Great Astronomers HTML version

John Herschel
This illustrious son of an illustrious father was born at Slough, near Windsor, on the 7th
March, 1792. He was the only child of Sir William Herschel, who had married somewhat
late in life, as we have already mentioned.
certain stars by the intervention of the moon.]
The surroundings among which the young astronomer was reared afforded him an
excellent training for that career on which he was to enter, and in which he was destined
to attain a fame only less brilliant than that of his father. The circumstances of his youth
permitted him to enjoy one great advantage which was denied to the elder Herschel. He
was able, from his childhood, to devote himself almost exclusively to intellectual
pursuits. William Herschel, in the early part of his career, had only been able to snatch
occasional hours for study from his busy life as a professional musician. But the son,
having been born with a taste for the student's life, was fortunate enough to have been
endowed with the leisure and the means to enjoy it from the commencement. His early
years have been so well described by the late Professor Pritchard in the "Report of the
Council of the Royal Astronomical Society for 1872," that I venture to make an extract
"A few traits of John Herschel's boyhood, mentioned by himself in his maturer life, have
been treasured up by those who were dear to him, and the record of some of them may
satisfy a curiosity as pardonable as inevitable, which craves to learn through what early
steps great men or great nations become illustrious. His home was singular, and
singularly calculated to nurture into greatness any child born as John Herschel was with
natural gifts, capable of wide development. At the head of the house there was the aged,
observant, reticent philosopher, and rarely far away his devoted sister, Caroline Herschel,
whose labours and whose fame are still cognisable as a beneficent satellite to the brighter
light of her illustrious brother. It was in the companionship of these remarkable persons,
and under the shadow of his father's wonderful telescope, that John Herschel passed his
boyish years. He saw them, in silent but ceaseless industry, busied about things which
had no apparent concern with the world outside the walls of that well-known house, but
which, at a later period of his life, he, with an unrivalled eloquence, taught his
countrymen to appreciate as foremost among those living influences which but satisfy
and elevate the noblest instincts of our nature. What sort of intercourse passed between
the father and the boy may be gathered from an incident or two which he narrated as
having impressed themselves permanently on the memory of his youth. He once asked
his father what he thought was the oldest of all things. The father replied, after the
Socratic method, by putting another question: 'And what do you yourself suppose is the
oldest of all things?' The boy was not successful in his answers, thereon 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 his father is said to
have asked the boy, 'What sort of things, do you think, are most alike?' The delicate,