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Sir William Herschel, his life and works/Life at Datchet, Clay Hall, and Slough; 1782-1822



life at datchet, clay hall, and slough; 1782-1822.


The new house at Datchet, which was occupied from 1782 till 1785, was a source of despair to Carolina Herschel, who looked upon its desolate and isolated condition with a housekeeper's eyes. This was nothing to her brother, who gayly consented to live upon "eggs and bacon," now that he was free at last to mind the heavens. The ruinous state of the place had no terrors in his eyes, for was there not a laundry which would serve as a library, a large stable which was just the place for the grinding of mirrors, and a grass-plat for the small twenty-foot reflector?

Here they set to work at astronomy; the brother with the twenty-foot, the sister aiding him, and at odd times sweeping for comets. In the course of her life she discovered no less than eight, and five of these were first seen by her.

In 1787 Herschel wrote his paper "On three Volcanoes in the Moon," which he had observed in April of that year. In this he mentions previous observations of the same sort. I do not remember that the following account of these has ever been put on record in English. Baron von Zach writes from London to Bode:[1]

"Probably you have heard also of the volcanoes in the moon, which Herschel has observed.... I will give you an account of it as I heard it from his own lips. Dr. Lind, a worthy physician in Windsor, who has made himself known through his two journeys in China, and who is a friend of our Herschel's, was with his wife one evening on a visit to Herschel in Datchet [1783, May 4]. On this evening there was to be an occultation of a star at the moon's dark limb. This was observed by Herschel and Doctor Lind. Mrs. Lind wished also to see what was occurring, and placed herself at a telescope and watched attentively.

"Scarcely had the star disappeared before Mrs. Lind thought she saw it again, and exclaimed that the star had gone in front of, and not behind the moon. This provoked a short astronomical lecture on the question, but still she would not credit it, because she saw differently. Finally Herschel stepped to the telescope, and in fact he saw a bright point on the dark disc of the moon, which he followed attentively. It gradually became fainter and finally vanished." ...

The life at Datchet was not free from its annoyances.

"Much of my brother's time was taken up in going, when the evenings were clear, to the queen's lodge, to show the king, etc., objects through the seven-foot. But when the days began to shorten, this was found impossible, for the telescope was often (at no small expense and risk of damage) obliged to be transported in the dark back to Datchet, for the purpose of spending the rest of the night with observations on double stars for a second catalogue. My brother was, besides, obliged to be absent for a week or ten days, for the purpose of bringing home the metal of the cracked thirty-foot mirror, and the remaining materials from his work-room. Before the furnace was taken down at Bath, a second twenty-foot mirror, twelve inches diameter, was cast, which happened to be very fortunate, for on the 1st of January, 1783, a very fine one cracked by frost in the tube.

... "In my brother's absence from home I was, of course, left alone to amuse myself with my own thoughts, which were anything but cheerful. I found I was to be trained for an assistant astronomer, and, by way of encouragement, a telescope adapted for 'sweeping,' consisting of a tube with two glasses, such as are commonly used in a 'finder,' was given me. I was 'to sweep for comets,' and I see, by my journal, that I began August 22d, 1782, to write down and describe all remarkable appearances I saw in my 'sweeps,' which were horizontal. But it was not till the last two months of the same year that I felt the least encouragement to spend the star-light nights on a grass-plot covered with dew or hoar-frost, without a human being near enough to be within call. I knew too little of the real heavens to be able to point out every object so as to find it again, without losing much time by consulting the Atlas. But all these troubles were removed when I knew my brother to be at no great distance making observations, with his various instruments, on double stars, planets, etc., and when I could have his assistance immediately if I found a nebula or cluster of stars, of which I intended to give a catalogue; but, at the end of 1783, I had only marked fourteen, when my sweeping was interrupted by being employed to write down my brother's observations with the large twenty-foot. I had, however, the comfort to see that my brother was satisfied with my endeavors to assist him when he wanted another person either to run to the clocks, write down a memorandum, fetch and carry instruments, or measure the ground with poles, etc., etc., of which something of the kind every moment would occur. For the assiduity with which the measurements on the diameter of the Georgium Sidus, and observations of other planets, double stars, etc., etc., were made, was incredible, as may be seen by the various papers that were given to the Royal Society in 1783, which papers were written in the daytime, or when cloudy nights interfered. Besides this, the twelve-inch speculum was perfected before the spring, and many hours were spent at the turning-bench, as not a night clear enough for observing ever passed but that some improvements were planned for perfecting the mounting and motions of the various instruments then in use, or some trials were made of new constructed eye-pieces, which were mostly executed by my brother's own hands. Wishing to save his time, he began to have some work of that kind done by a watchmaker who had retired from business and lived on Datchet Common; but the work was so bad, and the charges so unreasonable, that he could not be employed. It was not till some time afterwards, in his frequent visits to the meetings of the Royal Society (made in moonlight nights), that he had an opportunity of looking about for mathematical workmen, opticians, and founders. But the work seldom answered expectation, and it was kept, to be executed with improvements by Alexander during the few months he spent with us.

"The summer months passed in the most active preparation for getting the large twenty-foot ready against the next winter. The carpenters and smiths of Datchet were in daily requisition, and, as soon as patterns for tools and mirrors were ready, my brother went to town to have them cast, and, during the three or four months Alexander could be absent from Bath, the mirrors and optical parts were nearly completed.

"But that the nights after a day of toil were not given to rest, may be seen by the observations on Mars, of which a paper, dated December 1, 1783, was given to the Royal Society. Some trouble, also, was often thrown away, during those nights, in the attempt to teach me to remeasure double stars with the same micrometers with which former measures had been taken, and the small twenty-foot was given me for that purpose.... I had also to ascertain their places by a transit instrument lent for that purpose by Mr. Dalrymple; but, after many fruitless attempts, it was seen that the instrument was, perhaps, as much in fault as my observations."

In 1783 Herschel says:

"I have now finished my third review of the heavens. The first was made with a Newtonian telescope something less than seven feet focal length, a power of 222, and an aperture of four and a half inches. It extended only to stars of the first, second, third, and fourth magnitudes. My second review was made with an instrument much superior to the other, of 85.2 inches focus, 6.2 inches aperture, and power 227. It extended to all the stars of Harris's maps and the telescopic ones near them, as far as the eighth magnitude. The Catalogue of Double Stars and the discovery of the Georgium Sidus, were the results of that review. The third was with the same instrument and aperture, but with a power of 460. This review extended to all the stars of Flamsteed's Catalogue, together with every small star about them, to the amount of a great many thousands of stars. I have, many a night, in the course of eleven or twelve hours of observation, carefully and singly examined not less than 400 celestial objects, besides taking measures, and sometimes viewing a particular star for half an hour together."

The fourth review began with the twenty-foot, in 1784.

"My brother 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. I could give a pretty long list of accidents which were near proving fatal to my brother as well as myself. To make observations with such large machinery, where all around is in darkness, is not unattended with danger, especially when personal safety is the last thing with which the mind is occupied; even poor Piazzi did not go home without getting broken shins by falling over the rack-bar.

"In the long days of the summer months many ten and seven foot mirrors were finished; there was nothing but grinding and polishing to be seen. For ten-foot, several had been cast with ribbed backs, by way of experiment, to reduce the weight in large mirrors. In my leisure hours I ground seven-foot and plain mirrors from rough to fining down, and was indulged with polishing and the last finishing of a very beautiful mirror for Sir William Watson.

"An account of the discoveries made with the twenty-foot and the improvements of the mechanical parts of the instrument during the winter of 1785 is given with the catalogue of the first 1,000 new nebulæ. By which account it must plainly appear that the expenses of these improvements, and those which were yet to be made in the apparatus of the twenty-foot (which, in fact, proved to be a model of a larger instrument), could not be supplied out of a salary of £200 a year, especially as my brother's finances had been too much reduced during the six months before he received his first quarterly payment of fifty pounds (which was Michaelmas, 1782). Travelling from Bath to London, Greenwich, Windsor, backwards and forwards, transporting the telescope, etc., breaking up his establishment at Bath and forming a new one near the court, all this, even leaving such personal conveniences as he had for many years been used to, out of the question, could not be obtained for a trifle; a good large piece of ground was required for the use of the instruments, and a habitation in which he could receive and offer a bed to an astronomical friend, was necessary after a night's observation.

"It seemed to be supposed that enough had been done when my brother was enabled to leave his profession that he might have time to make and sell telescopes. The king ordered four ten-foot himself, and many seven-foot besides had been bespoke, and much time had already been expended on polishing the mirrors for the same. But all this was only retarding the work of a thirty or forty foot instrument, which it was my brother's 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 to the cause of astronomy by giving up his time to making telescopes for other observers.

"Sir William Watson, who often in the lifetime of his father came to make some stay with us at Datchet, saw my brother's difficulties, and expressed great dissatisfaction. On his return to Bath he met, among the visitors there, several belonging to the court, to whom he gave his opinion concerning his friend and his situation very freely. In consequence of this, my brother had soon after, through Sir J. Banks, the promise that £2,000 would be granted for enabling him to make himself an instrument.

"Immediately every preparation for beginning the great work commenced. A very ingenious smith (Campion), who was seeking employment, was secured by my brother, and a temporary forge erected in an upstairs room."

The sale of these telescopes of Herschel's must have produced a large sum, for he had made before 1795 more than two hundred seven-feet, one hundred and fifty ten-feet, and eighty twenty-feet mirrors. For many of the telescopes sent abroad no stands were constructed. The mirrors and eye-pieces alone were furnished, and a drawing of the stand sent with them by which the mirrors could be mounted.

In 1785 the cost of a seven-foot telescope, six and four-tenths inches aperture, stand, eye-pieces, etc., complete, was two hundred guineas, a ten-foot was six hundred guineas, and a twenty-foot about 2,500 to 3,000 guineas. He had made four ten-foot telescopes like this for the king. In 1787 Schroeter got the mirrors and eye-pieces only for a four-and-three-quarter-inch reflector for five guineas; those for his seven-foot telescope were twenty-three guineas. Later a seven-foot telescope, complete, was sold for one hundred guineas, and the twenty-five-foot reflector, made for the Madrid observatory, cost them 75,000 francs = $15,000.[2] It was ordered in 1796, but not delivered for several years, the Spanish government being short of money. For a ten and a seven foot telescope, the Prince of Canino paid £2,310.

Von Magellan writes to Bode concerning a visit to Herschel:[3]

"I spent the night of the 6th of January at Herschel's, in Datchet, near Windsor, and had the good luck to hit on a fine evening. He has his twenty-foot Newtonian telescope in the open air and mounted in his garden very simply and conveniently. It is moved by an assistant, who stands below it.... Near the instrument is a clock regulated to sidereal time.... In the room near it sits Herschel's sister, and she has Flamsteed's Atlas open before her. As he gives her the word, she writes down the declination and right ascension and the other circumstances of the observation. In this way Herschel examines the whole sky without omitting the least part. He commonly observes with a magnifying power of one hundred and fifty, and is sure that after four or five years he will have passed in review every object above our horizon. He showed me the book in which his observations up to this time are written, and I am astonished at the great number of them. Each sweep covers 2° 15' in declination, and 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. He has already found about 900 double stars and almost as many nebulæ. I went to bed about one o'clock, and up to that time, he had found that night four or five new nebulæ. The thermometer in the garden stood at 13° Fahrenheit; but, in spite of this, Herschel observes the whole night through, except that he stops every three or four hours and goes in the room for a few moments. For some years Herschel has observed the heavens every hour when the weather is clear, and this always in the open air, because he says that the telescope only performs well when it is at the same temperature as the air. He protects himself against the weather by putting on more clothing. He has an excellent constitution, and thinks about nothing else in the world but the celestial bodies. He has promised me in the most cordial way, entirely in the service of astronomy, and without thinking of his own interest, to see to the telescopes I have ordered for European observatories, and he will himself attend to the preparation of the mirrors."

It was at this time, 1783, May 8, that Herschel married. His wife was the daughter of Mr. James Baldwin, a merchant of the city of London, and the widow of John Pitt, Esq. She is described as a lady of singular amiability and gentleness of character. She was entirely interested in his scientific pursuits, and the jointure which she brought removed all further anxiety about money affairs. They had but one child, John Frederick William, born March 7, 1792.[4]

The house at Datchet became more and more unfit for the needs of the family, and in June, 1785, a move was made to Clay Hall, in Old Windsor. The residence here was but short, and finally a last change was made to Slough on April, 3d, 1786.

The ardor of the work during these years can be judged of by a single sentence from Carolina Herschel's diary:

"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."

From 1786 until his death, Herschel remained at Slough; his life, truly speaking, was in his observatory.

It is indeed true, as Arago has said in his eloquent tribute to him: "On peut dire hardiment du jardin et de la petite maison de Slough, que c'est le lieu du monde où il a été fait le plus de découvertes. Le nom de ce village ne périra pas; les sciences le transmettront religieusement à nos derniers neveux."

Herschel's first contribution to the Philosophical Transactions was printed in the volume for 1780, his last in that for 1818. Of these thirty-nine volumes, there are only two (1813 and 1817) which contain no paper from his hand, and many volumes contain more than one, as he published no less than sixty-eight memoirs in this place.

And yet it must not be thought that his was an austere and grave existence. Music, which he loved to enthusiasm, was still a delight to him. All the more that his devotion was free. The glimpses which we get of his life with his friends show him always cheerful, ardent, and devoted. Even in his later years, he had not lost a "boyish earnestness to explain;" his simplicity and the charm of his manner struck every one.

"Herschel, you know, and everybody knows, is one of the most pleasing and well-bred natural characters of the present age," says Dr. Burney, who had opportunity to know.

The portrait which is given in the frontispiece must have been painted about this time (1788), and the eager, ardent face shows his inner life far better than any words can do.

Even in his scientific writings, which everything conspired to render grave and sober, the almost poetic nature of his mind shows forth. In one of his (unpublished) notebooks, now in the Royal Society's library, I found this entry:

"640th Sweep—November 28, 1786.—The nebula of Orion, which I saw by the front view, was so glaring and beautiful that I could not think of taking any place of its extent."

He was quite alone under the perfectly silent sky when this was written, and he was at his post simply to make this and other such observations. But the sky was beautiful to him, and his faithful sister, Carolina, sitting below, has preserved for us the words as they dropped from his lips.

On the 11th of January, 1787, Herschel discovered two satellites to Uranus.

After he had well assured himself of their existence, but before he communicated his discovery to the world, he made this crucial test. He prepared a sketch of Uranus attended by his two satellites, as it would appear on the night of February 10, 1787, and when the night came, "the heavens displayed the original of my drawings, by showing in the situation I had delineated them the Georgian planet attended by two satellites. I confess that this scene appeared to me with additional beauty, as the little secondary planets seemed to give a dignity to the primary one which raises it into a more conspicuous situation among the great bodies of the solar system." ...

In a memoir of 1789, he has a few sentences which show the living way in which the heavens appeared to him:

"This method of viewing the heavens seems to throw them into a new kind of light. "They are now seen to resemble a luxuriant garden, which contains the greatest variety of productions in different flourishing beds; and one advantage we may at least reap from it is, that we can, as it were, extend the range of our experience to an immense duration. For is it not almost the same thing whether we live successively to witness the germination, blooming, foliage, fecundity, fading, withering, and corruption of a plant, or whether a vast number of specimens selected from every stage through which the plant passes in the course of its existence be brought at once to our view?"

The thought here is no less finely expressed than it is profound. The simile is perfect, if we have the power to separate among the vast variety each state of being from every other, and if the very luxuriance of illustration in the heavens does not bewilder and overpower the mind. It was precisely this discriminating power that Herschel possessed in perfection.

There is a kind of humor in the way he records a change of opinion:

"I formerly supposed the surface of Saturn's ring to be rough, owing to luminous points like mountains seen on it, till one of these was kind enough to venture off the edge of the ring and appear as a satellite."

In 1782 he replies with a certain concealed sharpness to the idea that he used magnifying powers which were too high. There is a tone almost of impatience, as if he were conscious he was replying to a criticism based on ignorance:

"We are told that we gain nothing by magnifying too much. I grant it; but shall never believe I magnify too much till by experience I find that I can see better with a lower power." (1782.)

By 1786, when he returns to this subject, in answer to a formal request to explain his use of high magnifiers, he is quite over any irritation, and treats the subject almost with playfulness:

"Soon after my first essay of using high powers with the Newtonian telescope, I began to doubt whether an opinion which has been entertained by several eminent authors, 'that vision will grow indistinct when the optic pencils are less than the fiftieth part of an inch,' would hold good in all cases. I perceived that according to this criterion I was not entitled to see distinctly with a power of much more than about 320 in a seven-foot telescope of an aperture of six and four-tenths inches, whereas in many experiments I found myself very well pleased with magnifiers which far exceeded such narrow limits. This induced me, as it were, by way of apology to myself for seeing well where I ought to have seen less distinctly, to make a few experiments."

It is needless to say that these experiments proved that from the point of view taken by Herschel, he was quite right, and that his high powers had numerous valuable applications. He goes on to say:

"Had it not been for a late conversation with some of my highly esteemed and learned friends, I might probably have left the papers on which these experiments were recorded, among the rest of those that are laid aside, when they have afforded me the information I want."

The last sentence seems to be a kind of notice to his learned friends that there is yet more unsaid. As a warning to those to whose criticisms he had replied, he gives them this picture of the kind of assiduity which will be required, if some of his observations on double stars are to be repeated:

"It is in vain to look for these stars if every circumstance is not favorable. The observer as well as the instrument must have been long enough out in the open air to acquire the same temperature. In very cold weather an hour at least will be required." (1782.)

We may gain some further insight into his character from the following chance extracts from his writings:

"I have all along had truth and reality in view as the sole object of my endeavors." (1782.)

"Not being satisfied when I thought it possible to obtain more accurate measures, I employed [a more delicate apparatus]." (1783.)

"To this end I have already begun a series of observations upon several zones of double stars, and should the result of them be against these conjectures, I shall be the first to point out their fallacy." (1783.)

"There is a great probability of succeeding still farther in this laborious but delightful research, so as to be able at last to say not only how much the annual parallax is not, but how much it really is." (1782.)

The nature of his philosophizing, and the limits which he set to himself, may be more clearly seen in further extracts:

"By taking more time [before printing these observations] I should undoubtedly be enabled to speak more confidently of the interior construction of the heavens, and of its various nebulous and sidereal strata. As an apology for this prematurity it may be said that, the end of all discoveries being communication, we can never be too ready in giving facts and observations, whatever we may be in reasoning upon them." (1785.)

"In an investigation of this delicate nature we ought to avoid two opposite extremes. If we indulge a fanciful imagination, and build worlds of our own, we must not wonder at our going wide from the path of truth and nature. On the other hand, if we add observation to observation without attempting to draw not only certain conclusions but also conjectural views from them, we offend against the very end for which only observations ought to be made. I will endeavor to keep a proper medium, but if I should deviate from that, I could wish not to fall into the latter error." (1785.)

"As observations carefully made should always take the lead of theories, I shall not be concerned if what I have to say contradicts what has been said in my last paper on this subject." (1790.)

No course of reasoning could be more simple, more exact, more profound, and more beautiful than this which follows:

"As it has been shown that the spherical figure of a cluster is owing to the action of central powers, it follows that those clusters which, cæteris paribus, are the most complete in this figure, must have been the longest exposed to the action of these causes. Thus the maturity of a sidereal system may be judged from the disposition of the component parts. "Hence planetary nebulæ may be looked on as very aged. Though we cannot see any individual nebula pass through all its stages of life, we can select particular ones in each peculiar stage." (1789.)

There is something almost grandiose and majestic in his statement of the ultimate destiny of the Galaxy:

"To him the fates were known
Of orbs dim hovering on the skirts of space."

"—Since the stars of the Milky Way are permanently exposed to the action of a power whereby they are irresistibly drawn into groups, we may be certain that from mere clustering stars they will be gradually compressed, through successive stages of accumulation, till they come up to what may be called the ripening period of the globular form, and total insulation; from which it is evident that the Milky Way must be finally broken up and cease to be a stratum of scattered stars. "The state into which the incessant action of the clustering power has brought it at present, is a kind of chronometer that may be used to measure the time of its past and future existence; and although we do not know the rate of going of this mysterious chronometer, it is nevertheless certain that since the breaking up of the Milky Way affords a proof that it cannot last forever, it equally bears witness that its past duration cannot be admitted to be infinite." (1814.)

Herschel's relations with his cotemporaries were usually of the most pleasant character, though seldom intimate. This peace was broken but by one unpleasant occurrence. In the Philosophical Transactions for 1792, Schroeter had communicated a series of observations made with one of Herschel's own telescopes on the atmospheres of Venus, the Moon, etc. It was not only an account of phenomena which had been seen; it was accompanied by measures, and the computations based on these led to heights and dimensions for mountains on Venus which were, to say the least, extravagant. The adjective will not seem too strong when we say that the very existence of the mountains themselves is to-day more than doubtful.

The appearances seen by Schroeter were described by him in perfectly good faith, and similar ones have been since recorded. His reasoning upon them was defective, and the measures which he made were practically valueless. This paper, printed in the Transactions of the Royal Society, to which Schroeter had not before contributed, appears to have irritated Herschel.

No doubt there were not wanting members of his own society who hinted that on the Continent, too, there were to be found great observers, and that here, at least, Herschel had been anticipated even in his own field. I have always thought that the memoir of Herschel which appeared in the next volume of the Transactions (1793), Observations on the Planet Venus, was a rejoinder intended far more for the detractors at home than for the astronomer abroad. The review is conceived in a severe spirit. The first idea seems to be to crush an opposition which he feels. The truth is established, but its establishment is hardly the first object.

It seems as if Herschel had almost allowed himself to be forced into a position of arrogance, which his whole life shows was entirely foreign to his nature. All through the review he does not once mention Schroeter's name. He says:

"A series of observations on Venus, begun by me in April, 1777, has been continued down to the present time.... The result of my observations would have been communicated long ago if I had not flattered myself with the hope of some better success concerning the diurnal motion of Venus, which has still eluded my constant attention as far as concerns its period and direction.... Even at this present time I should hesitate to give the following extracts if it did not seem incumbent on me to examine by what accident I came to overlook mountains in this planet of such enormous height as to exceed four, five, or even six times the perpendicular height of Chimboraço, the highest of our mountains.... The same paper contains other particulars concerning Venus and Saturn. All of which being things of which I have never taken any notice, it will not be amiss to show, by what follows, that neither want of attention, nor a deficiency of instruments, would occasion my not perceiving these mountains of more than twenty-three miles in height, this jagged border of Venus, and these flat, spherical forms on Saturn."

The reply of Schroeter (1795) is temperate and just. It does him honor, and he generously gives full justice to his critic.

It would hardly be worth while to mention this slight incident if it were not that during these years there certainly existed a feeling that Herschel undervalued the labors of his cotemporaries.

This impression was fostered no doubt by his general habit of not quoting previous authorities in the fields which he was working.

A careful reading of his papers will, I think, show that his definite indebtedness to his cotemporaries was vanishingly small. The work of Michell and Wilson he alludes to again and again, and always with appreciation. Certainly he seems to show a vein of annoyance that the papers of Christian Mayer, De novis in cœlo sidereo phænomenis (1779), and Beobachtungen von Fixsterntrabanten (1778), should have been quoted to prove that the method proposed by Herschel in 1782 for ascertaining the parallax of the fixed stars by means of observations of those which were double, was not entirely original with himself.

There is direct proof that it was so,[5] and if this was not forthcoming it would be unnecessary, as he has amply shown in his Catalogue of Double Stars. One is reminded of his remarks on the use of the high magnifying powers by the impatience of his comments.

His proposal to call the newly discovered minor planets asteroids (1802) was received as a sign that he wished to discriminate between the discoveries of Piazzi and Olbers and his own discovery of Uranus.[6]

He takes pains to quietly put this on one side in one of his papers, showing that he was cognizant of the existence of such a feeling.

I am tempted to resurrect from a deserved obscurity a notice of Herschel's Observations on the Two Lately Discovered Celestial Bodies (Philosophical Transactions, 1802), printed in the first volume of the Edinburgh Review, simply to show the kind of envy to which even he, the glory of England, was subject.

The reviewer sets forth the principal results of Herschel's observations, and, after quoting his definition of the new term asteroid, goes on to say:

"If a new name must be found, why not call them by some appellation which shall, in some degree, be descriptive of, or at least consistent with, their properties? Why not, for instance, call them Concentric Comets, or Planetary Comets, or Cometary Planets? or, if a single term must be found, why may we not coin such a phrase as Planetoid or Cometoid?"

Then follows a general arraignment of Herschel's methods of expression and thought, as distinguished from his powers of mere observation. This distinction, it may be said, exists only in the reviewer's mind; there was no such distinction in fact. If ever a series of observations was directed by profound and reasonable thought, it was Herschel's own.

"Dr. Herschel's passion for coining words and idioms has often struck us as a weakness wholly unworthy of him. The invention of a name is but a poor achievement for him who has discovered whole worlds. Why, for instance, do we hear him talking of the space-penetrating power of his instrument—a compound epithet and metaphor which he ought to have left to the poets, who, in some future age, shall acquire glory by celebrating his name. The other papers of Dr. Herschel, in the late volumes of the Transactions, do not deserve such particular attention. His catalogue of 500 new nebulæ, though extremely valuable to the practical astronomer, leads to no general conclusions of importance, and abounds with the defects which are peculiar to the Doctor's writings—a great prolixity and tediousness of narration—loose and often unphilosophical reflections, which give no very favorable idea of his scientific powers, however great his merit may be as an observer—above all, that idle fondness for inventing names without any manner of occasion, to which we have already alluded, and a use of novel and affected idioms.
"To the speculations of the Doctor on the nature of the Sun, we have many similar objections; but they are all eclipsed by the grand absurdity which he has there committed, in his hasty and erroneous theory concerning the influence of the solar spots on the price of grain. Since the publication of Gulliver's voyage to Laputa, nothing so ridiculous has ever been offered to the world. We heartily wish the Doctor had suppressed it; or, if determined to publish it, that he had detailed it in language less confident and flippant."

One is almost ashamed to give space and currency to a forgotten attack, but it yields a kind of perspective; and it is instructive and perhaps useful to view Herschel's labors from all sides, even from wrong and envious ones.

The study of the original papers, together with a knowledge of the circumstances in which they were written, will abundantly show that Herschel's ideas sprung from a profound meditation of the nature of things in themselves. What the origin of trains of thought prosecuted for years may have been we cannot say, nor could he himself have expressed it. A new path in science was to be found out, and he found it. It was not in his closet, surrounded by authorities, but under the open sky, that he meditated the construction of the heavens. As he says, "My situation permitted me not to consult large libraries; nor, indeed, was it very material; for as I intended to view the heavens myself, Nature, that great volume, appeared to me to contain the best catalogue."

His remarkable memoirs on the invisible and other rays of the solar spectrum were received with doubt, and with open denial by many of the scientific bodies of Europe. The reviews and notices of his work in this direction were often quite beyond the bounds of a proper scientific criticism; but Herschel maintained a dignified silence. The discoveries were true, the proofs were open to all, and no response was needed from him. He may have been sorely tempted to reply, but I am apt to believe that the rumors that reached him from abroad and at home did not then affect him as they might have done earlier. He was at his grand climacteric, he had passed his sixty-third year, his temper was less hasty than it had been in his youth, and his nerves had not yet received the severe strain from whose effects he suffered during the last years of his life.

We have some glimpses of his personal life in the reminiscences of him in the Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay, who knew him well:

"1786.—In the evening Mr. Herschel came to tea. I had once seen that very extraordinary man at Mrs. de Luc's, but was happy to see him again, for he 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.

"The king has not a happier subject than this man, who owes it wholly to His Majesty that he is not wretched; for such was his eagerness to quit all other pursuits to follow astronomy solely, that he was in danger of ruin, when his talents and great and uncommon genius attracted the king's patronage. He has now not only his pension, which gives him the felicity of devoting all his time to his darling study, but he is indulged in license from the king to make a telescope according to his new ideas and discoveries, that is to have no cost spared in its construction, and is wholly to be paid for by His Majesty.

"This seems to have made him happier even than the pension, as it enables him to put in 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. Mr. Locke himself would be quite charmed with him.

"He seems a man without a wish that has its object in the terrestrial globe. At night Mr. Herschel, by the king's command, came to exhibit to His Majesty and the royal family the new comet lately discovered by his sister, Miss Herschel; and while I was playing at piquet with Mrs. Schwellenburg, the Princess Augusta came into the room and asked her if she chose to go into the garden and look at it. She declined the offer, and the princess then made it to me. I was glad to accept it for all sorts of reasons. We found him at his telescope. The comet was very small, and had nothing grand or striking in its appearance; but it is the first lady's comet, and I was very desirous to see it. Mr. Herschel then showed me some of his new discovered universes, with all the good humor with which he would have taken the same trouble for a brother or a sister astronomer; there is no possibility of admiring his genius more than his gentleness."

"1786, December 30th.—This morning my dear father carried me to Dr. Herschel. That great and very extraordinary man received us almost with open arms. He is very fond of my father, who is one of the council of the Royal Society this year, as well as himself.... At this time of day there was nothing to see but his instruments; those, however, are curiosities sufficient.... I wished very much to have seen his sister, ... but she had been up all night, and was then in bed."

"1787, September.—Dr. Herschel is a delightful man; so unassuming with his great knowledge, so willing to dispense it to the ignorant, and so cheerful and easy in his general manners, that, were he no genius, it would be, impossible not to remark him as a pleasing and sensible man."

"1788, October 3d.—We returned to Windsor at noon, and Mrs. de Luc sent me a most pressing invitation to tea and to hear a little music. Two young ladies were to perform at her house in a little concert. Dr. Herschel was there, and accompanied them very sweetly on the violin; his new-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."



"Chelsea College,
"September 28, 1798.


"I drove through Slough in order to ask at Dr. Herschel's door when my visit would be least inconvenient to him—that night or next morning. The good soul was at dinner, but came to the door himself, to press me to alight immediately and partake of his family repast; and this he did so heartily that I could not resist.


"I expected (not knowing that Herschel was married) only to have found Miss Herschel; but there was a very old lady, the mother, I believe, of Mrs. Herschel, who was at the head of the table herself, and a Scots lady (a Miss Wilson, daughter of Dr. Wilson, of Glasgow, an eminent astronomer), Miss Herschel, and a little boy. They rejoiced at the accident which had brought me there, and hoped I would send my carriage away and take a bed with them. They were sorry they had no stables for my horses.

"We soon grew acquainted—I mean the ladies and I—and before dinner was over we seemed old friends just met after a long absence. Mrs. Herschel is sensible, good-humored, unpretending, and well bred; Miss Herschel all shyness and virgin modesty; the Scots lady sensible and harmless; and the little boy entertaining, promising, and comical. Herschel, you know, and everybody knows, is one of the most pleasing and well-bred natural characters of the present age, as well as the greatest astronomer.

"Your health was drunk after dinner (put that into your pocket), and after much social conversation and a few hearty laughs, the ladies proposed to take a walk, in order, I believe, to leave Herschel and me together. We walked and talked round his great telescopes till it grew damp and dusk, then retreated into his study to philosophize.


"He made a discovery to me, which, had I known it sooner, would have overset me, and prevented my reading any part of my work.[7] He said that he had almost always had an aversion to poetry, which he regarded as the arrangement of fine words, without any useful meaning or adherence to truth; but that when truth and science were united to these fine words, he liked poetry very well."

1798, December 10.


"Herschel has been in town for short spurts, and back again two or three times, leaving Mrs. Herschel behind (in town) to transact law business. I had him here two whole days."

The reading of the manuscript of the Poetical History of Astronomy was continued, "and Herschel was so humble as to confess that I knew more of the history of astronomy than he did, and had surprised him with the mass of information I had got together.

"He thanked me for the entertainment and instruction I had given him. 'Can anything be grander?' and all this before he knows a word of what I have said of himself—all his discoveries, as you may remember, being kept back for the twelfth and last book."


"Slough, Monday morning. July 22, 1799,
in bed at Dr. Herschel's, half-past
five, where I can neither sleep nor lie

"My Dear Fanny:—I believe I told you on Friday that I was going to finish the perusal of my astronomical erses to the great astronomer on Saturday.


"After tea Dr. Herschel proposed that we two should retire into a quiet room in order to resume the perusal of my work, in which no progress has been made since last December. The evening was finished very cheerfully; and we went to our bowers not much out of humor with each other or theworld.... After dinner we all agreed to go to the terrace [at Windsor]—Mr., Mrs., and Miss H., with their nice little boy, and three young ladies. Here I met with almost everybody I wished and expected to see previous to the king's arrival.


"But now here comes Will, and I must get up, and make myself up to go down to the perusal of my last book, entitled Herschel. So good-morrow."

"Chelsea, Tuesday.

"Not a moment could I get to write till now.... I must tell you that Herschel proposed to me to go with him to the king's concert at night, he having permission to go when he chooses, his five nephews (Griesbachs) making a principal part of the band. 'And,' says he, 'I know you will be welcome.'"

An intimacy was gradually established between Herschel and Dr. Burney. They saw each other often at the meetings of the Royal Society, and Herschel frequently stayed at the doctor's house. "On the first evening Herschel spent at Chelsea, when I called for my Argand lamp, Herschel, who had not seen one of those lamps, was surprised at the great effusion of light, and immediately calculated the difference between that and a single candle, and found it sixteen to one."[8]

In 1793 we find Herschel as a witness for his friend James Watt, in the celebrated case of Watt vs. Bull, which was tried in the Court of Common Pleas. And from Muirhead's Life of Watt, it appears that Herschel visited Watt at Heathfield in 1810.

A delightful picture of the old age of Herschel is given by the poet Campbell,[9] whose nature was fitted to perceive the beauties of a grand and simple character like Herschel's:

[Brighton], September 15, 1813.

.... "I wish you had been with me the day before yesterday, when you would have joined me, I am sure, deeply in admiring a great, simple, good old man—Dr. Herschel. Do not think me vain, or at least put up with my vanity, in saying that I almost flatter myself I have made him my friend. I have got an invitation, and a pressing one, to go to his house; and the lady who introduced me to him, says he spoke of me as if he would really be happy to see me.... I spent all Sunday with him and his family. His son is a prodigy in sciences, and fond of poetry, but very unassuming.... Now, for the old astronomer himself. His simplicity, 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.

"I was anxious to get from him as many particulars as I could about his interview with Buonaparte.[10] The latter, it was reported, had astonished him by his astronomical knowledge.

"'No,' he said, 'the First Consul 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,' he said, 'was something like affecting to know more than he did know.' He was high, and tried to be great with Herschel, I suppose, without success; and 'I remarked,' said the astronomer, 'his hypocrisy in concluding the conversation on astronomy by observing how all these glorious views gave proofs of an Almighty Wisdom.' I asked him if he thought the system of Laplace to be quite certain, with regard to the total security of the planetary system from the effects of gravitation losing its present balance? He said, No; he thought by no means that the universe was secured from the chance of sudden losses of parts.

"He was convinced that there had existed a planet between Mars and Jupiter, in our own system, of which the little asteroids, or planetkins, lately discovered, are indubitably fragments; and 'Remember,' said he, 'that though they have discovered only four of those parts, there will be thousands—perhaps thirty thousand more—yet discovered.' This planet he believed to have been lost by explosion.

"With great kindness and patience he referred me, in the course of my attempts to talk with him, to a theorem in Newton's 'Principles of Natural Philosophy' in which the time that the light takes to travel from the sun is proved with a simplicity which requires but a few steps in reasoning. In talking of some inconceivably distant bodies, he introduced the mention of this plain theorem, to remind me that the progress of light could be measured in the one case as well as the other. Then, 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 this 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 he was apt to tell more than the truth.

"After leaving Herschel I felt elevated and overcome; and have in writing to you made only this memorandum of some of the most interesting moments of my life."

Campbell's conscientious biographer appears to have felt that the value of this charming account of his interview with Herschel was in its report of astronomical facts and opinions, and he adds a foot-note to explain that "Herschel's opinion never amounted to more than hypothesis having some degree of probability. Sir John Herschel remembers his father saying, 'If that hypothesis were true, and if the planet destroyed were as large as the earth, there must have been at least thirty-thousand such fragments,' but always as an hypothesis—he was never heard to declare any degree of conviction that it was so."

For us, the value of this sympathetic account of a day in Herschel's life is in its conception of the simplicity, the modesty, the "boyish earnestness," the elevation of thought and speech of the old philosopher; and in the impression made on the feelings, not the mind, of the poet, then thirty-five years old.

In a letter to Alison, Campbell reverts with great pleasure to the day spent with Herschel:

"Sydenham, December 12, 1813.

"My dearest Alison:—


"I spent three weeks with my family at Brighton, in charming weather, and was much pleased with, as well as benefited by, the place. There I met a man with whom you will stare at the idea of my being congenial, or having the vanity to think myself so—the great Herschel. He is a simple, great being.... I once in my life looked at Newton's Principia, and attended an astronomical class at Glasgow; wonderful it seemed to myself, that the great man condescended to understand my questions; to become apparently earnest in communicating to me as much information as my limited capacity and preparation for such knowledge would admit. He invited me to see him at his own abode, and so kindly that I could not believe that it was mere good breeding; but a sincere wish to see me again. I had a full day with him; he described to me his whole interview with Buonaparte; said it was not true, as reported, that Buonaparte understood astronomical subjects deeply, but affected more than he knew.

"In speaking of his great and chief telescope, he said with an air, not of the least pride, but with a greatness and simplicity of expression that struck me with wonder, 'I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me. I have observed stars, of which the light takes two millions of years to travel to this globe.' I mean to pay him a reverential visit at Slough, as soon as my book is out, this winter."

In 1807 Carolina Herschel has this entry in her diary:

"October 4.—My brother came from Brighton. The same night two parties from the Castle came to see the comet, 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 of which he never got the better afterwards."

In the spring of 1808 he was quite seriously ill; but in May the observing went on again. In 1809 and 1810 his principal investigations were upon physical subjects (Newton's rings), and in 1811 the only long series of observations was upon the comet of that year. After 1811 the state of Herschel's health required that his observations should be much less frequent. Much of the time after 1811 he was absent, and his work at home consisted largely in arranging the results of his previous labors, and in computations connected with them. All through the years 1814 to 1822, Herschel's health was very feeble. The severe winter of 1813-14 had told materially upon him. In 1814, however, he undertook to repolish the forty-foot mirror, but was obliged to give it over.

He now found it necessary to make frequent little excursions for change of air and scene. His faithful sister remained at home, bringing order into the masses of manuscript, and copying the papers for the Royal Society.

She was sick at heart, fearing that each time she saw her brother it would be the last. In 1818 she says:

"Feb. 11, I went to my brother and remained with him till the 23d. We spent our time, though not in idleness, in sorrow and sadness. He is not only unwell, but low in spirits."

In 1818 (December 16), Herschel went to London to have his portrait painted by Artaud. While he was in London his will was made.[11]

In 1819 there is a glimmer of the old-time light. In a note Herschel says:

"Lina:—There is a great comet. I want you to assist me. Come to dine and spend the day here. If you can come soon after one o'clock, we shall have time to prepare maps and telescopes. I saw its situation last night. It has a long tail.

"July 4, 1819."

This note has been carefully kept by his sister, and on it she has written: "I keep this as a relic. Every line now traced by the hand of my dear brother becomes a treasure to me."

So the next three years passed away. Sir William[12] was daily more and more feeble. He spent his time in putting his works in order, but could devote only a few moments each day to this. His sister says:

"Aug. 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th [1822], I went as usual to spend some hours of the forenoon with my brother.

"Aug. 15th.—I hastened to the spot where I was wont to find him, with the newspaper which I was to read to him. But instead I found Mrs. Monson, Miss Baldwin, and Mr. Bulman, from Leeds, the grandson of my brother's earliest acquaintance in this country. I was informed my brother had been obliged to return to his room, whither I flew immediately. Lady H. 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 frequent whispered inquiries if they were locked and the key safe, of which I took care to assure him that they were, and the key in Lady Herschel's hands.

"After half an hour's vain attempt to support himself, my brother was obliged to consent to be put to bed, leaving no hope ever to see him rise again."

On the 25th of August, 1822, Herschel died peacefully at the age of eighty-four years.

His remains lie in the little church at Upton, near Windsor, where a memorial tablet has been erected by his son. The epitaph is as follows:[13]

H. S. E.
Gulielmus Herschel Eques Guelphicus
Hanoviæ natus Angliam elegit patriam
Astronomis ætatis suæ præstantissimis
Merito annumeratus
Ut leviora sileantur inventa
Planetam ille extra Saturni orbitam
Primus detexit
Novis artis adjumentis innixus
Quæ ipse excogitavit et perfecit
Cœlorum perrupit claustra
Et remotiora penetrans et explorans spatia
Incognitos astrorum ignes
Astronomorum oculis et intellectui subjecit
Qua sedulitate qua solertia
Corporum et phantasmatum
Extra systematis nostri fines lucentium
Naturam indagaverit
Quidquid paulo audacius conjecit
Ingenita temperans verecundia
Ultro testantur hodie æquales
Vera esse quæ docuit pleraque
Siquidem certiora futuris ingeniis subsidia
Debitura est astronomia
Agnoscent forte posteri
Vitam utilem innocuam amabilem
Non minus felici laborum exitu quam virtutibus
Ornatam et vere eximiam
Morte suis et bonis omnibus deflenda
Nec tamen immatura clausit
Ætatis vero suæ LXXXIV.

  1. Bode's Jahrbuch, 1788, p. 144.
  2. Zach's Monatlich Correspondenz, 1802, p. 56.
  3. Bode's Jahrbuch, 1788, p. 161.
  4. Through Sir John Herschel there is preserved to us an incident of his early boyhood, which shows the nature of the training his young mind received in the household at Slough.

    Walking with his father, he asked him "What was the oldest of all things?" The father replied, after the Socratic manner, "And what do you suppose is the oldest of all things?" The boy was not successful in his answers, whereon the old astronomer took up a small stone from the garden walk: "There, my child, there is the oldest of all the things that I certainly know." On another occasion the father asked his son, "What sort of things do you think are most alike?" The boy replied, "The leaves of the same tree are most like each other." "Gather, then, a handful of leaves from that tree," rejoined the philosopher, "and choose two which are alike."—Monthly Notices Royal Astronomical Society, vol. xxxii., page 123.

  5. Memoir of Caroline Herschel, p. 42.
  6. "Of late years these expectations have been more than accomplished by the discovery of no fewer than four planetary bodies, almost all in the same place; but so small that Dr. Herschel refuses to honor them with the name of planets, and chooses to call them asteroids, though for what reason it is not easy to determine, unless it be to deprive the discoverers of these bodies of any pretence for rating themselves as high in the list of astronomical discoverers as himself."—History of the Royal Society, by Thomas Thomson, p. 358. This work was published in 1812, and therefore during the lifetime of Herschel.
  7. Poetical History of Astronomy: this work was nearly completed, but was never published. The whole of it was read to Herschel, in order that {{sc|Burney}] might have the benefit of his criticism on its technical terms.
  8. Memoirs of Dr. Burney, vol. iii., p. 264.
  9. Life and Letters of Thomas Campbell, edited by William Beattie, vol. ii., p. 234.
  10. This interview must have taken place in 1802, during Herschel's journey to Paris. We have no other record of it.
  11. The will of Herschel was dated December 17th, 1818.

    "The personal effects were sworn under £6,000. The copyhold and other lands and tenements at Upton-cum-Chalvey, in the County of Bucks, and at Slough, he decrees to his son, with £25,000 in the 3 per cent. Reduced Annuities. £2,000 are given to his brother Johann Dietrich, and annuities of £100 each to his brother Johann Alexander and to his sister Carolina; £20 each to his nephews and nieces, and the residue (with the exception of astronomical instruments, telescopes, observations, etc., which he declares to have given, on account of his advanced age, to his son for the purpose of continuing his studies) is left solely to Lady Herschel."—Gentleman's, Magazine, vol. xcii., 1822, p. 650.

    It is not necessary to say here how nobly Sir John Herschel redeemed the trust confided in him. All the world knows of his Survey of the Southern Heavens, in which he completed the review of the sky which had been begun and completed for the northern heavens by the same instruments in his father's hands. A glance at the Bibliography at the end of this book will show the titles of several papers by Sir John, written with the sole object of rendering his father's labors more complete.

  12. He was created a knight of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order in 1816, and was the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1821, his son being its first Foreign Secretary.
  13. Bode's Jahrbuch, 1823, p. 222.