Frederick William Herschel

Quick Info

15 November 1738
Hanover, Electorate of Holy Roman Empire (now Germany)
25 August 1822
Slough, England

William Herschel was a German-born composer who turned to astronomy. He is best known for his discovery of Uranus.


William Herschel's original name was Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel and only after he came to live in England did he use the name William Herschel. We will use the name William Herschel throughout this article. William's father was Isaac Herschel (1707-1767), the son of the gardener Abraham Herschel and Eva Meves. Isaac began earning his living as a gardener but after he saved up enough money he took music lessons. After taking a job as an oboist in Potsdam, he joined the Hanoverian Foot Guards as an oboist. Isaac married Anna Isle Moritzen and they had ten children: Sophia Elizabeth Herschel (1733-1803); Heinrich Anton Jacob Herschel (1734-1792); Johann Herschel (1737-1743); Friedrich Wilhelm (William) Herschel (1738-1822, the subject of this biography); Anna Christina Herschel (1741-1748); Johann Alexander (Alexander) Herschel (1745-1821); Maria Dorethea Herschel (1748-1749); Carolina Lucretia (Caroline) Herschel (1750-1848); Franz Johann Herschel (1752-1754); and Johann Dietrich Herschel (1755-1827). The bracketed names are those by which they are now known. A quick look at these dates will show that only six of the ten children survived to adulthood.

The Herschel family were poor but Isaac believed in education and enthused his children by showing them the wonders of the night sky. He also loved to discuss philosophical and mathematical subjects with his children. Isaac's work for the Hanoverian foot guards may not have been well paid but it did mean that his children could attend a school run by the Guards. This provided a basic education for all the children and they all took full advantage of it except Anna who remained illiterate all her life. All the children except for the eldest Sophia Elizabeth showed marked musical talents. Several of these musically talented children play an important role in William's career and are mentioned below. William proved a talented pupil at the school and by the age of fifteen had learnt all that the master could teach him. At this time he joined the Hanoverian Guards as an oboe player and used the money he earned from this to pay for a private tutor, Mr Hofschlager, to teach him French. He shared the costs with his older brother Jacob who also learnt French from Mr Hofschlager.

The War of Austrian Succession began in 1740 when Frederick II of Prussia invaded Silesia. For several years after this there was fighting across Europe. The Battle of Dettingen on 27 June 1743 saw the British, Hanoverians and Hessians defeat the French. Although Isaac was a musician nevertheless he had to endure the difficult conditions of battle which seriously affected his health. Although all fighting across Europe had ended by 1748, there was still tensions on all sides. William's first years in the Hanoverian Foot Guards were peaceful but in 1756 Hanoverian forces were sent to England to augment the English forces to prepare for an invasion by the French. William, still a musician, was sent with the Hanoverian forces and they were stationed in Maidstone, Kent. The invasion by the French never happened but William took the opportunity to learn English. He also acquired a copy of John Locke's book An essay concerning human understanding which he read and the work influenced him markedly.

Back in Hanover, the Hanoverians were attacked by the French at the Battle of Hastenbeck in July 1757 and were heavily defeated. William, his brother Jacob and his father Isaac, were all musicians in the Hanoverian army and came under fire. Isaac, who did not want to see his sons suffer in this way, advised William to run off. Having never been sworn in as a soldier, he believed that this did not amount to desertion. William went to Hanover but, having no passport, thought he was in danger and returned to the army. A little while later William requested an official discharge. In 1758 he decided that he would return to England and, with Jacob, went to Hamburg where they took a ship to England. They made their way to London and, although they had no money when they arrived, they soon used their musical skills to earn a living. William became a music copyist while Jacob gave lessons and sometimes performed. After two years spent in London, Jacob returned to Hanover while William, feeling that the competition between musicians in London was too great, decided to move away. He accepted a position as head of the Durham Militia Band and lived in Richmond, North Yorkshire during 1760-61.

This period beginning in 1760 was one when William composed symphonies. He composed two while at Halnaby Hall, the home of Sir Ralph Milbanke, where he also performed. By the end of 1760 had completed six symphonies. He performed in a number of cities including Edinburgh and Newcastle-upon-Tyne but around this time he began to study languages and the theory of music. It might be seen as rather surprising that he was led to mathematics through the theory of music but this is indeed what happened and he became keen to study as much as he could. He moved to Sunderland in 1761 when he was appointed as first violin and soloist for the Newcastle orchestra of Charles Avison. He only played for one season before, in February 1762, being appointed as Director of Concerts in Leeds. He continued in this role until the Spring 1766, writing six symphonies for orchestra and at least one violin concerto.

During this 1762-66 period, William took a short holiday back in Hanover in 1764 where he saw members of his family for the first time in seven years. His sister Caroline was particularly pleased to see William. However, William's passion for music was becoming less pronounced and he spent more and more of his spare time studying mathematics. In 1766 he won a competition to become organist at the parish church in Halifax. However, at almost the same time he received an invitation to become the organist at the privately owned Octagon Chapel on Milsom Street in Bath. This was a much more attractive offer but William felt that he had to be fair to Halifax so he remained there for a few months, only leaving for Bath in December of 1766. Halifax made an effort to keep him with an offer of a higher salary but the attraction of Bath was too great.

In Bath William rented a home in Beaufort Square. The organ at the Octagon Chapel was still being constructed when he arrived so for his first concert on 1 January 1767 he performed a violin concerto, an oboe concerto and a harpsichord sonata, all of his own composition. The organ was completed by October 1767 when the choir he had trained performed the Messiah while William performed one of his organ concertos. His brother Jacob, who was at this time back in England, also performed at this concert. William's younger brother Dietrich was causing the family some anxiety so William invited him to Bath where he spent a year receiving a musical education. On 1 June 1770 William left the house in Beaufort Square and went to live at 7 New King Street, a house which he shared with the Bulman family whom he had known from his time in Leeds. At this time he invited his brother Alexander to join him in Bath. In 1772, wishing to help Caroline, he travelled to Hanover and brought her back to Bath with him so that she could become a trained singer. He had to agree to pay his mother enough to employ a servant before she would allow Caroline to leave. Back in Bath William gave Caroline lessons in singing, playing the harpsichord and in bookkeeping. She became his housekeeper.

In addition to mathematics, William started to become interested in astronomy and purchased astronomy books and tables. For example he purchased James Ferguson's Astronomy on 10 May 1773. Other books he had purchased included two of Robert Smith's books, Opticks and Harmonics, Emerson's Trigonometry, and Robert Simson's Euclid. He still earned his living as a major figure in the musical life of Bath, as a teacher, performer, composer and director. By the end of 1773 the passion for astronomy had firmly gripped him and had taken over the lives of the Herschels. Caroline wrote [20]:-
... then it was to my sorrow I saw almost every room turned into a workshop. A cabinet maker making a tube and stands of all description in a handsome furnished drawing room; Alex putting up a huge turning machine (which in the autumn he brought from Bristol) in a bedroom for turning patterns, grinding lenses and turning eye-pieces etc. I was to amuse myself with making the tube of pasteboard against the lenses arrived from London ...
In September William hired a small Gregorian telescope of the style designed by James Gregory. Its performance was not particularly good so that William decided that, rather than make lenses, he would try making his own mirrors. He purchased some equipment to make his own mirrors and by the end of 1773 he was polishing them. In 1774 they moved home, going to a house close to the Walcot turnpike. This house was almost in the country and ideal for making telescopes and for observing but inconveniently far away from the concert halls of Bath where he was still making his living. Music had now become simply the means of making money to buy tools and equipment. In 1775 Caroline wrote [19]:-
... my time was so much taken up with copying Music and practising besides attendance on my Brother when polishing, that by way of keeping him alive I was even obliged to feed him by putting the vitals by bits into his mouth; - this was once the case when at the finishing of a 7 foot mirror he had not left his hands from it for 16 hours together. ... every leisure moment was eagerly snatched at for resuming some work that was in progress, without taking time for changing dress, and many a lace ruffle was torn or bespattered by molten pitch ...
On 29 September 1777 the Herschels moved to 19 New King Street well situated in the centre of Bath, yet with a garden where William could observe with his telescopes. In 1779 they moved again, this time to 5 Rivers Street, an area near where the Royal Crescent and the Circus had just been built. The reason for this move must have been the fact that the house was close to the Bath Literary and Philosophical Society which had been recently founded and began weekly Friday meetings from January 1780. However, the house had no garden and William had to set up his telescopes in a garden behind the Crescent which he hired. He met several important people at this time including William Watson (1744-1824) who invited him to join the Bath Literary and Philosophical Society. He submitted 31 papers to it over the next three years. These were on a variety of subjects including electricity, light, heat, and metaphysics. Three astronomy papers were communicated by William Watson to The Royal Society. Also while in the house, he was visited by Nevil Maskelyne.

For extracts from the three astronomy papers published by the Royal Society, see THIS LINK.

While living in Rivers Street his musical career had continued to progress and he was appointed as director of the Bath orchestra in 1780. At the beginning of March 1781 the Herschels moved back to 19 New King Street. Only a few days later, on 13 March, he discovered the planet Uranus, the first planet to be discovered in historic times. Let us explain briefly the circumstances. William had been examining double stars, that is two stars appearing close together in the sky. His hope was that the fainter one was much further away and he would be able to determine the relative distances using parallax with the diameter of the Earth's orbit as the base line. He was observing the double star Eta Geminorum (also known as Propus) which consists of a 3.3 magnitude star and a 6.5 magnitude star 1.5" apart. He noticed an object so close to the pair as to almost make it look like a triple system, but this third object showed a disk. Three days later he observed that it had moved but he was unsure whether it was a planet of a comet. He corresponded with several people including Maskelyne who replied [20]:-
I am to acknowledge my obligation to you for the communication of your discovery of the present comet, or planet, I don't know which to call it. It is as likely to be a regular planet moving in an orbit nearly circular round the sun as a comet moving in a very eccentric ellipse. I have not yet seen any coma or tail. ...
Interestingly this letter is addressed to "Mr William Herschel, Musician, near the Crescent, Bath." William communicated his discovery to the Royal Society and his paper was read on 16 April. He received the Copley Medal in November 1781 and was elected to the Royal Society on 6 December. In the spring of 1782 he was invited to London by the King who talked with him for half an hour. William wrote to Caroline, who remained in Bath [20]:-
I am introduced to the best company. Tomorrow I dine at Lord Palmerston's, and the next day with Sir Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society), etc, etc. Among opticians and astronomers nothing now is talked but of what they call my Great discoveries. Alas! this shows how far they are behind, when such trifles as I have seen and done are called great. Let me but get at it again! I will make telescopes, and see such things ... that is, I will endeavour to do so.
For more information about his discovery of Uranus and other discoveries by William Herschel, see THIS LINK.

Offered a pension of £200 a year by the King on condition he came to live near Windsor, William made his last professional musical appearance on 19 May 1782 at St Margaret's Chapel, Bath. For some comments on William Herschel as a musician see THIS LINK.

Together with Caroline, he left Bath in August 1782 living first in a rather poor property near Datchet. For a few months in 1785-86 they lived at Clay Hall in Old Windsor before moving to a house, known as Observatory House, in Slough. Accepting the King's offer of £200 a year meant that William was earning around half of what he earned as a musician. He supplemented his income by making and selling telescopes. However, in 1788 his financial worries ended when he married the rich Mary Pitt, the widow of his friend John Pitt. William moved to make a family home at Upton while Caroline remained at Slough. William and Mary's son John Frederick William Herschel was born in March 1792. On the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, he had been elected to the American Philosophical Society on 18 February 1787.

Although William is best known for his discovery of Uranus, many consider his greatest achievement was the discovery of infrared radiation in 1800. For a description of this discovery see THIS LINK.

In 1802 William visited Paris where he met and had discussions with Jérôme Lalande, Pierre Méchain, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre, Pierre-Simon Laplace and Charles Messier. During this visit he met with Napoleon Bonaparte who at the time was First Consul. William answered a few of Napoleon's questions and later wrote that Napoleon's:-
... general air was something like affecting to know more than he did know.
In the spring of 1807 William had a serious illness. From that time on his health was poor and he could not do as much in the way of observing as he had been doing for many years. He continued to write papers which were published by the Royal Society.

The Royal Astronomical Society was founded in January 1820. John Herschel wrote in his diary:-
Tuesday, February 29, 1820. - Took up quarters at Bedford Place and dined there. My Father and Mother came to dinner. Evening, attended the meeting of the Astronomical Society, at which my Father was voted Vice-President.

Friday, March 3, 1820. - Returned to Slough with my Father and Mother, calling on my uncle B on the way.
In April 1820 the Council of the Astronomical Society asked William to become their first President, stating that he would not be required to give any active service. William refused but accepted in the following year becoming the Royal Astronomical Society's first President. Henry Thomas Colebrooke took the chair at meetings, William having said he would not play an active role. After his death in 1822, Colebrooke became the Astronomical Society's second President.

For additional information on William and Caroline Herschel, see our article A visit to the Herschel Museum at THIS LINK.

For information about some of William Herschel's astronomical discoveries, see THIS LINK.

Craters on the Moon and on Mars have been named after William Herschel.

References (show)

  1. M Hoskin, William Herschel, Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York, 1981), 289-291. See THIS LINK.
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  9. R Holmes, The age of wonder (Vintage Books, New York, 2008).
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  13. M Hoskin, The Herschels of Hanover (Science History Publications, Cambridge, 2007).
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  32. M Hoskin, Unfinished Business: William Herschel's Sweeps for Nebulae, History of Science 43 (2005), 305-320.
  33. M Hoskin, George Ill's Purchase of Herschel Reflectors, Journal of the History of Astronomy 39 (2008), 121-124.
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  36. M Hoskin, William Herschel and the Southern Skies, Journal of the History of Astronomy 41 (2010), 503.
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  43. B Lovell, Herschel's work on the structure of the Universe, Notes and Records Roy. Soc. London 33 (1) (1978/79), 57-75.
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  48. S Schaffer, The Great Laboratories of the Universe: William Herschel on Matter Theory and Planetary Life, Journal of the History of Astronomy 11 (1980), 81-111.
  49. S Schaffer, Uranus and the Establishment of Herschel's Astronomy, Journal of the History of Astronomy 12 (1981, 11-26.
  50. J T Spaight, 'For the Good of Astronomy': The Manufacture, Sale, and Distant Use of William Herschel's Telescopes, Journal of the History of Astronomy 35 (2004), 45-69.
  51. W H Steavenson, A Peep into Herschel's Workshop, Transactions of the Optical Society 26 (1924-25), 210-237.

Additional Resources (show)

Honours (show)

Honours awarded to William Herschel

  1. Lunar features Crater Herschel
  2. Copley Medal 1781

Cross-references (show)

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update November 2017