Thursday, 23 February 2012

Sir William Herschel and the Planet "Uranus."

William Herschel was born in Hanover on 15th November 1738, one of ten children born to Isaac, a bandmaster in the Hanovarian Guards and his illiterate wife Anna.  At the Garrison school he showed a talent for languages, music and mathematics at an early age.  After service in the Army he  came to London in the hope of finding work as a professional musician.  It was not to be, and so he toured the country as a freelance player in various bands, and composing and  copying music for a living.   In 1767 he finally obtained work as organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath and played in the orchestra in the "Pump Room."  He lived at 19 New King Street, which is now the home of the "Herschel Museum of Astronomy."   Here William lived with his sister Caroline, and where he begun his famous  "Review of the Heavens" and built his  first 5 inch lens reflector telescope for his observation of the stars.   Caroline carefully recorded his observations in  notebooks, some of which can be seen in the museum, and it was from here in 1781, in his little garden that he discovered the planet "Uranus," a discovery that at once doubled the then known size of the  universe.
Herschel's garden at 19 New King Street, Bath where, through his own handmade telescope lens,  he discovered the planet "Uranus," thinking at first, that it was a comet. 
The great planet was discovered in this little garden, and a statue of Herschel looking skyward, with Caroline recording his observations with a quill and notebook marks the occasion.   The garden is planted with herbs and also contains "Starburst," a silver coloured piece of modern sculpture.   In Herschel's day the Bath sky must have been very black, and he did not have to suffer the nusiance of light pollution that dogs modern man.  There are very few places in the UK where the sky is black at night.
Herschel's workshop where he experimented with various materials and cast and polished the lenses for his telescopes.
Most modern telescope lenses are cast in glass and coated in aluminium or some material which is highly reflective, but in the eighteenth century it was impossible to cast glass mirrors of any size, and the solution was to use an alloy of copper and tin, known as speculum metal, and which had to be laboriously polished to make it relective.  Poor Caroline not only cooked, kept house for William and recorded his nightly observations, but also spent many hours polishing his lenses.  Herschel became a famous astronomer, and a visitors book in the museum records the rich and famous who came to visit him in  this little, unassuming house.  With this success, Herschel eventually moved to "Observatory House" Slough near Windsor Castle, where he became astronomer to King George 111.   This potted history is far from complete, and information can be found on:

Sir William Herschel eventually married and had one son, John, who continued his father's work.  William is buried under the tower of St Laurence's Church Upton, near Slough, and he is widely commemorated in the town, having recently had a new shopping centre named "The Observatory" named in his honour.
Statues of a stargazing William, and his sister Caroline, keeping a  careful record of his nightly observations.  She became an astronomer in her own right, and discovered several comets.

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