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William Herschel Biography

Astronomer & Musician


William Herschel

William Herschel

Public Domain

The following passage has been excerpted from William Herschel: The Biography of The Man Who Discovered Uranus. The German-born astronomer discovered Uranus, the seventh planet from the sun. Made up of hydrogen, helium, and methane, this gas giant planet is similar to Jupiter and Saturn, and orbits the sun every 84 earth years. Herschel also hypothesized that nebulae are made up of stars, and developed a theory of stellar evolution, which examines the process of radical changes that a star undergoes during its lifetime.


William Herschel, one of the greatest astronomers that has ever lived, was born at Hanover, on the 15th November, 1738. His father, Isaac Herschel, was a man evidently of considerable ability, whose life was devoted to the study and practice of music, by which he earned a somewhat precarious maintenance. He had but few worldly goods to leave to his children, but he more than compensated for this by bequeathing to them a splendid inheritance of genius. Touches of genius were, indeed, liberally scattered among the members of Isaac's large family, and in the case of his forth child, William, and of a sister several years younger, it was united with that determined perseverance and rigid adherence to principle which enabled genius to fulfill its perfect work.

A faithful chronicler has given us an interesting account of the way in which Isaac Herschel educated his sons; the narrative is taken from the recollections of one who, at the time we are speaking of, was an unnoticed little girl five or six years old. She writes:

"My brothers were often introduced as solo performers and assistants in the orchestra at the Court, and I remember that I was frequently prevented from going to sleep by the lively criticisms on music on coming from a concert. Often I would keep myself awake that I might listen to their animating remarks, for it made me so happy to see them so happy. But generally their conversation would branch out on philosophical subjects, when my brother William and my father often argued with such warmth that my mother's interference became necessary, when the names-Euler, Leibnitz, and Newton-sounded rather too loud for the repose of her little ones, who had to be at school by seven in the morning." The child whose reminiscences are here given became afterwards the famous Caroline Herschel. The narrative of her life, by Mrs. John Herschel, is a most interesting book, not only for the account it contains of the remarkable woman herself, but also because it provides the best picture we have of the great astronomer to whom Caroline devoted her life.

This modest family circle was, in a measure, dispersed at the outbreak of the Seven Years' War in 1756. The French proceeded to invade Hanover, which, it will be remembered, belonged at this time to the British dominions. Young William Herschel had already obtained the position of a regular performer in the regimental band of the Hanoverian Guards, and it was his fortune to obtain some experience of actual warfare in the disastrous battle of Hastenbeck. He was not wounded, but he had to spend the night after the battle in a ditch, and his meditations on the occasion convinced him that soldiering was not the profession exactly adapted to his tastes. We need not attempt to conceal the fact that he left his regiment by the very simple but somewhat risky process of desertion. He had, it would seem, to adopt disguises to effect his escape. At all events, by some means he succeeded in eluding detection and reached England in safety. It is interesting to have learned on good authority that many years after this offense was committed it was solemnly forgiven. When Herschel had become the famous astronomer, and as such visited King George at Windsor, the King at their first meeting handed to him his pardon for deserting from the army, written out in due form by his Majesty himself.

It seems that the young musician must have had some difficulty in providing for his maintenance during the first few years of his abode in England. It was not until he had reached the age of twenty-two that he succeeded in obtaining any regular appointment. He was then made Instructor of Music to the Durham Militia. Shortly afterwards, his talents being more widely recognized, he was appointed as organist at the parish church at Halifax, and his prospects in life now being fairly favorable, and the Seven Years' War being over, he ventured to pay a visit to Hanover to see his father. We can imagine the delight with which old Isaac Herschel welcomed his promising son, as well as his parental pride when a concert was given at which some of William's compositions were performed. If the father were so intensely gratified on this occasion, what would his feelings have been could he have lived to witness his son's future career? But this pleasure was not to be his, for he died many years before William became an astronomer.

In 1766, about a couple of years after his return to England from this visit to his old home, we find that Herschel had received a further promotion to be organist in the Octagon Chapel, at Bath. Bath was then, as now, a highly fashionable resort, and many notable personages patronized the rising musician. Herschel had other points in his favor besides his professional skill; his appearance was good, his address was prepossessing, and even his nationality was a distinct advantage, inasmuch as he was a Hanoverian in the reign of King George the Third.

Project Gutenberg

Excerpted from Great Astronomers by Sir Robert Ball D.Sc. LL.D. F.R.S.

Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Geometry in the University of Cambridge

Author of "In Starry Realms" "In the High Heavens" etc.

Prepared for Project Gutenberg by Chris Brennen - cbrennen@freenet.co.uk Jill R. Diffendal, Barb Grow - pebareka@iexpress.net.au, Christine L. Hall - Goleta, CA. USA, and Pamela L. Hall - pamhall@www.edu.

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