Biography of William Herschel


SIR WILLIAM HERSCHEL, one of the most distinguished astronomers of modern times, born at Hanover, November 15th, 1738, was the son of a musician, and was educated specially as a professional musician. In 1757, he went to England, where he became a teacher of music in the town of Leeds, from which he went to Halifax as organist, and subsequently (1766) in the same capacity to Bath. Here he would seem to have first turned his attention to astronomy. Wanting a telescope, and unable to afford a reflector, he made one for himself - a Newtonian, of five feet focal length - and with this applied himself to study the heavens. In 1780, he made his first discovery, being a new planet, which at first he took for a comet. It was discovered by an exhaustive process of surveying the heavens, which Herschel was the first to follow, taking the stars in regular series, and examining them all in their groups through the same instrument. The result of his discovery was his appointment to be private astronomer to George III, with a salary of 400 a year.

He greatly added to our knowledge of the solar system; he discovered Uranus and its six satellites, and two satellites of Saturn. Besides this, he detected the rotation of Saturn's ring, the period of rotation of Saturn itself, and that of Venus, the existence of the motions of binary stars, the first revelation of systems beside our own. He threw new light on the Milky Way and the constitution of nebulae, and, in fact, was the first to give the human mind any conception of the immensity of the universe. His catalogue of the double stars, nebulae, etc., and tables of the comparative brightness of stars, and his researches in regard to light and heat, would of themselves entitle him to the first rank as an astronomer and natural philosopher.