A Herschel comes seldom alone.

On the excellent website Lady Science Anna Reser and Leila McNeill recently posted an article entitled Well, Actually Mythbusting History Doesn’t Work, which I shall not be addressing. However it contained the interesting statement, When the likes of Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace are brought up, a common response is a historical version of “what about the men?!” The men in this case being William Herschel and Charles Babbage. Ignoring Lovelace and Babbage I would like to address the case of the siblings Caroline and William Herschel.

Of course Caroline Herschel is a very important figure in the history of astronomy and deserves to be recognised on her own extensive merits but is it possible to discuss her life and work without mentioning her elder brother? The answer to this question is a clear yes and no. If one were to present a brief bullet point outline of her life then yes, as follows.

Caroline Herschel Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Herschel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Herschel German/ British Astronomer

  • Born Hanover 16 March 1750
  • Lived in England 1772–1822
  • Died Hanover 9 January 1848
  • Discoverer of eight comets
  • Recipient of a pension from George III 1787
  • Recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society 1828
  • One of the first Woman members of the Royal Astronomical Society, elected 1835
  • Awarded Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia 1846

However if one goes beyond the highly impressive outline and starts to examine her biography in depth then it is impossible not to mention her brother William who played a decisive role at almost every stage of her live.

Stunted and disfigured by a bout of typhus in her childhood, Caroline was not considered a suitable candidate for marriage. Her illiterate mother did not hold much of education for women so it seemed that Caroline was destined for a life of domestic drudgery. However William her elder brother, having established himself as a professional musician in the city of Bath, fetched her from Hanover to come and live with him as his housekeeper in 1772. In Bath she shared the attic flat with their younger brother Alexander, of whom more later, whilst William lived on the first floor, which was also his music studio where amongst other things he delivered music lessons. The ground floor was occupied by a married couple, who worked as William servants, also paying rent for their accommodation. Caroline took over the running of this household.

William Herschel 1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott Source: Wikimedia Commons

William Herschel 1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott
Source: Wikimedia Commons

William took over Caroline’s education teaching her to sing as well as instructing her in arithmetic and English. Soon she began to appear as a soloist in William public recitals and made such a positive impression that am impresario offered her the opportunity of going on tour as a singer, an offer that she declined preferring to stay in Bath with her brother.

When William developed his passion for astronomy Caroline became his assistant, rather grudgingly at first but later with enthusiasm, recording and tabulating her brother telescopic observations. When William began to manufacture his own telescopes Caroline was once again at hand, as assistant. When I visited the Herschel Museum in Bath I learnt that one of Caroline’s tasks was to sieve the horse manure that they used to embed the cast telescope mirrors to grind and polish them. I highly recommend visiting this museum, where you can view the Herschel’s telescope workshop in the cellar. Caroline also took over the task of calculating and compiling the catalogue of William’s observation. It should be very clear that the siblings worked as a team, each playing an important role in their astronomical endeavours.

Later after the discovery of Uranus, when William became the King’s astronomer and they moved to Datchet near Windsor, he encouraged Caroline to become an astronomer in her own right teaching her how to sweep the skies looking for comets and constructing a small reflecting telescope for this purpose. Caroline would go on to have a very successful career as a comet hunter, as already noted above.

I hope that in this very brief sketch that I have made it clear that William played a key role at each juncture in Caroline’s life and that without him she never would have become an astronomer, so any full description of her undoubted achievements must include her bother and his influence. However there is a reverse side to this story, as should be very clear from my brief account, any description of William Herschel’s achievements, as an astronomer, must include an explanation of Caroline’s very central role in those discoveries.

Any account of William’s and Caroline’s dependency on each other in their astronomical careers should also include the role played by their younger brother Alexander. Like William and their father, Alexander was a highly proficient professional musician, who had moved into William’s house in Bath, as Caroline was still living in Hanover. Alexander apparently played a role in the decision to bring Caroline to Bath. As well as being a talented musician Alexander was a highly skilled craftsman and when William decided to start building his own Newtonian telescopes, it was Alexander who provided the necessary metal components including the telescope tubes for the small objective scopes used to view the image in a Newtonian. The Herschel telescope production was very much a family business. The Herschel telescopes enjoyed a very good reputation and manufacturing and selling them became a profitable sideline for the siblings. The two sides of the Herschel’s astronomical activities fertilised each other. The quality of the telescopes underlined the accuracy of the observations and the accuracy of the observations was positive advertising for the telescopes.

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Reflector. Herschel Museum Bath Source: Wikimedia Commons

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Reflector. Herschel Museum Bath
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be now clear that when considering the Herschel’s astronomical activities we really have to view all three siblings as a unit, as well as viewing them as individuals but our collection of Herschels does not end here. As should be well known William’s son John would go on to be a highly significant and influential polymath in the nineteenth century, amongst other things setting forth the family’s astronomical tradition. John was very close to his aunt Caroline and it was she and not his father who first introduced the young Herschel sprog to the joys and fascinations of astronomical observation.

ohn Frederick William Herschel by Alfred Edward Chalon 1829 Source: Wikimedia Commons

ohn Frederick William Herschel by Alfred Edward Chalon 1829
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the Herschels form a relatively closed family unit in their astronomical activities, they also employed a joiner to make the tubes and stands for their reflectors, they also provide a very good example of they fact that observational astronomy, and in fact much scientific activity, is team work and not the product of individuals.





Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Ladies of Science

8 responses to “A Herschel comes seldom alone.

  1. I’m a believer in the great groups theory of history. It’s neither lone individuals or masses of people who bring change but relatively small associations of talented people who energize and support one another. I usually think of circles like the Lunar Men whose story was so well told by Jenny Unger, but the Herschel tale points to the role of families, not just mini-dynasties like the Bernoullis, the de Saussures, and the Darwins but nuclear families as well. Thanks for the post.

  2. Nitpick, but the England dates should be 1772-1822, not -1882.

  3. Lawson Brouse

    Excellent blog, thanks again for your return.

  4. Jeb

    The issue of denying a subject context, key point in both articles.
    Core historical issue and an interesting range of perspectives.

  5. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #15 | Whewell's Ghost

  6. Pingback: Sorry Caroline but you were not the first, Maria was | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  7. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #31 | Whewell's Ghost

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