The Herschel Family of Astronomers

The Herschel Family of Astronomers – William Herschel (1738 –1822), Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), and John Herschel (1792 –1871)

As well as discovering a new planet, William Herschel increased the known dimensions of the Milky Way, noted the rotation of Saturn’s rings, identified satellites of Saturn and other planets, and observed the motion of binary stars.  Through his observations of the sun, he also detected the existence of infrared radiation – an energy source now used to power space missions.  In 1782, William was awarded the title of King’s Astronomer and went on to build a series of even larger telescopes.  The greatest of these – but not the most accurate – was a forty-foot telescope, which impressed George III and his family with its scale.  Acclaimed at the time as a marvel of the age, this gigantic telescope had a speaking tube on the observer’s platform, which enabled William to communicate with his sister Caroline at ground level.

William publically acknowledged Caroline as his ‘astronomical assistant’ but she gained a reputation as a pioneering astronomer in her own right and was paid for her scientific work. She discovered eight comets (one of which is named after her).  Before her death at 97, she received numerous awards – including the prestigious Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828.  As a child, Caroline had contracted smallpox (scarring her face) and typhus.  Cruel treatment from her mother and spoilt eldest brother Jacob (who treated Caroline as a drudge and had her whipped) and the effect of these diseases stunted her growth.  She never grew taller than 4’3”.

Caroline adored William, especially after he rescued her from her miserable life in Hanover.  She was taken aback when he unexpectedly married a rich widow in 1788.  William’s son, John Herschel, inherited the family talents for astronomy and music.  John completed his father’s life work of mapping the heavens by plotting the skies of the Southern Hemisphere from an observatory he built in the Cape of Southern Africa.  Celebrated as a natural philosopher with many scientific interests, John is also remembered for his pioneering work in the field of photography.

John’s story is told on the detailed audio guide for the Herschel Museum of Astronomy (£1 hire from admissions desk), along with that of his father and aunt.  This commentary is full of quotes from their public and private writings, including a memorable outburst in John’s diary: ‘Sick of star-gazing – mean to break the telescope…’

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