Stories of Great Scientists - Charles Gibson

William and Caroline Herschel
17381822 and 17501848

A Devoted Brother and Sister who Made Enormous Advances in Astronomy

There are several cases of eminent scientists having been assisted in their scientific work by their wives, but I cannot recall any case, other than that of the Herschels, in which the co-workers were brother and sister. If we picture our Heroes of Science as fighting against Ignorance by leading the way into new Knowledge, then we see William Herschel striking out in an entirely new direction and opening up a new world of thought. Indeed, as we proceed with a study of his life, we shall see that the words of the old Scotch divine, already quoted in the opening chapter of this volume, were very true of Herschel:

"Up rose the hero,—on his piercing eye

Sat observation; on each glance of thought

Decision follow'd, as the thunderbolt

Pursues the flash."

The Herschels, as their family name suggests, came from Germany, and their coming is of interest. When William was seventeen years of age he entered the army, becoming a member of the band of the Hanoverian Guards; at this time his sister Caroline was about five years of age. Their father was a musician in this band, a profession which did not provide a very large income for a large family of growing boys and girls. But the father found time for healthy mental recreation in such subjects as Astronomy; he was a cultivated man and thoroughly interested in the education of his family.

The Herschels' mother would not have been persuaded by the modern suffragettes to join their ranks. She believed a woman's place was in the home, but so extreme was she in this that she prevented her daughter Caroline obtaining a reasonable education, such as her father would have liked her to receive. She might have lessons in all that pertained to cooking, sewing, and household duties, but all else seemed to the mother not only unnecessary, but harmful. Even allowing for the fact that she lived nearly two hundred years ago, one cannot help feeling that the mother was very old-fashioned in her ideas; she thought that her husband and her sons would have been better without so much education, and that she would have had them more at home if they had fewer interests.

Whatever may have been wanting in the ordinary schooling of William Herschel was amply remedied by the personal education he received from his father. This fact is very evident from the Recollections of Caroline, in which, when referring to her brothers playing solos in the orchestra of the Court, she says: "I remember that I was frequently prevented going to sleep by the lively criticism on music on coming from a concert, or conversations on philosophical subjects which lasted frequently till morning, in which my father was a lively partaker. Often I would keep myself awake that I might listen to their animating remarks, for it made me so happy to see them so happy. But generally their conversation would branch out on philosophical subjects, when my brother William and my father often argued with such warmth, that my mother's interference became necessary, when the names Leibnitz, Newton, and Euler sounded rather too loud for the repose of her little ones, who ought to be in school by seven in the morning. But it seems that on my brothers retiring to their room, where they shared the same bed, my brother William had still a great deal to say; and frequently it happened that when he stopped for an assent or reply, he found his hearer was gone to sleep, and I suppose it was not till then that he bethought himself to do the same."

In her childhood Caroline became devoted to her big brother William, and some of her early recollections of him are most touching. It was a terrible grief to her, when she was a little girl, to see her father, with her brothers Jacob and William, leave along with their regiment for England. King George III, who was also Elector of Hanover, had become uneasy about the rumours of the French preparing to storm Great Britain, and so he sent for the Hanoverian Guards to come to England and assist in case of any such untoward event as was rumoured. But as nothing so dreadful came to pass, and as the French invaded Hanover, about a year later, the Hanoverian Guards were then ordered back to Hanover, and so we find the Herschels once more in their native land. Jacob had brought with him some fine English clothes and other luxuries, but William's only extravagance had been a copy of Locke's Essay on Human Understanding.

When nineteen years of age William returned to England alone. It is generally stated that he deserted the army, and that he received a formal pardon for this offence from George III, on the occasion of his first audience in 1782. It is very pleasing to learn that this legend is a mistaken one entirely, and that William received an official discharge when his father applied for it on his son's behalf in 1762. A complete copy of the original discharge paper (German) is given in Dr. Dreyer's interesting biographical sketch in "The Scientific Papers of Sir Wm. Herschel," which have been collected by a joint committee of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society.

We know little of the first few years during which William lived in England, but he had a hard struggle as a professional musician. By the time he had reached twenty-six years of age, he had been appointed teacher of the band in an English militia regiment, and shortly after that he became the organist in a chapel at Halifax.

Some years later we find him in a more lucrative position as organist in Bath, which was then the most fashionable resort in England. Previous to this appointment Herschel had paid a hurried visit to his parents. His departure was once more a terrible ordeal for his sister Caroline, then fourteen years of age.

After William had resided for a few years in Bath, it so happened that the Musical Director of Public Concerts brought his youthful daughter on to the concert stage. She seems to have charmed the fashionable world not only by her voice, but by her personality. Before she was seventeen she became engaged to a wealthy suitor, one of her many admirers, whereupon she retired from the concert platform. It was this that suggested to William Herschel, the professional musician, that his sister Caroline, then about twenty-one years of age, might make a success as a concert singer in England. I should like to emphasise this point, as it is often stated that Herschel brought his sister over to help him in his astronomical work.

Before this time their father had died, at the comparatively early age of sixty-one. Caroline had then started to learn millinery and dressmaking, so that she might be able to support herself. She was busy with such matters when a letter came from William, proposing that his sister should be allowed to come to England as a singer. Her brother Jacob, who was by no means a favourite of hers, ridiculed the idea, as Caroline had learnt nothing of singing. Despite all discouragement she began when alone to try to imitate the solo parts of concertos," Shakes and all," such as she heard them playing on the violin. That this Cinderella of the home did not then neglect her household duties is evident, for she set about knitting as many stockings as would last the family for two years.

At last William arrived to conduct his sister to England, she having obtained her mother's consent. They had to travel to the coast in an open post-waggon, the journey taking six days, and then several additional days at sea. Caroline's experience on arriving in England was rather dreadful. One incident she relates in the following words: "We mounted some sort of cart to bring us to the next place where diligences going to London would pass. But we had hardly gone a quarter of an English mile when the horse, which was not used to go in what they called the shafts, ran away with us, overturning the cart with trunks and passengers. My brother, another person, and myself, all throwing themselves out, I flying into a dry ditch."

Then Caroline records her first impression of London: "In the evening when the shops were lighted up, we went to see all that was to be seen in that part of London, of which I only remember the optician's shops, for I do not think we stopped at any others."

William had made already a name for himself as a musician in Bath, not only as a teacher, but as a composer of anthems, chants, and catches. A considerable portion of his musical compositions still exist in manuscript, although a great deal was lost, a locked box containing it having been stolen from the chapel at Bath. We do not hear Herschel's compositions played nowadays, but this does not necessarily mean that they are not good enough. They were appreciated by Herschel's audiences. There is the possibility that little of his music was ever published. It is stated in Caroline's Recollections that, on William's hurried visit home not long before her father's death, the orchestra were invited to a concert at which her brother William's compositions were performed, to the great delight of his father, "who hoped and expected that they would be turned to some profit by publishing them, but there was no printer who bid high enough." There was one catch, The Echo, which Caroline tells us was published, but with the exception of it, she says, none of them ever appeared in print.

When Caroline came to Bath, she must have been impressed with the very earnest life her brother William was living. Every moment was of value, for by this time he was keenly interested in Astronomy, and his musical profession was merely his means of livelihood. He was giving lessons on Astronomy to some of his pupils, and he was both reading and thinking very hard. He had previously prepared himself for this by a serious study of mathematics.

In the European Magazine  of 1785 there are some particulars concerning Herschel's life about this time. We are told that many times after a fatiguing day of from fourteen to sixteen hours spent in his musical work, he would retire at night with the greatest avidity "to unbend the mind" with a few propositions in Maclaurin's Fluxions, or other books of that sort. Of course, he could not have done this unless he had been an enthusiast.

When I have heard it argued that we should not ask our young people, who work for nine or ten hours, to attend an evening school, I have quoted such cases as Herschel's. If a young person is in earnest, it will do him or her no harm whatever to attend a continuation class; it will be a mental recreation.

Here was William Herschel keen to be at Astronomy, but he did not neglect his ordinary duties. He had brought his sister over from Germany with the idea of making her a professional singer, and so he gave her two or three singing lessons every day. He gave her also lessons in English and Arithmetic, but these seem to have been entirely during meals, with discourses on Astronomy by way of relaxation. These talks upon Astronomy had been begun in the six days' travel in the open post-waggon, on their way to the German coast.

But William was so busy that, apart from her singing lessons, it was only at meal-times that Caroline saw him, and even then it was necessary to use the time for English lessons. The natural result was that poor Caroline felt very home-sick. Her brother Alexander was also an inmate of the house, but he too was busy.

Caroline had looked forward to seeing more of her brother William during the Easter holidays, but by that time he was so fatigued that "he retired to bed with a bason of milk or a glass of water, and Smith's Harmonies and Optics, or Ferguson's Astronomy, and so went to sleep under his favourite authors."

It was most natural that Herschel should wish to see the heavenly bodies about which he had read and thought so much. Telescopes, although invented nearly two centuries earlier, were still luxuries. But there happened to be a two-and-a-half-foot telescope for hire in Bath, and Herschel took advantage of this. He seems to have determined at once to make a larger one for himself. As it was a reflecting telescope which he proposed to make, he thought he might be able to purchase a mirror for it in London. Word came from the opticians in London that no mirror had been made so large as was asked for, but that one could be made at a certain price. Herschel thought the price unreasonable, and so he determined to make his own mirror.

When the summer holidays came round, Herschel began his work in real earnest. Poor Caroline saw almost every room in the house turned into a workshop. A cabinet-maker was hard at work, making a tube and stands of all descriptions, in a handsomely furnished drawing-room. Her brother Alexander was busy with a large turning-machine in a bedroom, and so on. Such arrangements must have been rather alarming to the housekeeper, but all would seem quite reasonable to the enthusiastic Astronomer. I know personally of an enthusiastic Zoologist abroad going the length of putting a pair of young giraffes into a handsomely furnished bedroom, because they had contracted cold on their journey to him. His wife was from home, but I doubt if even household arguments would have damped his enthusiasm.

Even when Herschel had turned his house into a workshop, he was not free of musical duties. He had to leave his hobby to attend rehearsals, and to compose glees and catches for the next winter's concerts. He would return from a concert and set to work without taking time to change his dress, so that many a lace ruffle was torn or bespattered with molten pitch. He could not work fast enough, and several times he had reminders of the old proverb, which says, "the more hurry the less speed." On one of these occasions he lost a finger-nail and was found in a fainting condition.

No matter how desperate William was to hurry on the completion of his telescope, he did not neglect family duties. Just as he was trying to snatch every spare moment to get to his workshop, news arrived from Hanover that his youngest brother, Dietrich, had run away from home, with the avowed intention of going to India with a young idler not older than himself. Immediately upon receipt of this news William laid down his tools and set out for Hanover. During his absence it was discovered that the lad was laid up in an inn at Wapping (England), so Alexander went off and brought him to Bath. But it took William several weeks to make his double journey.

On his return from Hanover he set to work on his telescope in real earnest, not even taking his meals in peace. Although not so bad as Sir Isaac Newton, who never took time to sit down to meals if alone, Caroline tells us that her brother was never unemployed at meals, while both tea and supper had to be served to him in his workshop to save any interruption.

While William was engaged in the tedious work of grinding and polishing mirrors, his sister would sit in the workshop and read to him such books as Arabian Nights  or Don Quixote, and sometimes she would lend a hand in the work.

Caroline proved a success as a singer, and became the principal artiste at the next winter's concerts, but by this time William was so keen about Astronomy that he would gladly have been quite free of music. The writer in the European Magazine  of 1785, to which I have already referred, tells us that Herschel would leave the orchestra in the theatre during the interval between the acts to run home and look for a moment at some heavenly body.

One night Herschel was busy studying the Moon, and as it was in the front of his house he had to take his telescope out on to the road. He tells us in his Journal: "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. Next morning the gentleman, Dr. Watson, junr. (now Sir William), called at my house to thank me for my civility in showing him the Moon, and told me that there was a Literary Society then forming at Bath, and invited me to become a member of it, to which I readily consented."

It is remarkable how few people ever trouble to have a look through a telescope at our faithful satellite, or any of the great planets, which like ourselves are travelling through space in a constant journey around the Sun. I know of one very fine Observatory, which was built "to interest the rising generation of the town and neighbourhood in the study of Astronomy," and to my knowledge there are comparatively very few of the residents who ever take advantage of it.

This chance meeting with Sir William Watson did not mean a passing acquaintance. Sir William became a constant visitor at Herschel's workshop, often lending a hand himself. From this time forward Herschel became known as an amateur astronomer.

Caroline tells us of what might have proved a very serious accident in her brother's workshop. When melting the metal in a furnace, preparatory to casting a large reflecting mirror, the furnace began to leak, "and both my brothers and the caster and his men were obliged to run out at opposite doors, for the stone flooring flew about in all directions, as high as the ceiling. My poor brother fell, exhausted with heat and exertion, on a heap of brickbats."

With one great bound William Herschel leaped into fame. The cause of this was, of course, his discovery of a new planet. Astronomers had been viewing the heavens through telescopes for nearly two hundred years, and they had no thought of there being any other great planets in our solar system than those which had been known from antiquity; these being in the order of their distance from the sun—Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. I have included the Earth, although the ancients did not reckon it as a planet.

Naturally there was considerable excitement among Astronomers, and a great deal of general interest among the public, when it was announced that this musician at Bath had seen another great planet away in space, a fellow-traveller around the Sun.

This great discovery was made, not by chance, but by a persistent and systematic searching of the heavens. One who visited Herschel some years later tells us that the astronomer made each star pass through the field of the telescope at least three times, so that he might make no error. The planet was discovered a few days before Caroline's thirty-first birthday, when Herschel himself was forty-three years of age, and still an amateur Astronomer. But his discovery brought him honours from practically every scientific society in the world. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and received the honorary degree of D.C.L. from Oxford University. There is evidence that up till this time his name was unknown, except locally, for in the accounts of his discovery his name is spelt in no less than half a dozen different ways, one being as far out as Mersthel.

It will be understood that Herschel made his great discovery before he had been introduced to King George III. I think it is not generally noticed that more than a year elapsed between the discovery and Herschel's introduction to the King, although the Herschels had been informed by friends from time to time that it was expected that William would be commanded to appear before His Majesty.

Herschel's letters from London to his sister, whom he always addresses as "Dear Lina," make very interesting reading. These tell of his different visits to the King, and it is evident how pleased he was to have his work recognised, both by the King and by the Astronomers: "You see, Lina, I tell you all these things. You know vanity is not my foible, therefore I need not fear your censure." And in another letter: "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!"

Not only was the King himself interested, but so were all the members of the Royal Family. One evening, when the King and Queen were gone to Kew, the Princesses were desirous of seeing the new telescope, but wanted to know if it were possible to see without going out on the grass, which probably was wet. Herschel arranged to have the instrument taken into the Queen's apartments. Unfortunately the sky was completely clouded, and after showing the young ladies the speculum mirror and the movements of the telescope, Herschel gave up all hope of the sky clearing.

It has been stated, and by authors for whom I have the greatest respect, that Herschel showed a good deal of worldly wisdom in having prepared an artificial Saturn of pasteboard, which he affixed to the garden wall, and that with the aid of lamps he showed this to the Princesses as though it were the real planet, and that they went away much pleased.

Of course, with a Herschel-reflecting telescope one does not look directly towards the object, but towards the mirror in the telescope. But Herschel did not cheat the Princesses. In a letter to Caroline, telling her of this incident, he writes: "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."

It is quite evident from Herschel's letter that there was no attempt to cheat the Princesses. He proposed to them the artificial Saturn, and they accepted the proposal with pleasure. I remark particularly upon this point, for I remember hearing the other version of the story, given in a lecture by a very able man, when I was a boy, and finding confirmation of the story by more than one good author, I did not doubt it. I felt it was rather mean of Herschel to deceive the Princesses. I can remember being quite relieved, some years later, when I read Herschel's letter to his sister, from which I have quoted.