discovered that to see all he wanted to see, a telescope of far greater power would be necessary, and he determined to obtain this more powerful instrument by actually making it with his own hands. At first it may seem scarcely likely that one whose occupation had previously been the study and practice of music should meet with success in so technical an operation as the construction of a telescope. It may, however, be mentioned that the kind of instrument which Herschel designed to construct was formed on a very different principle from the refracting telescopes with which we are ordinarily familiar. His telescope was to be what is termed a reflector. In this type of instrument the optical power is obtained by the use of a mirror at the bottom of the tube, and the astronomer looks down through the tube TOWARDS HIS MIRROR and views the reflection of the stars with its aid. Its efficiency as a telescope depends entirely on the accuracy with which the requisite form has been imparted to the mirror. The surface has to be hollowed out a little, and this has to be done so truly that the slightest deviation from good workmanship in this essential particular would be fatal to efficient performance of the telescope.

The mirror that Herschel employed was composed of a mixture of two parts of copper to one of tin; the alloy thus obtained is an intensely hard material, very difficult to cast into the proper shape, and very difficult to work afterwards. It possesses, however, when polished, a luster hardly inferior to that of silver itself. Herschel has recorded hardly any particulars as to the actual process by which he cast and figured his reflectors. We are however, told that in later years, after his telescopes had become famous, he made a considerable sum of money by the manufacture and sale of great instruments. Perhaps this may be the reason why he never found it expedient to publish any very explicit details as to the means by which his remarkable successes were obtained.

Since Herschel's time many other astronomers, notably the late Earl of Rosse, have experimented in the same direction, and succeeded in making telescopes certainly far greater, and probably more perfect, than any which Herschel appears to have constructed. The details of these later methods are now well known, and have been extensively practised. Many amateurs have thus been able to make telescopes by following the instructions so clearly laid down by Lord Rosse and the other authorities. Indeed, it would seem that any one who has a little mechanical skill and a good deal of patience ought now to experience no great difficulty in constructing a telescope quite as powerful as that which first brought Herschel into fame. I should, however, mention that in these modern days the material generally used for the mirror is of a more tractable description than the metallic substance which was employed by Herschel and by Lord Rosse. A reflecting telescope of the present day would not be fitted with a mirror composed of that alloy known as speculum metal, whose composition I have already mentioned. It has been found more advantageous to employ a glass mirror carefully figured and polished, just as a metallic mirror would have been, and then to impart to the polished glass surface a fine coating of silver laid down by a chemical process. The silver-on-glass mirrors are so much lighter and so much easier to construct that the more old-fashioned metallic mirrors may be said to have fallen into almost total disuse. In one respect however, the metallic mirror may still claim the advantage that, with reasonable care, its surface will last bright and untarnished for a much longer period than can the silver film on the glass. However, the operation of re-silvering a glass has now become such a simple one that the advantage this indicates is not relatively so great as might at first be supposed.

Some years elapsed after Herschel's attention had been first directed to astronomy, before he reaped the reward of his exertions in the possession of a telescope which would adequately reveal some of the glories of the heavens. It was in 1774, when the astronomer was thirty-six years old, that he obtained his first glimpse of the stars with an instrument of his own construction. Night after night, as soon as his musical labours were ended, his telescopes were brought out, sometimes into the small back garden of his house at Bath, and sometimes into the street in front of his hall-door. It was characteristic of him that he was always endeavouring to improve his apparatus. He was incessantly making fresh mirrors, or trying new lenses, or combinations of lenses to act as eye-pieces, or projecting alterations in the mounting by which the telescope was supported. Such was his enthusiasm that his house, we are told, was incessantly littered with the usual indications of the workman's presence, greatly to the distress of his sister, who, at this time, had come to take up her abode with him and look after his housekeeping. Indeed, she complained that in his astronomical ardour he sometimes omitted to take off, before going into his workshop, the beautiful lace ruffles which he wore while conducting a concert, and that consequently they became soiled with the pitch employed in the polishing of his mirrors.

This sister, who occupies such a distinct place in scientific history is the same little girl to whom we have already referred. From her earliest days she seems to have cherished a passionate admiration for her brilliant brother William. It was the proudest delight of her childhood as well as of her mature years to render him whatever service she could; no man of science was ever provided with a more capable or energetic helper than William Herschel found in this remarkable woman. Whatever work had to be done she was willing to bear her share in it, or even to toil at it unassisted if she could be allowed to do so. She not only managed all his domestic affairs, but in the grinding of the lenses and in the polishing of the mirrors she rendered every assistance that was possible. At one stage of the very delicate operation of fashioning a reflector, it is necessary for the workman to remain with his hand on the mirror for many hours in succession. When such labours were in progress, Caroline used to sit by her brother, and enliven the time by reading stories aloud, sometimes pausing to feed him with a spoon while his hands were engaged on the task from which he could not desist for a moment.

When mathematical work had to be done Caroline was ready for it; she had taught herself sufficient to enable her to perform the kind of calculations, not, perhaps, very difficult ones, that Herschel's work required; indeed, it is not too much to say that the mighty life-work which this man was enabled to perform could never have been accomplished had it not been for the self- sacrifice of this ever-loving and faithful sister. When Herschel was at the telescope at night, Caroline sat by him at her desk, pen in hand, ready to write down the notes of the observations as they fell from her brother's lips. This was no insignificant toil. The telescope was, of course, in the open air, and as Herschel not unfrequently continued his observations throughout the whole of a long winter's night, there were but few women who could have accomplished the task which Caroline so cheerfully executed. From dusk till dawn, when the sky was clear, were Herschel's observing hours, and what this sometimes implied we can realise from the fact that Caroline assures us she had sometimes to desist because the ink had actually frozen in her pen. The night's work over, a brief rest was taken, and while William had his labours for the day to attend to, Caroline carefully transcribed the observations made during the night before, reduced all the figures and prepared everything in readiness for the observations that were to follow on the ensuing evening.

But we have here been anticipating a little of the future which lay before the great astronomer; we must now revert to the history of his early work, at Bath, in 1774, when Herschel's scrutiny of the skies first commenced with an instrument of his own manufacture. For some few years he did not attain any result of importance; no doubt he made a few interesting observations, but the value of the work during those years is to be found, not in any actual discoveries which were accomplished, but in the practice which Herschel obtained in the use of his instruments. It was not until 1782 that the great achievement took place by which he at once sprang into fame.

It is sometimes said that discoveries are made by accident, and, no doubt, to a certain extent, but only, I fancy to a very small extent, this statement may be true. It is, at all events, certain that such lucky accidents do not often fall to the lot of people unless those people have done much to deserve them. This was certainly the case with Herschel. He appears to have formed a project for making a close examination of all the stars above a certain magnitude. Perhaps he intended to confine this research to a limited region of the sky, but, at all events, he seems to have undertaken the work energetically and systematically. Star after star was brought to the centre of the field of view of his telescope, and after being carefully examined was then displaced, while another star was brought forward to be submitted to the same process. In the great majority of cases such observations yield really nothing of importance; no doubt even the smallest star in the heavens would, if we could find out all about it, reveal far more than all the astronomers that were ever on the earth have even conjectured. What we actually learn about the great majority of stars is only information of the most meagre description. We see that the star is a little point of light, and we see nothing more.

In the great review which Herschel undertook he doubtless examined hundreds, or perhaps thousands of stars, allowing them to pass away without note or comment. But on an ever-memorable night in March, 1782, it happened that he was pursuing his task among the stars in the Constellation of Gemini. Doubtless, on that night, as on so many other nights, one star after another was looked at only to be dismissed, as not requiring further attention. On the evening in question, however, one star was noticed which, to Herschel's acute vision seemed different from the stars which in so many thousands are strewn over the sky. A star properly so called appears merely as a little point of light, which no increase of magnifying power will ever exhibit with a true disc. But there was something in the star-like object which Herschel saw that immediately arrested his attention and made him apply to it a higher magnifying power. This at once disclosed the fact that the object possessed a disc, that is, a definite, measurable size, and that it was thus totally different from any one of the hundreds and thousands of stars which exist elsewhere in space. Indeed, we may say at once that this little object was not a star at all; it was a planet. That such was its true nature was confirmed, after a little further observation, by perceiving that the body was shifting its place on the heavens relatively to the stars. The organist at the Octagon Chapel at Bath had, therefore, discovered a new planet with his home-made telescope.

I can imagine some one will say, "Oh, there was nothing so wonderful in that; are not planets always being discovered? Has not M. Palisa, for instance discovered about eighty of such objects, and are there not hundreds of them known nowadays?" This is, to a certain extent, quite true. I have not the least desire to detract from the credit of those industrious and sharp-sighted astronomers who have in modern days brought so many of these little objects within our cognisance. I think, however, it must be admitted that such discoveries have a totally different importance in the history of science from that which belongs to the peerless achievement of Herschel. In the first place, it must be observed that the minor planets now brought to light are so minute that if a score of them were rolled to together into one lump it would not be one-thousandth part of the size of the grand planet discovered by Herschel. This is, nevertheless, not the most important point. What marks Herschel's achievement as one of the great epochs in the history of astronomy is the fact that the detection of Uranus was the very first recorded occasion of the discovery of any planet whatever.

For uncounted ages those who watched the skies had been aware of the existence of the five old planets-Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, and Mars. It never seems to have occurred to any of the ancient philosophers that there could be other similar objects as yet undetected over and above the well-known five. Great then was the astonishment of the scientific world when the Bath organist announced his discovery that the five planets which had been known from all antiquity must now admit the company of a sixth. And this sixth planet was, indeed, worthy on every ground to be received into the ranks of the five glorious bodies of antiquity. It was, no doubt, not so large as Saturn, it was certainly very much less than Jupiter; on the other hand, the new body was very much larger than Mercury, than Venus, or than Mars, and the earth itself seemed quite an insignificant object in comparison with this newly added member of the Solar System. In one respect, too, Herschel's new planet was a much more imposing object than any one of the older bodies; it swept around the sun in a majestic orbit, far outside that of Saturn, which had previously been regarded as the boundary of the Solar System, and its stately progress required a period of not less than eighty-one years.

King George the Third, hearing of the achievements of the Hanoverian musician, felt much interest in his discovery, and accordingly Herschel was bidden to come to Windsor, and to bring with him the famous telescope, in order to exhibit the new planet to the King, and to tell his Majesty all about it. The result of the interview was to give Herschel the opportunity for which he had so long wished, of being able to devote himself exclusively to science for the rest of his life.

The King took so great a fancy to the astronomer that he first, as I have already mentioned, duly pardoned his desertion from the army, some twenty-five years previously. As a further mark of his favour the King proposed to confer on Herschel the title of his Majesty's own astronomer, to assign to him a residence near Windsor, to provide him with a salary, and to furnish such funds as might be required for the erection of great telescopes, and for the conduct of that mighty scheme of celestial observation on which Herschel was so eager to enter. Herschel's capacity for work would have been much impaired if he had been deprived of the aid of his admirable sister, and to her, therefore, the King also assigned a salary, and she was installed as Herschel's assistant in his new post.

With his usually impulsive determination, Herschel immediately cut himself free from all his musical avocations at Bath, and at once entered on the task of making and erecting the great telescopes at Windsor. There, for more than thirty years, he and his faithful sister prosecuted with unremitting ardour their nightly scrutiny of the sky. Paper after paper was sent to the Royal Society, describing the hundreds, indeed the thousands, of objects such as double stars; nebulae and clusters, which were first revealed to human gaze during those midnight vigils. To the end of his life he still continued at every possible opportunity to devote himself to that beloved pursuit in which he had such unparalleled success. No single discovery of Herschel's later years was, however, of the same momentous description as that which first brought him to fame.

Herschel married when considerably advanced in life and he lived to enjoy the indescribable pleasure of finding that his only son, afterwards Sir John Herschel, was treading worthily in his footsteps, and attaining renown as an astronomical observer, second only to that of his father. The elder Herschel died in 1822, and his illustrious sister Caroline then returned to Hanover, where she lived for many years to receive the respect and attention which were so justly hers. She died at a very advanced age in 1848.

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