Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Great Scientists by Charles R. Gibson
Stories of the Great Scientists by  Charles R. Gibson

Herschel Becomes a Professional Astronomer

The title of this chapter is proposed to emphasise the fact that, although William Herschel discovered the new planet while he was a professional musician, it is quite erroneous to think of all his great work as being that of an amateur Astronomer.

Herschel left Bath to see King George III, with every intention of returning to his musical profession, but Alexander and Caroline were placed in a very awkward position, for the pupils and others became very impatient at their teacher's long absence from home. When William did come home, it was to pack up his belongings and transfer the household to the outskirts of Windsor, where the King desired Herschel to live in future.

The King gave Herschel a salary of two hundred pounds, which must seem to us as very inadequate, but Herschel was only too pleased to be free of his musical profession that he might devote all his time and energy to Astronomy. His enthusiasm is apparent when we learn the kind of residence with which he was pleased: "stables where mirrors could be ground, a roomy laundry, which was to serve as a library," and so on. And when Caroline was appalled with the prices of everything from coal to butcher-meat, her brother assured her that they could live on eggs and bacon, which would cost "next to nothing now that they were really in the country."

So far we have seen Caroline as the household drudge in her home at Hanover, then as housekeeper to her brother and at the same time a professional singer, only aiding her brother in his astronomical work indirectly. Now, after ten years' residence in England, she became a real assistant-astronomer, her brother giving her a telescope with which she was to "sweep for comets," and to write down all remarkable appearances which she saw in her "sweeps."

Caroline began her astronomical work in the garden, when her brother was from home, and at first she did not like being out there on cold winter nights "without a human being near enough to be within call." We may anticipate somewhat by noting that Caroline became the discoverer of no less than eight comets. But greater than all this was her absolute self-denial in so very faithfully assisting her brother William.

We have an interesting description written by one who visited the brother and sister at their observatory near Windsor. The large telescope was in the garden, and was moved by an assistant who stood below it. In the room near it sat Herschel's sister, who had Flamsteed's Atlas open before her. As Herschel gives the word to his sister, she writes down the circumstances of the observation. In this way he examines the whole sky without omitting the least part, and he hopes to make a complete survey in four or five years. At that time he had found about nine hundred double stars and almost as many nebulae. The visitor then states that he himself went off to bed when at 1 p.m. the thermometer showed nineteen degrees of frost, but that Herschel observed all night, only stopping for a few moments every three or four hours. His sister would probably insist upon him taking a cup of coffee during these short breaks in his work.

On some occasions Herschel found his shoes frozen to the ground, when he had looked long at a star. Caroline remembered seeing the thermometer at one and a half degrees below zero, on the Fahrenheit scale, for several nights in the same year. Imagine working in thirty-three and a half degrees of frost! The ink in the room was sometimes frozen, and even that was sheltered compared to Herschel who stood out in the open air all the time.

As Herschel worked all night, one would not be surprised if the daytime had been occupied with sleep and rest, with some time given to writing out the results of his observations; but that would not be a true picture. In the daytime he was a telescope-maker, and here is a record of some of the telescopes which he made:—

200 seven-foot telescopes at 200 guineas each
150 ten-foot telescopes at 600 guineas each
80 twenty-foot telescopes at 3000 guineas each

making a total value of over £370,000. The prices quoted were the values in 1785.

It became a fashionable craze to have one of Herschel's telescopes, but although our hero was a prosperous telescope-maker, his real interests were in observing and studying the heavens.

The devotion of his sister Caroline can scarcely be better illustrated than by the following extract from her Diary; she is referring to the huge forty-foot telescope which her brother had erected in his garden by this time: "The evening had been cloudy, but about ten o'clock a few stars became visible, and in the greatest hurry all was got ready for observing. My brother, at the front of the telescope, directed me to make some alteration in the lateral motion which was done by machinery . . . . At each end of the machine was an iron hook, such as butchers use for hanging their joints upon, and having to run in the dark on ground covered a foot deep with melting snow, I fell on one of these hooks, which entered my right leg above the knee. My brother's call, 'Make haste!' I could only answer by a pitiful cry, 'I am hooked!' He and the workman were instantly with me, but they could not lift me without leaving nearly two ounces of my flesh behind. The workman's wife was called, but was afraid to do anything, and I was obliged to be my own surgeon." Later the doctor said that had a soldier met with such an accident he would have been entitled to six weeks' nursing in a hospital. The one consolation to Caroline was that the weather for a few nights was dull, so that her brother was not the loser through her accident, and it so happened that for about a fortnight "there was no necessity for my exposing myself for a whole night to the severity of the season." Here was Caroline back at her trying work, when even a soldier would have been another month in hospital.

The fear of accidents did not intimidate these enthusiastic Astronomers. Caroline says: "I could give a pretty long list of accidents which were near proving fatal to my brother as well as myself. To make observations with such large machinery, where all around is darkness, is not unattended with danger, especially when personal safety is the last thing with which the mind is occupied." Surely this brother and sister were true heroes, beyond the definition laid down in Chapter I?

It will be observed that Caroline's descriptive writing does not betray any lack of early education, but it is said that her spelling was very deficient; this, of course, does not appear in her published Recollections. Her brother William gave her constant lessons in English, whenever she settled here. Even the constant association with her brother and his friends would be helpful to her speaking and writing. Indeed, I do not think that it is generally realised that even had Caroline learnt no grammar, she might yet have acquired a beautiful style of speaking and writing, for these are in reality imitative arts.

Occasionally work was so pressing in the day-time that Caroline says: "If it had not been sometimes for the intervention of a cloudy or moonlight night, I know not when my brother (or I either) should have got any sleep." And referring to one occasion when William had to go to Germany to present a telescope from King George III to the University of Gottingen, Caroline relates how she kept herself "from suffering by too much sadness" by what she calls "bustling work."

Although there is no intention of including an account of the scientific work of Herschel, it is of interest to note that the name he gave to his new planet was Georgium Sidus, as a compliment to George III. We remember how eager Henry IV of France had been to have a heavenly body named after him. But Herschel's proposal met with severe criticism and opposition. I find this matter referred to in the Edinburgh Review  of April, 1809, In reviewing a work on Astronomy by the then Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, the critic takes the author severely to task for referring to this planet as the Georgian Planet, "in compliance with a fashion peculiar to the English."

The title of "Uranus" had been generally accepted by this date, and the name was an appropriate one; Uranus being in Greek mythology the father of Saturn, whereas the newly discovered planet was farther out in the solar system than Saturn, which till then had been believed to be on the outskirt of our system. But Caroline writes of the moons of Uranus as the "Georgian Satellites" even twenty years after this date.

One French Astronomer suggested that the planet should be called "Herschel" after its discoverer, but this was not accepted for the same reason as the King's name, it being considered improper that the name of any man should be attached to a great heavenly body.

I remember getting into conversation with a "Professor of Astrology" at a country fair many years ago. I was surprised to find on the printed papers which he filled up for his patrons, that one of the planets under which his patrons might be born was named "Herschel," but I found that the man had no idea to what planet this referred; he believed that among his big stock of planets there was one named Herschel.

Caroline became a professional Astronomer, being appointed by the King as assistant-astronomer at a salary of fifty pounds per annum. This salary, though seeming ridiculously small to us, was very welcome to Caroline, who was then about thirty-seven years of age. She had always had entire charge of her brother's purse, and his instructions to her had been to use whatever she desired for her own personal use, and merely state in the account-book "For Car." opposite any sums thus expended. But Caroline had never let these exceed eight pounds in any one year.

Before Caroline was forty years of age she was released from housekeeping duties, as her brother William married the widow of a wealthy London merchant. But Caroline's separation from her brother's home life must have been a great trial to her; she very wisely refrains from including that period in her Recollections.

Herschel was not a youthful bridegroom, having reached the age of fifty before he married. His wife was a Glasgow lady, being the daughter of Dr. Wilson, the eminent Professor of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow. When Herschel visited Glasgow, a few years after his marriage, he received the Freedom of the City.

We have an interesting description of William Herschel, written about this time, in the Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay, whose maiden name was Fanny Burney, and who was a distinguished novelist at that time. The following is an extract: "In the evening Mr. Herschel came to tea. I had once seen that very extraordinary man at Mrs. De Luc's, but was happy to see him again. He is perfectly unassuming, yet openly happy, and happy in the success of those studies which would render a mind less excellently formed presumptuous and arrogant.

"The King has not a happier subject than this man. Mr. Locke himself would be quite charmed with him.

"He seems a man without a wish that has its object in the terrestrial globe. At night Mr. Herschel, by the King's command, came to exhibit to His Majesty and the Royal Family the new comet lately discovered by his sister; and while I was playing at piequet, the Princess Augusta came into the room and asked me to accompany her." Then referring to what she saw as being nothing grand nor striking, she remarks: "There is no possibility of admiring his genius more than his gentleness." Then she adds: "His wife seems good-natured; she was rich, too! and astronomers are as able as other men to discern that gold can glitter as well as stars."

We set out with our hero as Mr. William Herschel, then we saw that he had received the honorary degree of D.C.L. of Oxford, from which time he was known as Dr. Herschel, and ultimately we find him being knighted, so that he was then known as Sir William Herschel.

In the Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel the publishers have inserted a picture of Sir William, beneath which I notice they say "Sir William Herschel, Bart.," but he was not a baronet. Had Sir William been a baronet, his son, his only child, who became a great Astronomer, need not have been knighted by William IV and created a baronet by Queen Victoria upon the occasion of her coronation; both of these acts would have been unnecessary had Sir William been more than a knight. I mention this particularly because a learned friend assured me on one occasion that Sir William was a baronet. As a matter of fact, although he is spoken of most often as Sir William Herschel, he was knighted only a few years before his death. The only notice of this honour in Caroline's Diary is: "April 5th [1816]. My brother, received the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order."

From the date of the foregoing it will be observed that Herschel's knighthood was given by the Prince of Wales (afterwards George IV) while acting as Regent, during the final and permanent insanity of George III. Herschel was then not far from his eightieth year.

The poet Thomas Campbell visited Herschel in his old age, and there is preserved a letter giving the poet's impression. He was impressed with the great simplicity, kindness, and unassuming manner of Herschel. And when the old Astronomer said, "I have looked farther into space than ever human being did before me. I have observed stars of which the light, it can be proved, must take two million years to reach the earth," Campbell, who was then thirty-five years of age, was quite overcome by the modesty of manner with which Herschel made this statement.

In the preceding chapter on Priestley we saw that Herschel was a member of the Lunar Society at Birmingham, although he must have been more of an honorary member or simply a guest. We saw that James Watt was also a member of that very select Society, and it is interesting to know that Herschel and Watt were very friendly; the great Astronomer on one occasion appeared as a witness on behalf of Watt in a law case.

Although Benjamin Franklin was only about thirty years Herschel's senior, yet by the time Herschel sprang into fame, Franklin was already an old man of seventy-five, and was then residing in France. But the old American Statesman and Philosopher was, with the rest of the world, interested in Herschel's discoveries, of which he said: "I hardly know which to admire most; the wonderful discoveries made by Herschel, or the indefatigable ingenuity by which he has been enabled to make them."

Amongst the multitude of visitors at Herschel's observatory at Slough was the Prince of Orange, and Caroline remarks that the Prince's questions were sometimes of a remarkable kind. Finding neither of the Herschels at the observatory on one occasion when he happened to call, the Prince left the following note: "The Prince of Orange has been at Slough to call at Mr. Herschel's and to ask him, or if he was not at home, to ask Miss Herschel, if it is true that Mr. Herschel has discovered a new star, whose light was not as that of the common stars, but with swallow tails, as stars in embroidery. He has seen this reported in the newspapers, and wishes to know if there is any foundation to that report."

For more than the last twenty years of his life William Herschel had only indifferent health, which necessitated frequent absences from home. During these periods his faithful sister took his place at the observatory, working extremely long hours, and going with only one or two hours' sleep on many occasions. Had Caroline happened to die young, there is little doubt that her early death would have been put down to her leading such a strenuous life, but fortunately she did not die young; had she lived two years longer she would have reached one hundred years.

Her brother William had died in 1822, so that Caroline lived for a quarter of a century after the death of "the dearest and best of brothers." She removed to Hanover, where she spent the remaining years, but keeping up her interest in Science to the end. During her lifetime no less than four sovereigns had reigned over Great Britain, but her brother lived only in the reign of George III and the first two years of his son George IV, although he was still alive when Queen Victoria was born.

If we say, speaking figuratively, that Copernicus and Galileo set the Earth in motion through space, we may say in the same sense that Herschel set the solar system moving through space; that it was he who discovered that the so-called fixed stars were in motion, and indeed that he was the founder of Stellar Astronomy.

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