Bienvenidos a las Puertas del Universo//Welcome to the Doors of the Universe

Lista de Cúmulos Globulares
Galeria Y&S
Abell (NP)
Abell GC
Sharpless 2

AD 1738-1822




WILLIAM HERSCHEL was descended from one of three brothers, whose Lutheran opinions made it expedient for them to quit Moravia early in the seventeenth century. Hans Herschel thereupon settled as a brewer at Pirna, in Saxony; his son Abraham rose to some repute as a landscape-gardener in the royal service at Dresden; and Abraham's youngest son, Isaac, brought into the world with him, in 1707, an irresistible instinct and aptitude for music. Having studied at Berlin, he made his way in 1731 to Hanover, where he was immediately appointed oboist in the band of the Hanoverian Guard. A year later he married Anna Use Moritzen, by whom he had ten children. The fourth of these, Frederick William, known to fame as William Herschel, was born November 15th, 1738.

His brilliant faculties quickly displayed themselves. At the garrison-school he easily distanced his brother Jacob, his senior by four years, and learned besides, privately, whatever French and mathematics the master could touch him. He showed also a pronounced talent for music, and was already, at fourteen, a proficient on the hautboy and violin. In this direction lay his manifest destiny. His father was now band-master of the Guard; he was poor, and had no other provision to give his sons than to train them in his own art; and thus William, driven by necessity to become self-supporting while still a boy, entered the band as oboist in 1753. They were a family of musicians. Of the six who reached maturity, only Mrs. Griesbach, the elder daughter, gave no sign of personally owning a share in the common gift, which descended, nevertheless, to her five sons, all noted performers on sundry instruments. William Herschel accompanied his regiment to England in 1755, with his father and elder brother. He returned a year later, bringing with him a copy of Locke “On the Human Understanding”, upon which he had spent the whole of his small savings. Two of the three volumes thus acquired were recovered by his sister after seventy years, and transmitted to his son. The breaking-out of the Seven Years’ War proved decisive as to his future life. Campaigning hardships visibly told upon his health; his parents resolved, at all hazards, to rescue him from them; and accordingly, after the disaster at Hastenbeck, July 26th, 1757, they surreptitiously shipped him off to England. By this adventure, since he was in the military service of the Elector of Hanover, George III of England, he incurred the penalties of desertion; but they wore never exacted, and wore remitted by the King himself in 1782.

William Herschel was in his nineteenth year when he landed at Dover with a French crown-piece in his pocket. Necessity or prudence kept him for some time obscure; and we next hear of him as having played a solo on the violin at one of Barbandt’s concerts in London, February 15th, 1760. In the same year he was engaged by the Earl of Darlington to train the band of the Durham Militia, when his shining qualities brought him to the front. The officers of the regiment looked with astonishment on the phenomenal young German who had dropped among them from some cloudy region; who spoke English perfectly, played like a virtuoso, and possessed a curious stock of varied knowledge. Their account of him at a mess-dinner excited the curiosity of Dr. Miller, organist and historian of Doncaster, who, having heard him perform a violin solo by Giardini, fell into a rapture, and invited him on the spot to live with him.

He left nothing undone for the advancement of his protégé; procured for him tuitions and leading concert engagements; and encouraged him, in 1765, to compete for the post of organist at Halifax. Herschel’s special qualifications were small; his chief rival. Dr. Wainwright, was a skilled player, and at the trial performance evoked much applause by his brilliant execution. Only the builder of the organ, an odd old German named Schnetzler, showed dissatisfaction, exclaiming: “He run about the keys like one cat; he gif my pipes no time for to shpeak”. Then Herschel mounted the loft, and the church was filled with a majestic volume of sound, under cover of which a stately melody made itself heard. The “Old Hundredth” followed, with equal effect. Schnetzler was beside himself with delight. “I vil luf dis man”, he cried, "because he gif my pipes time for to shpeak”. Herschel had virtually provided himself with four hands. A pair of leaden weights brought in his pocket served to keep down two keys an octave apart, while he improvised a slow air to suit the continuous bass thus mechanically supplied. The artifice scoured him the victory.

This anecdote is certainly authentic. It is related by Dr. Miller from personal knowledge. Nor is it inconsistent with a story told by Joah Bates, of King’s College, Cambridge, a passionate lover of music. Repairing to Halifax, his native place, to conduct the “Messiah” at the opening of a new organ, he was accosted in the church by a young man, who asked for an opportunity of practicing on it. Although as yet, he said, unacquainted with the instrument, he aspired to the place of organist; and the absolute certitude of his manner so impressed Bates that he not only granted his request, but became his warm patron. The young man’s name was William Herschel. We hear, further, on Dr. Burney’s authority, that he played first violin in Bates’s orchestra.

But the tide of his fortunes was flowing, and he knew how to “take it at the flood”. Early in 1766 he removed to Bath as oboist in Linley’s celebrated orchestra, which played daily in the Pump Room to enliven the parade of blushing damsels and ruffling gallants pictured to our fancy in Miss Austen’s novels. Bath was then what Beau Nash had made it—the very focus of polite society. Turbans nodded over cards; gigs threaded their way along Union Passage; Cheap Street was blocked with vehicles; the Lower Rooms witnessed the nightly evolutions of the country-dance. The Grove, as Doran reminds us, was brilliant with beauty, coquelicot ribbons, smart pelisses, laced coats, and ninepins. The feat of “tipping all nine for a guinea” was frequently performed; and further excitement might be had by merely plucking some lampoons from the trees, which seemed to bear them as their natural fruit. Music, too, was in high vogue. The theatres were thronged; and Miss Linley’s exquisite voice was still heard in the concert-halls.

On the 4th of October, 1767, the new Octagon Chapel was opened for service, with Herschel as organist. How it was that he obtained this “agreeable and lucrative situation” we are ignorant; but he had that singular capacity for distinction which explains everything. The Octagon Chapel became a center of fashionable attraction, and he soon found himself lifted on the wave of public favor. Pupils of high rank thronged to him, and his lessons often mounted to thirty-five a week. He composed anthems, psalm-tunes, even full services for his assiduously-trained choir. His family were made sharers in his success. He secured a post in Linley’s orchestra for his younger brother Alexander, in 1771: and he himself fetched his sister Caroline to Bath in 1772. Both were of very considerable help to him in his musical and other enterprises, the latter of which gradually gained ground over the former.

Music was never everything to William Herschel. He cultivated it with ardor; composed with facility in the prevalent graceful Italian style; possessed a keen appreciation and perfect taste. But a musical career, however brilliant, did not satisfy him. The inner promptings of genius told him to look beyond. The first thirty-five years of his life were thus spent in diligently preparing to respond to an undeclared vocation. Nothing diverted him from his purpose of self-improvement. At first, he aimed chiefly at mastering the knowledge connected with his profession. With a view to the theory of music, “I applied myself early”, he said, in a slight autobiographical sketch sent to Lichtenberg at Gottingen, “to all the branches of the mathematics, algebra, conic sections, fluxions, etc. Contracting thereby an insatiable desire for knowledge in general, I extended my application to languages—French, Italian, Latin, English—and determined to devote myself entirely to the pursuit of knowledge, in which I resolved to place all my future enjoyment and felicity. This resolution I have never had occasion to change”. At Bath, in the midst of engrossing musical occupations, his zeal for study grew only the more intense. After fourteen or sixteen hours of teaching, he would “unbend his mind” by plunging into Maclaurin's “Fluxions”, or retire to rest with a basin of milk, Smith’s “Opticks”, and Ferguson’s “Astronomy”. He had no sooner fallen under the spell of this last science than he “resolved to take nothing upon trust, but to see with my own eyes all that other men had seen before”.

He hired, to begin with, a small reflector; but what it showed him merely whetted his curiosity. And the price of a considerably larger instrument proved to be more than he could afford to pay. Whereupon ho took the momentous resolution of being, for the future, his own optician. This was in 1772. He at first tried fitting lenses into pasteboard tubes, with the poor results that can be imagined. Then he bought from a Quaker, who had dabbled in that line, the discarded rubbish of his tools, patterns, polishers, and abortive mirrors; and in June, 1773, when fine folk had mostly deserted Bath for summer resorts, work was begun in earnest. The house was turned topsy-turvy; the two brothers attacked the novel enterprise with boyish glee. Alexander, a born mechanician, set up a huge lathe in one of the bed­rooms; a cabinet-maker was installed in the drawing-room; Caroline, in spite of secret dismay at such unruly proceedings, lent a hand, and kept meals going; William directed, inspired, toiled, with the ardor of a man who had staked his life on the issue. Meanwhile, music could not be neglected. Practicing and choir-training went on; novelties for the ensuing season were prepared; compositions written, and parts copied. Then the winter brought the usual round of tuitions and performances, while all the time mirrors were being ground and polished, tried and rejected, without intermission. At last, after two hundred failures, a tolerable reflecting telescope was produced, about five inches in aperture, and of five and a half feet focal length. The outcome may seem small for so great an expenditure of pains; but those two hundred failures made the Octagon Chapel organist an expert, unapproached and unapproachable, in the construction of specula. With his new instrument, on March 4th, 1774, he observed the Nebula in Orion; and a record of this beginning of his astronomical work is still preserved by the Royal Society.

William Herschel was now, as to age, in mezzo cammin. He had numbered just so many years as had Dante when he began the “Divina Commedia”. But he had not, like Dante, been thrown off the rails of life. The rush of a successful professional career was irresistibly carrying him along. Almost any other man would have had all his faculties absorbed in it. Herschel’s were only stimulated by the occupations which it brought. Yet they were of a peculiarly absorbing nature. Music is the most exclusive of arts. In turning aside, after half a lifetime spent in its cultivation, to seek his ideal elsewhere, Herschel took an unparalleled course. And his choice was final. Music was long his pursuit, astronomy his pastime; a fortunate event enabled him to make astronomy his pursuit, while keeping music for a pastime.

Yet each demands a totally different kind of training, not only of the intellect, but of the senses. From his earliest childhood William Herschel’s nerves and brain had been specially educated to discriminate impressions of sound, and his muscles to the peculiar agility needed for their regulated and delicate production; while, up to the age of thirty-five, he had used his eyes no more purposefully than other people. The eye, nevertheless, requires cultivation as much as the ear. “You must not expect to see at sight” ho told Alexander Aubert, of Loam Pit Hill, in 1782. And he wrote to Sir William Watson: “Seeing is in some respects an art which must be learnt. Many a night have I been practicing to see, and it would be strange if one did not acquire a certain dexterity by such constant practice”. A critical observation, he added, could no more be expected from a novice at the telescope than a performance of one of Handel’s organ-fugues from a beginner in music. In this difficult art of vision he rapidly became an adept. Taking into account the full extent of his powers, the opinion has been expressed, and can scarcely be contradicted, that he never had an equal.

At midsummer, 1774, Herschel removed from No. 7, New King Street, to a house situated near Walcot Turnpike, Bath. A grass-plot was attached to the new residence, and it afforded convenient space for workshops. For already he designed to “carry improvements in telescopes to their utmost extent”, and “to leave no spot of the heavens unvisited”. An unprecedented ambition! No son of Adam had ever before entertained the like. To search into the recesses of space, to sound its depths, to dredge up from them their shining contents, to classify these, to investigate their nature, and trace their mutual relations, was what he proposed to do, having first provided the requisite optical means. All this in the intervals of professional toils, with no resources except those supplied by his genius and ardor, with no experience beyond that painfully gained during the progress of his gigantic task.

Since the time of Huygens, no systematic attempt had been made to add to the power of the telescope. For the study of the planetary surfaces, upon which he and his contemporaries were mainly intent, such addition was highly desirable. But Newton’s discovery profoundly modified the aims of astronomers. Their essential business then became that of perfecting the theories of the heavenly bodies. Whether or not they moved in perfect accordance with the law of gravitation was the crucial question of the time. Newton’s generalization was on its trial. Now and again it almost seemed as if about to fail. But difficulties arose only to be overcome, and before the eighteenth century closed the superb mechanism of the planetary system was elucidated. Working flexibly under the control of a single dominant force, it was shown to possess a self-righting power which secured its indefinite duration. Imperishable as the temple of Poseidon, it might be swayed by disturbances, but could not be overthrown.

The two fundamental conclusions—that the New­tonian law is universally valid, and that the solar system is a stable structure—were reached by immense and sustained labors. Their establishment was due, in the main, to the mathematical genius of Clairaut, D'Alembert, Lagrange, and Laplace. But refined analysis demands refined data; hence the need for increased accuracy of observation grew continually more urgent. Attention was accordingly concentrated upon measuring, with the utmost exactitude, the places at determinate epochs of the heavenly bodies. The one thing needful was to learn the “when” and “where” of each of them—that is, to obtain such information as the transit-instrument is adapted to give. In this way the deviations of the moon and planets from their calculated courses became known; and upon the basis of these “errors” improved theories were built, then again compared with corrected observations.

For these ends, large telescopes would have been useless. They were not, however, those that Herschel had in view. The nature of the orbs around us, not their motions, formed the subject of his inquiries, with which modern descriptive astronomy virtually originated. He was, moreover, the founder of sidereal astronomy. The stars had, until his career began, received little primary attention. They were regarded and observed simply as reference-points by which to track the movements of planets, cornets, and the moon. Indispensable for fiducial purposes, they almost escaped consideration for themselves. They were, indeed, thought to lie beyond the reach of effective investigation. Only the outbursts of temporary stars, and the fluctuations of two or three periodical ones, had roused special interest, and seemed deserving of particular inquiry.

Of the dim objects called “nebulae”, Halley had counted up half a dozen in 1714; Lacaille compiled a list of forty-two at the Cape, in 1752-55; and Messier published at Paris, in 1771, a catalogue of forty-five, enlarged to one hundred and three in 1781. He tabulated, only to rid himself of embarrassments from them. For he was by trade a comet-hunter, and, until he hit upon this expedient, had been much harassed in its exercise by mistakes of identity.

But Herschel did not merely “pick up”; he explored. This was what no one before him had thought of doing. A “review of the heavens” was a complete novelty. The magnificence of the idea, which was rooted in his mind from the start, places him apart from, and above, all preceding observers.

To its effective execution telescopic development was essential. The two projects of optical improvement and of sidereal scrutiny went together. The skies could be fathomed, if at all, only by means of light-collecting engines of unexampled power. Rays enfeebled by distance should be rendered effective by concentration. Stratum after stratum of bodies —

“Clusters and beds of worlds, and bee-like swarms

Of suns and starry streams”,

previously unseen, and even unsuspected, might, by the strong focussing of their feebly-surviving rays, be brought to human cognizance. The contemplated “reviews” would then be complete just in proportion to the grasp of the instrument used in making them.

The first was scarcely more than a reconnaissance. It was made in 1775, with a small reflector of the Newtonian make. Its upshot was to impress him with the utter disproportion between his daring plans and the means as yet at his disposal. Speculum-casting accordingly recommenced with fresh vigor. Seven- and ten-foot mirrors were succeeded by others of twelve, and even of twenty feet focal length. The finishing of them was very laborious. It was at that time a manual process, during the course of which the hands could not be removed from the metal without injury to its figure. One stretch of such work lasted sixteen hours, Miss Herschel meantime, “by way of keeping him alive”, putting occasional morsels of food into the diligent polisher’s mouth. His mode of procedure was to cast and finish many mirrors of each sort; then to select the best by trial, and repolish the remainder. In this manner he made, before 1781, “not less than 200 seven-foot, 150 ten-foot, and about twenty-foot mirrors, not to mention those of the Gregorian form”. Repolishing operations were, moreover, accompanied by constant improvements, so that each successive speculum tended to surpass its predecessors.

These absorbing occupations were interrupted by the unwelcome news that Dietrich, the youngest of the Herschel family, had decamped from Hanover “with a young idler” like himself. William instantly started for Holland, where the fugitive was supposed to be about to take ship for India, but missed his track; and, after having extended his journey to Hanover to comfort his anxious mother—his father had died in 1767—returned sadly to Bath. There, to his immense surprise, he found the scapegrace in strict charge of his sister, “who kept him to a diet of roasted apples and barley-water”. His ineffectual escapade had terminated with an attack of illness at Wapping, whither Alexander Herschel, on learning how matters stood, had posted off to take him in charge and watch his recovery. Musical occupation was easily procured for him at Bath, since he was an accomplished violinist—had, indeed, started on his prosperous career in the guise of an infant prodigy; but he threw it up in 1779 and drifted back to Hanover, married a Miss Reif, and settled down to live out a fairly long term of shiftless, albeit harmless, existence.

In 1776 William Herschel succeeded Thomas Linley, Sheridan’s father-in-law, as Director of the Public Concerts at Bath. His duties in this capacity, while the season lasted, were most onerous. He had to engage performers, to appease discontents, to supply casual failures, to write glees and catches expressly adapted to the voices of his executants, frequently to come forward himself as a soloist on the hautboy or the harpsichord. The services of his brother Alexander, a renowned violoncellist, and of his sister, by this time an excellent singer, were now invaluable to him. Nor for musical purposes solely. The vision of the skies was never lost sight of, and the Struggle to realize it in conjunction with his sympathetic helpers absorbed every remnant of time. At meals the only topics of conversation were mechanical devices for unproving success and averting failure. William ate with a pencil in his hand, and a project in his head. Between the acts at the theatre, he might be seen running from the harpsichord to his telescope. After a rehearsal or a morning performance, ho would dash off to the workshop in periwig and lace ruffles, and leave it but too often with those delicate adjuncts to his attire torn and pitch-bespattered. Accidents, too, menacing life and limb, were a consequence of that “uncommon precipitancy which accompanied all his actions”; but he escaped intact, save for the loss of a finger-nail.

His introduction to the learned world of Bath was thus described by himself:—

“About the latter end of December, 1770, I happened to be engaged in a series of observations on the lunar mountains; and the moon being in front of my house, late in the evening I brought my seven-feet reflector into the street, and directed it to the object of my observations. Whilst I was looking into the telescope, a gentleman, coming by the place where I was stationed, stopped to look at the instrument. When I took my eye off the telescope, he very politely asked if he might be permitted to look in, and this being immediately conceded, he expressed great satisfaction at the view”.

The inquisitive stranger called next morning, and proved to be Dr. (later Sir William) Watson. He formed on the spot an unalterable friendship for the moon-struck musician, and introduced him to a Philosophical Society which held its meetings at his father’s house. Herschel’s earliest essays were read before it, but they remained unpublished. His first printed composition appeared in the “Ladies’ Diary” for 1780. It was an answer to a prize question on the vibration of strings.

The long series of his communications to the Royal Society of London opened May 11th, 1780, with a discussion of his observations, begun in October, 1777, of Mira, the variable star in the neck of the Whale. As to the theory of its changes, he agreed with Keill that they could best be explained by supposing rotation on an axis to bring a lucid side and a side obscured by spots alternately into view. A second paper by him on the Mountains of the Moon was read on the same day. He measured, in all, about one hundred of these peaks and craters.

In January, 1781, there came an essay stamped with the peculiar impress of his genius, entitled “Astronomical Observations on the Rotation of the Planets round their Axes, made with a view to determine whether the earth’s diurnal motion is perfectly equable”. It embodied an attempt to apply a definite criterion to the time-keeping of our planet. But the prospect is exceedingly remote of rating one planet-clock by the other. Herschel’s methods of inquiry are, however, aptly illustrated in this curiously original paper. His speculations always invited the Control of facts. If facts were not at hand, he tried somehow to collect them. The untrammelled play of fancy was no more to his mind than it was to Newton’s. His ardent scientific imagination was thus, by the sobriety of his reason, effectively enlisted in the cause of progress.

Herschel began in 1780 his second review of the heavens, using a seven-foot Newtonian, of 6,1/4 inches aperture, with a magnifying power of 227. “For distinctness of vision”, he said, “this instrument is, perhaps, equal to any that was ever made”. His praise was amply justified. As he worked his way with it through the constellation Gemini, on the night of March 13th. 1781, an unprecedented event occurred. “A new planet swam into his ken”. He did not recognize it as such. He could only be certain that it was not a fixed star. His keen eye, armed with a perfect telescope, discerned at once that the object had a disc; and the application of higher powers showed the disc to be a substantial reality. The stellar “patines of bright gold” will not stand this test. Being of purely optical production, they gain nothing by magnification.

At that epoch new planets had not yet begun to be found by the dozen. Five, besides the earth, had been known from the remotest antiquity. Five, and no more, seemed to have a prescriptive right to exist. The boundaries of the solar system were of immemorial establishment. It was scarcely conceivable that they should need to be enlarged. The notion did not occur to Herschel. His discovery was modestly imparted to the Royal Society as “An Account of a Comet”. He had, indeed, noticed that the supposed comet moved in planetary fashion from west to east, and very near the ecliptic; and, after a few months, its true nature was virtually proved by Lexell of St. Petersburg. On November 28th, Herschel measured, with his freshly-invented “lamp-micrometer”, the diameter of this “singular star”; and it was not until a year later, November 7th, 1782, that he felt sufficiently sure of its planetary status to exercise his right of giving it a name. Yet this, in the long run, he failed to accomplish. The appellation “Georgium Sidus”, bestowed in honor of his patron, George III, never crossed the Channel, and has long since gone out of fashion amongst ourselves. Lalande tried to get the new planet called “Herschel”; but the title “Uranus”, proposed by Bode, of Berlin, was the “fittest”, and survived.

This discovery made the turning-point of Herschel’s career. It transformed him from a music-master into an astronomer. Without it his vast abilities would probably have been in great measure wasted. No man could long have borne the strain of so arduous a double life as he was then leading. Belief from it came just in time. It is true that fame, being often more of a hindrance than a help, brought embarrassments in its train. In November, 1781, Herschel was compelled to break the complex web of his engagements at Bath by a journey to London for the purpose of receiving in person the Copley Medal awarded to him by the Royal Society, of which body he was, some days later, elected a Fellow. At home, he was persecuted by admirers; and they were invariably received with an easy suavity of manner that gave no hint of preoccupation. Everyone of scientific pretension who visited Bath sought an interview with the extraordinary man who, by way of interlude to pressing duties, had built telescopes of unheard-of power, and performed the startling feat of adding a primary member to the solar system. Among the few of these callers whose names have been preserved were Sir Harry Englefield, Sir Charles Blagden, and Dr. Maskelyne, then, and for thirty years afterwards, Astronomer-Royal. “With the latter”, Miss Herschel relates, “he (William) was engaged in a long conversation which to me sounded like quarrelling, and the first words my brother said after he was gone were, That is a devil of a follow!” The phrase was doubtless meant as a sign of regard, for the acquaintance thus begun ripened into cordial intimacy. And William Herschel never lost or forgot a friend.

As regards music alone, the winter of 1781-82 was an exceptionally busy one. He had arranged to conduct, jointly with Rauzzini, a Roman singer and composer, a series of oratorios; undertaking, besides, pecuniary responsibilities which turned out little to his advantage. The labor, vexation, and disappointment involved in carrying out this unlucky plan can readily be imagined. But neither the pressure of business, nor the distractions of celebrity, checked the ardor of his scientific advance. The review which afforded him the discovery of Uranus, and the materials for his first catalogue of 269 double stars, was completed in 1781; and a third, made with the same beautiful instrument, bearing the high magnifying power of 400, was promptly begun. This had for one of its special objects the ascertainment of possible changes in the heavens since Flamsteed’s time; and in the course of it many thousands of stars came under scrutiny, directed to ascertain their magnitude and colour, singleness or duplicity, hazy or defined aspect.

The first of Herschel’s effective twenty-foot telescopes was erected at 19, New King Street, in the summer of 1781. Enclosing a mirror twelve inches in diameter, it far surpassed any seeing-machine that had over existed in the world. Yet its maker regarded it as only marking a step in his upward progress. A speculum of thirty-feet focus was the next object of his ambition. For its achievement no amount of exertion was counted too great. Its composition was regulated by fresh experiments on various alloys of copper and tin. Its weight and shape were again and again calculated, and the methods appropriate to its production earnestly discussed. “I saw nothing else”, Caroline Herschel tells us, “and heard nothing else talked of but those things when my brothers were together”.

“The mirror”, she continues, “was to be cast in a mould of loam prepared from horse-dung, of which an immense quantity was to be pounded in a mortar and sifted through a fine sieve. It was an endless piece of work, and served me for many an hour’s exercise; and Alex frequently took his turn at it, for we were all eager to do something towards the great undertaking. Even Sir William Watson would sometimes take the pestle from me when he found me in the work-room”.

The matter was never out of the master’s thoughts. “If a minute could but be spared in going from one scholar to another, or giving one the slip, he called at home to see how the men went on with the furnace, which was built in a room below, even with the garden”.

At last, the concert season being over, and everything in readiness for the operation of casting, “the metal”, we hear from the same deeply-interested eye­witness, “was in the furnace; but, unfortunately, it began to leak at the moment when ready for pouring, and both my brothers, and the caster with his men, were obliged to run out at opposite doors, for the stone flooring, which ought to have been taken up, flew about in all directions, as high as the ceiling. My poor brother William fell, exhausted with heat and exertion, on a heap of brickbats. Before the second casting was attempted, everything which could ensure success had been attended to, and a very perfect metal was found in the mould, which had cracked in the cooling”.

This second failure terminated the enterprise. Not that it was abandoned as hopeless, but because of a total change in the current of affairs. Herschel’s fame had stirred the royal curiosity, and rumors had now and again reached Bath that he was to be sent for to court. In the spring of 1782 the actual mandate arrived; and on May 8th, leaving his pupils and his projects to shift for themselves, he set out for London. He carried with him his favorite seven-foot reflector, and all the apparatus necessary for viewing double stars and other objects of interest. On May 25th he wrote to his sister:—

“I have had an audience of His Majesty this morning, and met with a very gracious reception. I presented him with the drawing of the solar system, and had the honor of explaining it to him and the Queen. My telescope is in three weeks’ time to go to Richmond, and meanwhile to be put up at Greenwich ... Tell Alexander that everything looks very like as if I were to stay here. The King enquired after him, and after my great speculum. He also gave me leave to come and hear the Griesbachs (Herschel’s nephews) play at the private concert which he has every evening.... All my papers are printing, and are allowed to be very valuable. You see, Lina, I tell you all these things. You know vanity is not my foible, therefore I need not fear your censure. Farewel”.

His next letter is dated June 3rd, 1782. “I pass my time”, he informed “Lina”, “between Greenwich and London agreeably enough, but am rather at a loss for work that I like. Company is not always pleasing, and I would much rather be polishing a speculum. Last Friday I was at the King’s concert to hear George play. The King spoke to me as soon as he saw me, and kept me in conversation for half an hour. He asked George to play a solo-concerto on purpose that I might hear him ... I am introduced to the best company. Tomorrow I dine at Lord Palmerston’s, next day with Sir Joseph Banks, etc. Among opticians and astronomers nothing now is talked of but 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 such telescopes and see such things—that is, I will endeavor to do so”.

A comparison of his telescope with those at the Royal Observatory showed its striking superiority, although among them was one of Short’s famous Gregorians, of inches aperture. It had thus a reflecting surface above twice that of Herschel’s seven-foot, the competition with which was nevertheless so disastrous to its reputation that Dr. Maskelyne fell quite out of conceit with it, and doubted whether it deserved the new stand constructed for it on the model of Herschel’s.

In the midst of these scientific particulars, we hear incidentally that influenza was then so rife in London that “hardly one single person” escaped an attack.

On July 2nd he made his first appearance as showman of the heavens to royalty. The scene of the display was Buckingham House (now Buckingham Palace). “It was a very fine evening”, he wrote to his sister. “My instrument gave general satisfaction. The King has very good eyes, and enjoys observations with telescopes exceedingly”.

Next night, the King and Queen being absent at Kew, the Princesses desired an exhibition. But, since they objected to damp grass, the telescope, Herschel says, " was moved into the Queen's apartments, and we waited some time in hopes of seeing Jupiter or Saturn. Meanwhile I showed the Princesses and several other ladies the speculum, the micrometers, the movements of the telescope, and other things that seemed to excite their curiosity. When the evening appeared to be totally unpromising, I proposed an artificial Saturn as an object, since we could not have the real one. I had beforehand prepared this little piece, as I guessed by the appearance of the weather in the afternoon we should have no stars to look at. This being accepted with great pleasure, I had the lamps lighted up, which illuminated the picture of a Saturn (cut out in pasteboard) at the bottom of the garden wall. The effect was fine, and so natural that the best astronomer might have been deceived. Their royal highnesses seemed to be much pleased with the artifice. From a somewhat prolonged con­versation, he judged them to be “extremely well instructed”, and “most amiable characters”.

Shortly afterwards Herschel received the appointment of royal astronomer, with the modest salary of £200 a year. “Never”, exclaimed Sir William Watson on being made acquainted with its amount, “bought monarch honour so cheap!” The provision was assuredly not munificent; yet it sufficed to rescue a great man from submergence under the hard necessities of existence. The offer was critically timed. It was made precisely when teaching and concert-giving had come to appear an “intolerable waste of time” to one fired with a visionary passion. “Stout Cortes” staring at the Pacific, Ulysses starting from Ithaca to “sail beyond the sunset”, were not more eager for experience of the Unknown.





WILLIAM HERSCHEL was now an appendage to the court of George III. He had to live near Windsor, and a large dilapidated house on Datchet Common was secured as likely to meet his unusual requirements. The “flitting” took place August 1, 1782. William was in the highest spirits. There were stables available for workrooms and furnaces; a spacious laundry that could be turned into a library; a line lawn for the accommodation of the great reflector. Crumbling walls and holes in the roof gave him little or no concern; and if butcher’s meat was appallingly dear (as his sister lamented) the family could live on bacon and eggs! In this sunny spirit he entered upon the career of untold possibilities that lay before him.

Nevertheless the King’s astronomer did not find it all plain sailing. His primary duty was to gratify the royal taste for astronomy, and this involved no trifling expenditure of time and toil. The transport of the seven-foot to the Queen’s lodge could be managed in the daylight, but its return-journey in the dark, after the conclusion of the celestial raree-show, was an expensive and a risky business; yet fetched back it should be unless a clear night were to be wasted—a thing not possible to contemplate. This kind of attendance was, however, considerately dispensed with when its troublesome nature came to be fully understood. George III has often been condemned as selfish and niggardly; but with scant justice. In some respects, no doubt, it might advantageously have been modified. Still, the fact remains that the astronomer of Slough was the gift to science of the poor mad King. From no other crowned head has it ever received so incomparable an endowment.

Herschel’s salary was undeniably small. It gave him the means of living, but not of observing, as he proposed to observe. If the improvement of telescopes were to be “carried to its utmost limit”, additional funds must be raised. Without an ample supply of the “sinews of war”, fresh campaigns of exploration were out of the question. There was one obvious way in which they could be provided. Herschel’s fame as an optician was spread throughout Europe. His telescopes were wanted everywhere, but could be had from himself alone; for the methods by which he wrought specula to a perfect figure are even now undivulged. They constituted, therefore, a source of profit upon which he could draw to almost any extent. He applied himself, accordingly, to make telescopes for sale. They brought in large sums. Six hundred guineas a-piece were paid to him by the King for four ten-foot reflectors; he received at a later date £3,150 for a twenty-five foot, sent to Spain; and in 1814 £2,310 from Lucien Bonaparte for two smaller instruments. The regular scale of prices (later considerably reduced) began with 200 guineas for a seven-foot, and mounted to 2,500 for a twenty-foot; and the commissions executed were innumerable.

But Herschel did not come into the world to drive a lucrative trade. It was undertaken, not for itself, but for what was to come of it; yet there was danger lest the end should be indefinitely postponed in the endeavor to secure the means.

“It seemed to be supposed”, Miss Herschel remarked, “that enough had been done when my brother was enabled to leave his profession that he might have time to make and sell telescopes. But all this was only retarding the work of a thirty or forty-foot instrument, which it was his chief object to obtain as soon as possible; for he was then on the wrong side of forty-five, and felt how great an injustice he would be doing to himself and the cause of astronomy by giving up his time to making telescopes for other observers”

This he was, fortunately, not long obliged to do. A royal grant of £2,000 for the construction of the designed giant telescope, followed by another of equal amount, together with an annual allowance of £200 for its repairs, removed the last obstacle to his success. The wide distribution of first-class instruments might, indeed, have been thought to promise more for the advancement of astronomy than the labors of a single individual. No mistake could be greater. Not an observation worth mentioning was made with any of the numerous instruments sent out from Datchet or Slough, save only those acquired by Schröter and Pond. The rest either rusted idly, or were employed ineffectually, aptly illustrating the saying that “the man at the eye-end” is the truly essential part of a telescope.

No one knew this better than Herschel. Every serene dark night was to him a precious opportunity availed of to the last minute. The thermometer might descend below zero, ink might freeze, mirrors might crack; but, provided the stars shone, he and his sister worked on from dusk to dawn. In this way, his “third review”, begun at Bath, was finished in the spring of 1783. The swiftness with which it was conducted implied no want of thoroughness. “Many a night”, he states, “in the course of eleven or twelve hours of observation, I have carefully and singly examined not less than 400 celestial objects, besides taking measures, and sometimes viewing a particular star for half an hour together, with all the various powers”.

The assiduity appears well-nigh incredible with which he gathered in an abundant harvest of nebulae and double stars; his elaborate papers, brimful of invention and experience, being written by day, or during nights unpropitious for star-gazing. On one occasion he is said to have worked without intermission at the telescope and the desk for seventy-two hours, and then slept unbrokenly for twenty-six hours. His instruments were never allowed to remain disabled. They were kept, like himself, on the alert. Relays of specula were provided, and one was in no case removed from the tube for repolishing, unless another was ready to take its place. Even the meetings of the Royal Society were attended only when moonlight effaced the delicate objects of his particular search.

The summer of 1788 was spent in getting ready the finest telescope Herschel had yet employed. It was called the “large twenty-foot” because of the size of its speculum, which was nearly nineteen inches in diameter; and with its potent help he executed his fourth and last celestial survey. His impatience to begin led him into perilous situations.

“My brother”, says Miss Herschel, “began his series of sweeps when the instrument was yet in a very unfinished state; and my feelings were not very comfortable when every moment I was alarmed by a crack or fall, knowing him to be elevated fifteen feet or more on a temporary cross-beam instead of a safe gallery. The ladders had not even their braces at the bottom; and one night, in a very high wind, he had hardly touched the ground before the whole apparatus came down. Some laboring men were called up to help in extricating the mirror, which was fortunately uninjured, but much work was cut out for carpenters next day”.

In the following March, he himself wrote to Patrick Wilson, of Glasgow, son of Dr. Alexander Wilson, the well-known professor of astronomy:—“I have finished a second speculum to my new twenty-foot, very much superior to the first, and am now reviewing the heavens with it. This will be a work of some years; but it is to me so far from laborious that it is attended with the utmost delight”. He, nevertheless, looked upon telescopes as “yet in their infant state”.

The ruinous mansion at Datchet having become uninhabitable, even by astronomers, their establishment was shifted, in June, 1785, to Clay Hall, near Old Windsor. Here the long-thought-of forty-foot was begun, but was not destined to be finished. A litigious landlady intervened. The next move, however, proved to be the last. It was to a commodious residence at Slough, now called “Observatory House”—“le lieu du monde”" wrote Arago, “où il a été fait le plus de découvertes”. Thither, without the loss of an hour, in April, 1786, the machinery and apparatus collected at Clay Hall were transported. Yet, “amidst all this hurrying business”, Caroline remembered “that every moment after daylight was allotted to observing. The last night at Clay Hall was spent in sweeping till daylight, and by the next evening the telescope stood ready for observation at Slough”

During the ensuing three months, thirty to forty workmen were constantly employed, “some in felling and rooting out trees, some in digging and preparing the ground for the bricklayers who wore laying the foundation for the telescope”. “A whole troop of laborers were, besides, engaged in reducing the iron tools to a proper shape for the mirror to be ground upon”. Thus, each morning, when dawn compelled Herschel to desist from observation, he found a bevy of people awaiting instructions of all sorts from him. “If it had not been”, his sister says, “for the intervention of a cloudy or moonlit night, I know not when he, or I either, should have got any sleep”. The wash-house was turned into a forge for the manufacture of specially designed tools; heavy articles cast in London were brought by water to Windsor; the library was so encumbered with stores, models, and implements, that “no room for a desk or an atlas remained”.

On July 3rd, 1786, Herschel, accompanied by his brother Alexander, started for Gottingen, commissioned by the King to present to the University one of the ten-foot reflectors purchased from him. He was elected a Member of the Royal Society of Gottingen, and spent three weeks at Hanover with his aged mother, whom he never saw again. During his absence, however, the forty-foot progressed in accordance with the directions he had taken care to leave behind. He trusted nothing to chance. “There is not one screwbolt”, his sister asserted, “about the whole apparatus but what was fixed under the immediate eye of my brother. I have seen him lie stretched many an hour in a burning sun, across the top beam, whilst the iron-work for the various motions was being fixed. At one time no less than twenty-four men (twelve and twelve relieving each other) kept polishing day and night; my brother, of course, never leaving them all the while, taking his food without allowing himself time to sit down to table”.

At this stage of the undertaking it became the fashion with visitors to use the empty tube as a promenade. Dr. and Miss Burney called, in July, 1786, “to see, and take a walk through the immense new telescope”. “It held me quite upright”, the authoress of “Evelina” related, “and without the least inconvenience; so would it have done had I been dressed in feathers and a bell-hoop”.

George III and the Archbishop of Canterbury followed the general example; and the prelate being incommoded by the darkness and the uncertain footing, the King, who was in front, turned back to help him, saying: “Come, my lord bishop, I will show you the way to heaven”. On another occasion “God save the King” was sung and played within the tube by a large body of musicians; and the rumor went abroad that it had been turned into a ball-room!

The University of Oxford conferred upon Herschel, in 1786, an honorary degree of LL.D.; but he cared little for such distinctions. Miss Burney characterized him as a “man without a wish that has its object in the terrestrial globe”; the King had “not a happier subject”. The royal bounty, she went on “enables him to put into execution all his wonderful projects, from which his expectations of future discoveries are so sanguine as to make his present existence a state of almost perfect enjoyment”. Nor was it possible to “admire his genius more than his gentleness”. Again, after taking tea in his company in the Queen’s lodge: “this very extraordinary man has not more fame to awaken curiosity than sense and modesty to gratify it. He is perfectly unassuming, yet openly happy; and happy in the success of those studies which would render a mind less excellently formed presumptuous and arrogant”. Mrs. Papendick, another court chronicler, says that “he was fascinating in his manner, and possessed a natural politeness, and the abilities of a superior nature”.

His great telescope took rank, before and after its completion, as the chief scientific wonder of the age. Slough was crowded with sightseers. All the ruck of Grand Dukes and Serene Highnesses from abroad, besides royal, noble, and gentle folk at home, flocked to gaze at it and interrogate its maker with ignorant or intelligent wonder. The Prince of Orange was a particularly lively inquirer. On one of his calls at Slough, about ten years after the erection of the forty-foot, finding the house vacant, he left a memorandum asking if it were true, as the newspapers reported, that “Mr. Herschel had discovered a new star whose light was not as that of the common stars, but with swallow­ tails, as stars in embroidery?”

Pilgrim-astronomers came, too—Cassini, Lalande, Méchain and Legendre from Paris, Oriani from Milan, Piazzi from Palermo. Sniadecki, director of the observatory of Cracow, “took lodgings”, Miss Herschel relates, "”in Slough, for the purpose of seeing and hearing my brother whenever he could find him at leisure. He was a very silent man”. One cannot help fearing that he was also a very great bore. Von Magellan, another eminent foreign astronomer, communicated to Bode an interesting account of Herschel’s methods of observation. The multitude of entries in his books astonished him. In sweeping, he reported, “he lets each star pass at least three times through the field of his telescope, so that it is impossible that anything can escape him”. The thermometer in the garden stood that night, January 6th, 1785, at 13 deg. Fahrenheit; but the royal astronomer, his visitor remarked, “has an excellent constitution, and thinks about nothing else in the world but the celestial bodies”.

In January, 1787, Herschel made trial with his twenty-foot reflector of the “front-view” plan of construction, suggested by Lemaire in 1732, but never before practically tested. All that had to be done was to remove the small mirror, and slightly tilt the large one. The image was then formed close to the upper margin of the tube, into which the observer, turning his back to the heavens, looked down. The purpose of the arrangement was to save the light lost in the second reflection; and its advantage was at once illustrated by the discovery of two Uranian moons—one (Titania) circling round its primary in about 8,3/4 hours, the other (Oberon) in 13,1/2 hours. In order to assure these conclusions, he made a sketch beforehand of what ought to be seen on February 10th; and on that night, to his intense satisfaction, “the heavens”, as he informed the Royal Society, “displayed the original of my drawing by showing, in the situation I had delineated them, the Georgian planet attended by two satelites. I confess that this scene appeared to me with additional beauty, the little secondary planets seeming to give a dignity to the primary one which raises it into a more conspicuous situation among the great bodies of our solar system”.

This brilliant result determined him to make a “front-view” of the forty-foot. Its advance towards completion was not without vicissitudes. The first speculum, when put into the tube, February 19th 1787, was found too thin to maintain its shape. A second, cast early in 1788, cracked in cooling. The same metal having been recast February 16th, the artist tried it upon Saturn in October; but the effect disappointing his expectation, he wrought at it for ten months longer. At last, after a few days’ polishing with his new machine, he turned the great speculum towards Windsor Castle; when its high quality became at once manifest. And such was his impatience to make with it a crucial experiment, that—as he told Sir Joseph Banks—he directed it to the heavens (August 28th, 1789) before it had half come to its proper lustre. The stars came out well, and no sooner had he got hold of Saturn than a sixth satellite stood revealed to view! Its “younger brother” was detected September l7th; and the two could be seen, on favorable opportunities, threading their way, like beads of light, along the lucid line of the almost vanished ring. Herschel named them Enceladus and Mimas, and found, on looking up his former observations of Saturn, that Enceladus, the exterior and brighter object, had been unmistakably seen with the twenty-foot, August 19th, 1787. Mimas is a very delicate test of instrumental perfection.

The mirror by which it was first shown measured nearly fifty inches across, and weighed 2,118 pounds. It was slung in a ring, and the sheet-iron tube in which it rested was thirty-nine and a-half feet long and four foot ten inches wide. Ladders fifty feet in length gave access to a movable stage, from which the observer communicated through speaking tubes with his assistants. The whole erection stood on a revolving platform; for the modern equatorial form of mount, by which the diurnal course of the heavens is automatically followed, was not then practically available, and the necessary movements had to be imparted by hand. This involved the attendance of two workmen, but was otherwise less inconvenient than might be supposed, owing to the skill with which the required mechanism was contrived.

Herschel estimated that, with a magnifying-power of 1,000, this grand instrument could, in the climate of England, be effectively used during no more than one hundred hours of every year. A review with it of the whole heavens would hence have occupied eight centuries. In point of fact, he found the opportunities for its employment scarce. The machine took some time to get started, while the twenty-foot was ready in ten minutes. The speculum, moreover, proved unpleasantly liable to become dewed in moist weather, or frozen up in cold; and, in spite of all imaginable care, it preserved the delicacy of its polish no more than two years. An economist of minutes, such as its maker, could, then, do no otherwise than lot the giant telescope lie by unless its powers were expressly needed. They were surprisingly effective. “With the forty-foot instrument”, he reported to the Royal Society in 1800, “the appearance of Sirius announced itself at a great distance like the dawn of the morning, till this brilliant star at last entered the field, with all the splendor of the rising sun, and forced me to take my eye from that beautiful sight”. Which, however, left the vision impaired in delicacy for nigh upon half-an-hour.

Thus the results, gathered from the realization of Herschel’s crowning optical achievement fell vastly short of what his imagination had pictured. The promise of the telescope’s initial disclosures was not realized in its subsequent career. Yet it was a superb instrument. The discovery with it of Mimas gave certain proof that the figure of the speculum was as perfect as its dimensions were unusual. But its then inimitable definition probably fell off later. Its “broad bright eye” was, for the last time, turned towards the heavens January 19th, 1811, when the Orion nebula showed its silvery wings to considerable advantage. But incurable dimness had already set in—incurable, because the artist’s hand had no longer the strength needed to cure the growing malady. The big machine was, however, left standing, framework and all. It figured as a landmark on the Ordnance Survey Map of England; and, stamped in miniature on the seal of the Royal Astronomical Society, aptly serves to illustrate its motto, “Quicquid nitet notandum”. At last, on New Year’s Eve, 1839, the timbers of the scaffolding being dangerously decayed, it was, with due ceremony, dismounted. A “Requiem”, composed by Sir John Herschel, was sung by his family, fourteen in number, assembled within the tube, which was then riveted up and laid horizontally on three stone piers in the garden at Slough. “It looks very well in its new position” Sir John thought. Yet it has something of a memento mori aspect. It seems to remind one that the loftiest human aspirations are sprinkled “with the dust of death”. The speculum adorns the hall of Observatory House.

Herschel married, May 8th, 1788, Mary, the only child of Mr. James Baldwin, a merchant in the City of London, and widow of Mr. John Pitt. She was thirty-eight and he fifty. Her jointure relieved him from pecuniary care, and her sweetness of disposition secured his domestic happiness. They set up a curious double establishment, taking a house at Upton, while retaining that at Slough. Two maidservants were kept in each, and a footman maintained the communications. So at least runs Mrs. Papendick’s gossip. Miss Burney records in her Diary a tea at Mr. De Luc’s, where Dr. Herschel accompanied a pair of vocalists “very sweetly on the violin. His newly-married wife was with him, and his sister. His wife seems good-natured; she was rich, too! And astronomers are as able as other men to discern that gold can glitter as well as stars”.

He was now at the height of prosperity and renown. Diplomas innumerable were showered upon him by Academies and learned societies. In a letter to Benjamin Franklin, he returned thanks for his election as a member of the American Philosophical Society, and acquainted him with his recent detection of a pair of attendants on the “Georgian planet”. A similar acknowledgment was addressed to the Princess Daschkoff, Directress of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences. The King of Poland sent him his portrait; the Empress Catherine II opened negotiations for the purchase of some of his specula, Lucien Bonaparte repaired to Slough incognito; Joseph Haydn snatched a day from the turmoil of his London engagements to visit the musician-astronomer, and gaze at his monster telescopes. By universal agreement, Dr. Burney declared, Herschel was “one of the most pleasing and well-bred natural characters of the day, as well as the greatest astronomer”. They had much in common, according to Dr. Burney’s daughter. Both possessed an uncommon “suavity of disposition”; both loved music; and Dr. Burney had a “passionate inclination for astronomy”. They became friends through the medium of Dr. Burney’s versified history of that science. In September, 1797, he called at Slough with the manuscript in his valise. “The good soul was at dinner”, he relates; and, to his surprise, since he was ignorant of Herschel’s marriage, the company included several ladies, besides “a little boy”. He was, nothing loth, compelled to stay overnight; discussed with his host the plan of his work, and read to him its eighth chapter. Herschel listened with interest, and modestly owned to having learnt much from what he had heard; but presently dismayed the author by confessing his “aversion to poetry”, which he had generally regarded as “an arrangement of fine words without any adherence to the truth”. He added, however, that “when truth and science were united to those fine words”, they no longer displeased him. The readings continued at intervals, alternately at Slough and Chelsea, to the immense gratification of the copious versifier, who occasionally allowed his pleasure to overflow in his correspondence.

“Well, but Herschel has been in town”, he wrote from Chelsea College, December 10th, 1798, “for short spurts and back again, two or three times, and I have had him here two whole days. I read to him the first five books without any one objection”. And again; “He came, and his good wife accompanied him, and I read four and a-half books; and on parting, still more humble than before, or still more amiable, he thanked me for the instruction and entertainment I had given him. What say you to that? Can anything be grander?”

In spite of his “aversion”, Herschel had once, and once only, wooed the coy muse himself. The first evening paper that appeared in England, May 3rd, 1788, contained some introductory quatrains by him. An excuse for this unwonted outburst may be found in the circumstance that the sheet in which they were printed bore the name of The Star. They began with the interrogation:

What Star art thou, about to gleam

In Novelty's bright hemisphere?

and continued:

A Planet wilt thou roll sublime,

Spreading like Mercury thy rays?

Or chronicle the lapse of Time,

Wrapped in a Comet’s threatening blaze?

That they are of the schoolboy order need surprise no one. Such a mere sip at the “Pierian spring” could scarcely bring inspiration.

Herschel’s grand survey of the heavens closed with his fourth review. His telescopic studies thereupon became specialized. The sun, the planets and their satellites, the lately discovered asteroids, certain double stars, and an occasional comet, in turn received attention. Laboratory experiments were also carried on, and discussions of profound importance were laid before the Royal Society. All this cost him but little effort. The high tension of his earlier life was somewhat relaxed; he allowed himself intervals of rest, and indulged in social and musical recreations.

Concerts were now frequently given at his house; and the face of beaming delight with which he presided over them is still traditionally remembered. Visits to Sir William Watson at Dawlish gave him opportunities, otherwise rare, for talks on metaphysical subjects; and he stayed with James Watt at Heathfield in 1810. He had been a witness on his side in an action for infringement of patent in 1793.

Herschel rented a house on Sion Hill, Bath, for some months of the year 1799; and from time to time stayed with friends in London, or sought change of air at Timbridge Wells, Brighton, or Ramsgate. In July, 1801, he went to Paris with his wife and son, made acquaintance with Laplace, and had an interview with the First Consul. It was currently reported that Bonaparte had astonished him by the extent of his astronomical learning; but the contrary was the truth. He had tried to be impressive, but failed. Herschel gave an account of what passed to the poet Campbell, whom he met at Brighton in 1813.

“The First Consul”, he said, “did surprise me by his quickness and versatility on all subjects; but in science he seemed to know little more than any well-educated gentleman; and of astronomy much less, for instance, than our own king. His general air was something like affecting to know more than he did know”. Herschel’s election in 1802 as one of the eight foreign Associates of the French Institute was probably connected with his Parisian experiences.

He inspired Campbell with the most lively enthusiasm. “His simplicity”, he wrote, “his kindness, his anecdotes, his readiness to explain—and make perfectly conspicuous too—his own sublime conceptions of the universe, are indescribably charming. He is seventy-six, but fresh and stout; and there he sat, nearest the door at his friend’s house, alternately smiling at a joke, or contentedly sitting without share or notice in the conversation. Any train of conversation he follows implicitly; anything you ask, he labors with a sort of boyish earnestness to explain. Speaking of himself, he said, with a modesty of manner which quite overcame me, when taken together with the greatness of the assertion, 'I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me; I have observed stars, of which the light, it can be proved, must take two millions of years to reach this earth.' I really and unfeignedly felt at the moment as if I had been conversing with a supernatural intelligence. 'Nay, more,' said he, 'if those distant bodies had ceased to exist two millions of years ago we should still see them, as the light would travel after the body was gone.' These were Herschel’s words; and if you had heard him speak them, you would not think ho was apt to tell more than the truth”.

The appearance of a bright comet, in October, 1806, drew much company to Slough. On the 4th, Miss Herschel narrates, “Two parties from the Castle came to see it, and during the whole month my brother had not an evening to himself. As he was then in the midst of polishing the forty-foot mirror, rest became absolutely necessary after a day spent in that most laborious work; and it has ever been my opinion that on the 14th of October his nerves received a shock from which ho never got the better afterwards; for on that day he had hardly dismissed his troop of men when visitors assembled, and from the time it was dark, till past midnight, he was on the grass-plot surrounded by between fifty and sixty persons, without having had time to put on proper clothing, or for the least nourishment to pass his lips. Among the company I remember were the Duke of Sussex, Prince Galitzin, Lord Damley, a number of officers, Admiral Boston, and some ladies”.

A dangerous attack of illness in the spring of 1807 left Herschel’s strength permanently impaired. But he travelled to Scotland in the summer of 1810, and received the freedom of the City of Glasgow. Then, in 1814, he made a final, but fruitless attempt, to renovate the four-foot speculum. In the midst of the confusion attending upon the process, word was given to prepare for the reception of the Czar Alexander, the Duchess of Oldenburg, and sundry other grandees just then collected at Windsor for the Ascot races. The setting to rights was no small job; “but we might have saved ourselves the trouble”, his sister remarks drily, “for they were sufficiently harassed with public sights and festivities”.

On April 6th, 1816, Herschel was created a Knight of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order, and duly attended one of the Prince Regent’s levies in May. He went to town in 1819 to have his portrait painted by Artaud. The resulting fine likeness is in the possession of his grandson. Sir William James Herschel. The Astronomical Society chose him as its first President in 1821; and he contributed to the first volume of its memoirs a supplementary list of 145 double stars. The wonderful series of his communications to the Royal Society closed when he was in his eightieth year, with the presentation, June 11th, 1818, of a paper on the Relative Distances of Star-clusters. On June 1st, 1821, he inserted into the tube with thin and trembling hands the mirror of the twenty-foot telescope, and took his final look at the heavens. All his old instincts were still alive, only the bodily power to carry out their behests was gone. An unparalleled career of achievement left him unsatisfied with what he had done. Old age brought him no Sabbath rest, but only an enforced and wearisome cessation from activity. His inability to re-polish the four-foot speculum was the doom of his chef d'oeuvre. He could not reconcile himself to it. His sunny spirits gave way. The old happy and buoyant temperament became overcast with despondency. His strong nerves were at last shattered.

On August 15th, 1822, Miss Herschel relates:— “I hastened to the spot where I was wont to find him with the newspaper I was to read to him. But I was informed my brother had been obliged to return to his room, whither I flew immediately. Lady Heischel and the housekeeper were with him, administering everything which could be thought of for supporting him. I found him much irritated at not being able to grant Mr. Bulman’s request for some token of remembrance for his father. As soon as he saw me, I was sent to the library to fetch one of his last papers and a plate of the forty-foot telescope. But for the universe I could not have looked twice at what I had snatched from the shelf, and when he faintly asked if the breaking-up of the Milky Way was in it, I said Yes, and he looked content. I cannot help remembering this circumstance; it was the last time I was sent to the library on such an occasion. That the anxious care for his papers and work­rooms never ended but with his life, was proved by his whispered inquiries if they were locked, and the key safe”.

He died ten days later, August 25th, 1822. Above his grave, in the church of Saint Laurence at Upton, the words are graven:—“Coelorum perrupit claustra” —He broke through the barriers of the skies.

William Herschel was endowed by nature with an almost faultless character. He had the fervor, with­out the irritability of genius; he was generous, genial, sincere; tolerant of ignorance; patient under the acute distress, to which his situation rendered him peculiarly liable, of unseasonable interruptions at critical moments: he was warm-hearted and open-handed. His change of country and condition, his absorption in science, the homage paid to him, never led him to forget the claims of kindred. Time and money were alike lavished in the relief of family necessities. He supported his brother Alexander after his retirement from the concert-stage in 1816, until his death at Hanover, March 15th, 1821. Dietrich’s recurring misfortunes met his unfailing pity and help. He bequeathed to him a sum of £2,000, and to his devoted sister, Caroline, an annuity of £100.

His correspondents, abroad and at home, were numerous; nor did he disdain to remove the perplexities of amateurs. In a letter, dated January 6th, 1794, we find him explaining to Mr. J. Miller of Lincoln’s Inn, “the circumstances which attend the motion of a race-horse upon a circle of longitude”. And he wrote shortly afterwards to Mr. Smith of Tewkesbury:—“You find fault with the principles of gravitation and projection because they will not account for the rotation of the planets upon their axes. You might certainly with as much reason find fault with your shoes because they will not likewise serve your hands as gloves. But, in my opinion, the projectile motion once admitted, sufficiently explains the rotatory motion; for it is hardly possible mechanically to impress the one without giving the other at the same time”.

On religious topics he was usually reticent; but a hint of the reverent spirit in which his researches were conducted may be gathered from a sentence in the same letter. “It is certainly”, he said, “a very laudable thing to receive instruction from the great workmaster of nature, and for that reason all experimental philosophy is instituted”.

To investigate was then, in his view, to “receive instruction”; and one of the secrets of his wonderful success lay in the docility with which he came to be taught.