In 2022 we commemorated the 200 year anniversary of the death of William Herschel.

The Herschel 200 exhibition was a wonderful, collaborative commemoration of the 200 year anniversary of William Herschel’s death. We exhibited some incredible artefacts on loan from the Royal Astronomical Society and Herschel Family Archive which showcased William’s achievements.

The Early Years

When William Herschel died in 1822 he was a famous astronomer and telescope maker, known for discovering a planet and for mapping the stars. He had come a long way from his modest upbringing.

William was born in 1738 to a humble family in Hanover (modern day Germany). His father, Isaac, was bandmaster of the Hanoverian Guards, and William joined him in the band as an oboist and violinist when he was fourteen, alongside his elder brother, Jacob. When the French invaded Hanover in 1757, Isaac convinced the then eighteen-year-old William to flee and seek sanctuary in England. William arrived in London as a refugee and survived for two years copying music scores, as well as teaching and performing where he could.

William was also an aspiring composer. Realising that London was already full of musicians and composers, he took up a position in charge of a small military band in Richmond, Yorkshire. It was a part time post, and allowed William the chance to compose and work as a freelance musician across the north of England.

It was a lonely existence, and William suffered from homesickness. During his long night-time journeys on horseback, William took up a hobby his father had introduced him to as a child, studying the stars. He also read avidly about stellar theory, devouring books by astronomers James Ferguson, Robert Smith and Thomas Wright.

Securing a position as the organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath in 1766 enabled William to finally make a home for himself, which allowed his astronomical curiosity to flourish.

Background image: Sei Sonate, private collection.

The Innovator

The focus of William Herschel’s curiosity about the night sky set him apart from his fellow astronomers. While others confined themselves to the solar system, William sought to explore deep space. In order to do this, he realised he needed bigger telescopes to capture more light. When he discovered the mirrors he required did not exist, William went about learning how to make his own.

In 1774, only a year after purchasing his mirror making equipment, William successfully assembled his first home-made telescope, and was confident enough in its quality to start his first observation journal. William would go on to make bigger and bigger telescopes, his most successful was his 20-foot, and his largest, the enormous 40-foot.

William decided his first major project would be to catalogue double stars. It was during this project, on 13 March 1781, that he came across ‘a curious either nebulous star or perhaps a comet’. It would take many more observations, and the review of astronomers across Europe, to finally identify this object as the planet Uranus, or ‘Georgium Sidus’ as William first named it, after King George III. It was through his constant development and experimentation that William made what is considered his greatest discovery, infrared radiation. He wanted to observe sun spots, and experimented with different coloured lenses to find the best one for protecting his eyes from the sun’s rays. William’s detailed experiments with the temperature of different coloured light, as divided by a prism, led to this extraordinary discovery, and revolutionised astronomy in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Background image: Uranus taken by the spacecraft Voyager 2, courtesy of NASA/JPL.

A Family Enterprise

William Herschel was a dedicated, meticulous observer and a pioneer telescope maker, but he would not have achieved the heights of eminence he reached without his siblings, Caroline and Alexander.

Caroline originally trained as William’s observing assistant and then became an equal partner. William would call out detailed descriptions of what he saw through his telescope and Caroline would meticulously note down all the data, consulting time pieces and star catalogues to make the required calculations. She would also copy out and prepare the data for publication. She was the first woman to be paid as a professional astronomer.

When William was away from home, Caroline took up the observing mantel herself, sweeping the night sky for unusual objects. She achieved great success in this, discovering eight comets and fourteen nebulae.

William’s brother Alexander, also a professional musician in Bath, proved himself to be a fine mechanic and assisted William in making telescopes. Alexander remained in Bath when William and Caroline left, but he spent his summers with them in Slough, making the brass-work for William’s telescope making business.

Alexander also turned his hand to other gadgetry, making an astronomical clock for Caroline to use during observing sessions, and mechanisms for William and Caroline to communicate with each other during these sessions.

William and Caroline’s observing ‘sweeps’, supported by machinery made by Alexander, were more accurate than any stellar observation that came before them. They added 2,510 nebulae and star clusters to the approximately 100 previously catalogued by French astronomer, Charles Messier.

Background image: A Catalogue of the Stars which have been Observed by Wm. Herschel in a Series of Sweeps; … for the Year 1800…, by Caroline Herschel. Courtesy of the Royal Astronomical Society, RAS MS Herschel C 3/2.3.

The Legacy

In his later years, William Herschel turned his focus to revolutionary stellar theory. He was able to demonstrate through his numerous telescopic observations, assisted by Caroline, that stars were not ‘fixed’ in an ordered and mechanical universe, they were evolving. He was the first to model the shape of our Milky Way based on the distribution of stars, making space dimensional. His desire to understand the ‘construction of the heavens’ led to the development of modern cosmology we know today.

After William’s death, his son, John, took on what he described as his ‘sacred duty’ and completed his father’s work. John revised and re-ordered William’s catalogues of nebulae (with assistance from his Aunt Caroline) and mapped the stars of the southern hemisphere.

In 1888 the catalogues of nebulae that William and Caroline created and John completed were consolidated and expanded by John Louis Emil Dreyer, to create The New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (NGC). This numbering of deep sky objects is still in widespread use today.

When William Herschel discovered infrared radiation, or ‘calorific rays’ as he called it, he did not realise its significance. His discovery has however, gone on to revolutionise astronomy. Telescopes launched into space to observe in the infrared include The Herschel Space Observatory, named after William, and the James Webb telescope. These infrared telescopes allow astronomers to study the birth of stars from within nebulae. It is fitting that William’s discovery is now enabling astronomers to study the deep space objects that fascinated him so much.

Background image: Rosette nebula, taken by the Herschel Space Observatory, courtesy of NASA/JPL.


Herschel: The Slough Story

When William Herschel took up his position as the King’s Astronomer, he and Caroline left Bath to be near Windsor Castle. They eventually settled in Observatory House, Slough, on the corner of Windsor Road, now named Herschel Street. It was here that William remained for the rest of his life. He died on 25 August 1822 and is buried in St Laurence’s Church.

It was in the garden of Observatory House that William built his 40-foot telescope. For fifty years it was the largest telescope in the world and was so big it even featured on ordinance survey maps. It was dismantled on New Year’s Eve 1839. Observatory House was demolished in the late 1960s. The Herschel Sculpture, created in 1969 by artist Franta Belsky, now marks the former site of the house.

The Herschels’ legacy lives on in Slough, with a street, school, and doctor’s surgery bearing the family name. The Herschel Arms pub even depicts the landlord as William on its sign. Slough’s oldest green public space was renamed Herschel Park in 2001, and the design for Slough Bus Station was inspired by William’s discovery of infrared. The name and design of Observatory Shopping Centre are references to the Herschel family.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy however, away from the royal court and the cosmos, is that Slough continues to be a town of pioneers and innovators, a place where people discover, invent and create. A place where people – like William and Caroline – come from all over the world, to make their home.

Background image: Observatory House, Slough, 1924. Courtesy of the Royal Astronomical Society, RAS Photos 2. B6/68.

Slough Museum Explode
Slough Museum

Slough Museum Partnership

In 2022 for the first time, we worked with Slough Museum to celebrate the 200 year anniversary across our two locations.

Throughout 2022 we ran a programme of workshops, activities and performances in Slough to celebrate the life and work of William Herschel, as well as the important role played by his sister Caroline Herschel.

Saint Laurence Church, where William Herschel was married and is now buried also featured on our new downloadable Herschel trail.  This is also one of the locations where artist Lynda Laird installed her artistic response to the work of Caroline Herschel.

Visit the Slough Museum website to find out more.

Working with schools and further education

In 2022 we worked with a local school to inspire creative outputs relating to the life and work of William Herschel.  Students from Bath Spa University also worked with us on curatorial content. Herschel 200 School Project Artist’s brief

Did you know we run museum and classroom sessions for schools?  Visit our Learning Page to find out more.

Working with our local community centre

We were excited to work in partnership with Percy Community Centre and the University of Bath as well as several local libraries.

We ran a programme of family workshops and activities including planetarium shows, free to enjoy for the families that use these locations.

A new stonework commission

On Thursday 25 August 2022, on the date of the 200th anniversary of William Herschel’s death, we unveiled a new stonework for the garden.

This commemorates the anniversary and marks the location where the planet Uranus was discovered, also acting as a level platform for telescopes in the garden.

This aspect of our project enabled us to work with local artist-maker Iain Cotton and support an independent creator based in Bath.

Made possible with Heritage Fund