Categories: British Notables.
Frederick William Herschel was born Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel on November 15, 1738, in Hanover. His mother was Anna Ilse Moritzen. His father, Isaak Herschel, was a military musician in the Hanoverian Guards. William held a position in that same band until 1757. He fled to England to escape the French occupation of Hanover. In England, William Herschel earned a living as a musician. In 1766, he became the organist of "a fashionable chapel in Bath".
William Herschel was first introduced to telescope making by reading A Compleat System of Opticks by Robert Smith. His brother Alexander and sister Caroline joined him at Bath, from Hanover. Craftsmen often recruited daughters or wives to help run family businesses, but the Herschels developed an exceptionally close relationship. By day Caroline polished mirrors, calculated data and compiled catalogues, while at night she brought coffee to keep them awake as they worked together in the dark and cold. Herschel was still earning his living as an organist in Bath.
On March 13, 1781, using a 6.2" (16 cm) telescope, Herschel made the discovery observation of the seventh planet. Herschel named his planet "George’s Star" but European astronomers objected to such chauvinism, and in 1850 that British authorities finally adopted the German proposal of '"Uranus". Herschel received the Copley Medal in November of the same year and was subsequently elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in December 1781.
In 1788, Herschel married Mary Pitt (widow of his friend and neighbor, John Pitt, who had died in 1786). The Herschels settled in Slough, in a house which would later be known as Observatory House. There, on March 7, 1792 (when William Herschel was already 54) a son was born to the Herschels who would earn top honors of his own, as a mathematician and an astronomer: John Frederick William Herschel.
Although his name is not attached to a breakthrough discovery resembling that of his father, John Herschel (1792-1871) was regarded by contemporaries as the natural heir to Laplace, no less (incidentally, Laplace was instrumental in confirming mathematically that the 1781 discovery of Herschel senior was indeed a new planet). In 1809, John Herschel entered St John's College (Cambridge). In 1812, he was Senior Wrangler at Cambridge. In 1813, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). He received the Copley Medal in 1821 and 1847 and the Royal Medal in 1833, 1836 and 1840. He was also one of the founders of the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1829.
In 1829, John Herschel married Margaret Brodie Stewart, by whom he had a large family. In 1831, he was made a Hanoverian knight by King William IV. After the death of his mother in 1832, Sir John Herschel moved with his family to the Southern Hemisphere and undertook 4 years of astronomical observations (1834-1838) from Claremont, near Cape Town, at the location currently occupied by the Grove Primary School (cf. Armoria Academica). Upon his return from South Africa, John Herschel was made a baronet (1838).
On 25 August 1822, Herschel died at Observatory House, Windsor Road, Slough, and is buried at nearby St Laurence's Church, Upton, Slough.
Herschel's epitaph is:
Coelorum perrupit claustra.
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