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William Herschel: Biography & Contributions to Astronomy

Instructor: Lori Jones

Lori has a degree from Stanford, was Principal of a K-12 private school that she started, has a Master's degree, and taught at the high school level.

William Herschel was a German-born British musician, teacher, and most notably, an astronomer. In this lesson, we will look at his life, his discoveries, and his contributions to the field of astronomy.

Biography

William Herschel
William Herschel

There have been many notable discoveries throughout history. Christopher Columbus discovered America. Isaac Newton discovered gravity. Johann Friedrich Miescher discovered DNA, the building block of life. And Allied soldiers discovered pizza in Naples during WWII. (To some, that last one might be more important than America or gravity…or life.)

But of all the discoveries throughout history, how many people can say they discovered a whole planet? Not many. Especially considering that we only have eight planets in our solar system (or nine, if you count Pluto). But William Herschel was one of those people. Let's learn a little about his life and how this discovery came to be.

The Early Years

Born in Germany in 1738, William Herschel followed in the footsteps of his father Issak and brother Jacob, beginning his early years as a musician, first taking up the oboe. In 1759, he moved to Bath, England, with his brother, where he found a job as a music teacher, organist, composer, and conductor for several years. Although his brother returned to Germany two years later, his sister Caroline joined him in 1772, and would later become his life-long assistant during his career in astronomy.

The Discovery Years

In 1773, Herschel developed a love for astronomy after reading a book about the subject. As he continued to study both astronomy and optics, he gained the skills to build his first telescope, and eventually went on to create the most powerful telescopes of his time. Looking through one of these telescopes on March 13, 1781, William Herschel thought he saw a comet, but discovered that it was actually the 7th planet of our solar system, which was named Uranus.

William Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781.
Uranus

In December of that same year, in honor of his most famous discovery, Herschel was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also named the Court Astronomer by King George III in 1782, and was given an annual grant. These events allowed him to give up his musical career and focus on astronomy.

The Later Years

Over the next 20 years, Herschel expanded his observation of the skies and began to study clusters and nebulae, eventually finding thousands of new nebulae, which were catalogued in what is known today as the New General Catalogue.

His skills in telescope building grew and became so well-known, that he was able to sell them to a growing list of local and foreign customers, including royalty and dignitaries in Spain, Russia, Austria, Germany, and China.

In 1789, Herschel completed a 48-inch telescope, which remained the world's largest for over 50 years. Using this telescope, he discovered Saturn's 6th and 7th moons that same year.

The large 48-inch telescope built by Herschel
Herschel Telescope

At 50 years of age in 1788, he married Mary Pitt. Their son John, born in 1792, eventually joined the family business, and became an astronomer in his own right. In 1820, just two years before his death, the Royal Astronomical Society was founded, and Herschel was elected vice president, then later, president. After a notable career in astronomy, William Herschel died in England on August 25, 1822 at the age of 84.

Honors

William Herschel received many honors both during his life and after his death:

  • He was knighted in 1816
  • Craters on the moon, Mars, and Saturn's moon Mimas are named after him.
  • Asteroid 2000 Herschel is named after him.
  • The symbol for planet Uranus features the capital letter 'H.'
  • In honor of his discovery of infrared light, the European Space Agency's infrared observatory is named after him.
  • Various telescopes, museums, observatories, schools, buildings, and even a street in Paris bear his name.

Contributions to Astronomy

1.) Uranus

William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781. This was the first planet to be discovered since prehistoric times.

2.) Moons

Uranus' moons, Titania and Oberon, and Saturn's moons, Enceladus and Mimas, were discovered in 1789.

3.) Nebulae

Herschel discovered over 4,600 nebulae and created The General Catalogue of Nebulae to record all his findings. It was eventually renamed the New General Catalogue and is still used today. Many objects in the sky are named with an NGC number, and over half in the catalogue were discovered by him.

4.) Telescopes

Herschel built some of the most powerful telescopes of his time, grinding and polishing his own mirrors, and built a 48-inch telescope, the largest of its time for 50 years.

5.) Asteroids

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