The Herschels – Astronomy talk

The Herschels

16th August 2014

We were very pleased to welcome back Allan Chapman who talked about William and Caroline Herschel and to a lesser extent William’s son John.
William Herschel was from Hanover, which had the same king as the United Kingdom, George II. He came needing to make money and was an extremely successful businessman. At that time science was not a funded activity, and if you wanted to study, e.g., astronomy, you paid for it yourself.
Both he and Caroline had formidable intellects, and he was also a most accomplished musician. Initially he earned money from music as an impresario, but soon moved on to making his own telescopes, which he sold for substantial sums.
He produced papers on the structure of the “universe”, i.e. the shape of the Milky Way, and was the discoverer of Uranus in 1781. His telescopes became bigger and bigger, moving up from a (length of) 7’ to 20’ to eventually 40’, which was somewhat unwieldy and with an 18.5” mirror probably not the best optically either.
As a serious scientist who wanted to understand the theory behind what he was looking at, he was well regarded and became an honorary fellow of the Royal Society in 1835.
Caroline is best known for having found up to 8 comets by “sweeping” the sky.
John was an extremely gifted linguist as well as a brilliant mathematician. His main achievement was charting the southern skies, which he did from the Cape of Good Hope.