Great Astronomers HTML version

William Herschel
William Herschel, one of the greatest astronomers that has ever lived, was born at
Hanover, on the 15th November, 1738. His father, Isaac Herschel, was a man evidently
of considerable ability, whose life was devoted to the study and practice of music, by
which he earned a somewhat precarious maintenance. He had but few worldly goods to
leave to his children, but he more than compensated for this by bequeathing to them a
splendid inheritance of genius. Touches of genius were, indeed, liberally scattered among
the members of Isaac's large family, and in the case of his forth child, William, and of a
sister several years younger, it was united with that determined perseverance and rigid
adherence to principle which enabled genius to fulfil its perfect work.
A faithful chronicler has given us an interesting account of the way in which Isaac
Herschel educated his sons; the narrative is taken from the recollections of one who, at
the time we are speaking of, was an unnoticed little girl five or six years old. She writes:-
"My brothers were often introduced as solo performers and assistants in the orchestra at
the Court, and I remember that I was frequently prevented from going to sleep by the
lively criticisms on music on coming from a concert. 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--Euler, Leibnitz, and Newton--sounded
rather too loud for the repose of her little ones, who had to be at school by seven in the
morning." The child whose reminiscences are here given became afterwards the famous
Caroline Herschel. The narrative of her life, by Mrs. John Herschel, is a most interesting
book, not only for the account it contains of the remarkable woman herself, but also
because it provides the best picture we have of the great astronomer to whom Caroline
devoted her life.
This modest family circle was, in a measure, dispersed at the outbreak of the Seven
Years' War in 1756. The French proceeded to invade Hanover, which, it will be
remembered, belonged at this time to the British dominions. Young William Herschel
had already obtained the position of a regular performer in the regimental band of the
Hanoverian Guards, and it was his fortune to obtain some experience of actual warfare in
the disastrous battle of Hastenbeck. He was not wounded, but he had to spend the night
after the battle in a ditch, and his meditations on the occasion convinced him that
soldiering was not the profession exactly adapted to his tastes. We need not attempt to
conceal the fact that he left his regiment by the very simple but somewhat risky process
of desertion. He had, it would seem, to adopt disguises to effect his escape. At all events,
by some means he succeeded in eluding detection and reached England in safety. It is
interesting to have learned on good authority that many years after this offence was
committed it was solemnly forgiven. When Herschel had become the famous astronomer,