David Nightingale: Herschel (1738 - 1822)

Jul 4, 2013

Choose a career, and stay with it for life?

Perhaps that's what many people used to do and maybe still do  --  but consider this man:

Wilhelm Herschel, known to the world later as Sir William Herschel, discoverer of the planet URANUS  --  born 18 years before Mozart, and one of 6 children of a bandsman in the royal footguards in Hanover, Germany.

All those siblings learned musical instruments, Wilhelm's being both violin and oboe; and at 21 he and one of his brothers emigrated to England, where Wilhelm eked out a living as a music copyist. He writes in his autobiography:

'  ...so numerous a family would not permit my father, with his scanty circumstances to bestow much on the education of his children...  I loved Music to an excess and made a considerable progress in it...  the difficulty of succeeding in London induced me to visit some places in the country, and after some years spent in Newcastle, Leeds etc, I was chosen Organist at Halifax in Yorkshire.'

In this rather lonely period in his 20s, Herschel composed symphonies, concertos and sonatas. He also gave many performances, and was even invited to lead an Edinburgh orchestra in the performance of some of his own works.   (In the background you can hear his "Oboe Concerto in C Major" – Ref.1)

At 28 he was appointed Organist and Choirmaster of the Octagon Chapel in Bath, (an ancient Roman city near Bristol), a position he held for about fifteen years. He wrote:

'My situation proved a very profitable one, as I soon fell into all the public business of the Concerts, the Rooms etc... and many times after a fatiguing day of 14 or 16 hours I retired at night with the greatest avidity to unbend the mind, with a few propositions in Maclaurin's (calculus of )Fluxions or other books of that sort...'

From his job, and his performing, he was soon able to invite some of his siblings over from Hanover, particularly his younger sister Caroline and another musician brother, Alex.

By the time Herschel was 40 he had a reputation as a composer, oboist, and teacher, (though not of course a Mozart, who was by then 22.) Yet, by the time Herschel was 43 he would suddenly acquire an even greater reputation, on account of his interests in math, optics and astronomy.

'To my sorrow',  wrote his sister Caroline, 'I saw almost every room turned into a workshop; a cabinet-maker making a tube in a handsomely furnished drawing-room; Alex putting up a huge turning machine in a bedroom ...'

Herschel writes about it this way: 'Among other mathematical subjects, optics and astronomy came in turn, and when I read of the many charming discoveries that had been made by means of the telescope, I was so delighted that I wished to see the heavens with my own eyes... the price quoted for a telescope seemed to me so extravagant that I formed the resolution to make one myself ... I persisted for some years ... till to my infinite satisfaction I saw Saturn in the year 1774 through a 5 ft Newtonian reflector of my own making... I used frequently to run from the Harpsichord at the theater to look at the stars during the time of an act and return to the next Music...'

As we said, at 43 Herschel made that major discovery: the large and featureless 7th planet, Uranus. A few months later, King George III asked to see him and his telescope, and then offered to support him as an astronomer, if he would leave his music post and come permanently to London. Thus ended his first 4 decades (of music), and thus began his 2nd 4 decades (of astronomy.)

At the age of 50 Herschel married, and one son was born, John Herschel, who later also became a well-known astronomer.

In those last 40 years Wilhelm Herschel discovered new satellites of both Saturn and Uranus. He discovered hundreds of binary stars, and thousands of nebulae. He observed the direction of solar motion in our galaxy, and he outlined the Milky Way's general form. In much of his work he was assisted by Caroline, (who in old age was awarded a Gold Medal for her catalog of over 2000 nebulae.)

Near the end of his life Herschel was knighted, and in his early 80s he was elected the first President of the newly formed Royal Astronomical Society.

 He died in his sleep at the age of 84, having enjoyed 2 careers, and there is a memorial stone to the German musician on the floor of Westminster Abbey.

 * * *

Ref.1.     Music Excerpts from “Sir William Herschel – Music by the Father of Modern Astronomy”, The Mozart Orchestra, Conductor Davis Jerome, Oboist Richard Woodhams.

(CD from Newport Classics, 106, Putnam St.,Providence, Rhode Island 02909.)

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text,  A Short Course in General Relativity.

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