Herschel

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Herschel

a family of distinguished scientists of German origin, established in England in 1757. Its most notable members, on whom separate articles follow, were William Herschel (1738–1822), his sister Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750– 1845), and his only son, John Frederick William Herschel (1792–1871).

The earliest known German forebear of the family was a Hans Herschel of Dresden. His son, Abraham, was the father of Isaac Herschel, the father of Caroline and William. Isaac married Anna Ilse Moritzen and they had ten children, six of whom survived. Isaac, a sometime gardener, was an oboist with the Hanoverian Foot Guards, and he gave his children a sound education at the garrison school. He educated them in music himself. He was a man of surprisingly cultivated conversation. The other children included Sophia (Griesbach), Jacob, Alexander, and Dietrich. Dietrich’s daughters married into the Knipping, Richter, and Groskopff families, names which thereafter frequently occur in-the Herschel family correspondence.

In 1757 William Herschel, also an oboist in a military band, took refuge in England following the defeat of the Hanoverian forces at Hastenbeck. He continued his musical career, eventually becoming an organist and the leader of an orchestra at the fashionable resort of Bath. While there he became interested in optics and astronomy and began to manufacture reflecting telescopes; for which he enlisted the aid of his brother Alexander and, more importantly, his sister Caroline, both of whom followed him to England. His sensational discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781 brought him recognition and a royal pension, later supplemented by a stipend for Caroline Herschel’s services. This enabled him to devote himself to astronomy and especially to the study of star clusters, nebulae, and binary stars.

For her own part, Caroline Herschel independently discovered eight comets and three nebulae in the course of patiently and devotedly assisting her brother. She further fostered the scientific interests of her nephew, John Herschel, who enjoyed a diversified (he was a physicist and chemist as well as an astronomer) and profitable career. John Herschel traveled extensively and worked closely with both the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society; he is particularly remembered for his studies and cataloging of the southern skies.

The central position that the Herschels held in British astronomy was consolidated through the work of John Herschel’s sons and through the marriage of his daughters into the Maclear and Waterfield families, and finally by the work of one of his grandsons, the Reverend John Charles William Herschel. Their influence thus extended for over a century. Both William and John Herschel were Knights of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order and in 1838 Queen Victoria granted John the hereditary title of baronet. The title is now extinct, and although John Herschel had twelve children, the family name today survives in England in the person of a single descendant, Miss Caroline Herschel. The badge of the Royal Astronomical Society includes a depiction of the reflecting telescope of forty-eight-inch diameter and forty-foot focal length that was built at Slough, with aid from the royal purse, under William Herschel’s direction.

The Herschel family lived at Windsor, Datchet, and finally at Slough. A family home with much interesting Herscheliana is at Warfield, Bracknell, Berkshire.

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