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Caroline Herschel, Co-Discoverer of the Universe

Caroline Herschel, Co-Discoverer of the Universe

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Caroline Herschel is famous for being one of the first women to make significant contributions to astronomy. She discovered eight comets and many nebulae and star clusters, both on her own and in accomplice with her brother William Herschel.

For this reason, she has become an inspiration for many women in science. She also played a major role, along with her brother, in shaping the modern view of the cosmos with her recording of nebulae, many of which turned out to be galaxies.

Caroline Herschel’s Early Life

Caroline Herschel was born Karoline Lucretia Herschel on March 16, 1750 in Hannover in modern-day Germany. At the time, Hannover was under the control of the British king, making her a British subject despite German being her birth language. She was one of 10 children.

Although Caroline’s parents were well off, her childhood could have been better. At the age of about 10, she contracted typhus which stunted her growth. She never grew taller than four feet and three inches. She also caught smallpox at the age of three which had left her disfigured.

Her parents did not believe that she would amount to much. She showed an early interest in astronomy, but her mother disapproved of her education and trained her for housework.

The Beginning of Caroline Herschel’s Astronomical Career

In 1772, when Caroline was 22, her brother William Herschel invited her to live with him in Bath, England where he had found a job as a music instructor. William, who was born in 1738, had always been gifted in music and had written several symphonies. In Bath, England, Caroline also received music lessons and learned to sing.

She and William ended up giving several music performances together while living in the town. William also had a keen interest in astronomy which helped to further enchant his younger sister Caroline with her life-long interest in the heavens.

In the meantime, William’s interest in astronomy was growing. He had made his own telescope which he used to observe the skies from his home in Bath. When Caroline came to live with him, he made her his assistant. She would polish and grind mirrors and record observations which he would shout down he as peered through the telescope on long nights over the years.

William and Caroline Herschel polishing a telescope mirror. (GreenMeansGo / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

In 1781, William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus , becoming the first person in the Western tradition to officially discover a new planet since antiquity. This immediately made him famous and King George III invited him to serve as court astronomer in 1782. For this position, Herschel would be paid a generous salary of 200 pounds per year which he could use to fund his astronomical research.

Caroline Herschel taking notes as her brother William observes on March 13, 1781, the night William discovered Uranus. (H.Seldon / )

William and his sister could not turn down this opportunity and they moved out of the town of Bath to a village in rural England near Windsor. While there, Caroline and William began their joint observations in earnest of nebulae, star clusters, and eventually comets. Caroline continued to help him with observations.

Caroline, however, does not appear to have found country life to her liking. William, to cheer her up and keep her occupied, made her several telescopes, one of which was a Newtonian reflector, to make her own observations. It is after this that her observations began in earnest.

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A telescope that William made for Caroline Herschel. (Geni / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Over the next several decades, both on her own and working with William, she would discover eight comets and record many nebulae. In 1787, she even began to receive a salary for her work as an assistant to William of 50 pounds per year, becoming the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist. Although she was officially William Herschel’s assistant, at least until his death in 1822, she also made many observations on her own and became increasingly independent.

The Comet Discoveries of Caroline Herschel

Until the late 20th century, Caroline Herschel held the record of being the woman to have discovered the most comets. The first comet that she officially discovered was one that she found while scanning the skies in 1786.

This comet now bears her name, C/1786 P1 (Herschel). She first identified the comet on August 1, 1786, though she did not know what it was yet. The following night she confirmed it with further telescopic observations. Several weeks later, a naked eye observation of the comet was made on August 17th.

The second comet she discovered is also famous, 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. She discovered it on December 21, 1788 and compared notes with her brother. It had a brightness magnitude of about 7.5. They continued to track the comet until February 5, 1789.

This comet would make another appearance in history. Over 150 years later, in July 1939, a Frenchman, Roger Rigollet, identified a comet which was tracked until January 1940, when it was last observed by the Lick Observatory. The astronomer L. E. Cunningham computed the orbit of the comet and concluded that it must be the same comet that was observed by Caroline Herschel back in 1788.

Another famous comet that she discovered was the comet 2P/ Encke. The comet Encke was first observed on January 17, 1786 by Pierre Mechain, a well-known comet hunter.

The object was not observed again until almost 10 years later by Herschel on November 7, 1795. After Caroline Herschel’s observation, it was encountered again in 1805, though at this point astronomers didn’t know that it was the same comet.

Caroline Herschel observed comet 2P/Encke. (AstroFloyd / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

In 1818, another comet was found and the German astronomer and eventual director of the Berlin Observatory, Johann Encke, calculated the orbit of the comet and determined that it must be the same comet which had appeared in 1786, 1795, and 1805, though he was not the first to suggest it.

He also predicted the return of the comet in 1822. For this reason, the comet was named after Encke since he predicted the comet’s return in the same way that Halley’s comet was named after Edmund Halley when he predicted its return.

The story of 2P/ Encke continues into the space age. In 2013, it was observed up close by the MESSENGER spacecraft as well as the STEREO spacecraft. The comet is known to have a diameter of about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) and an orbital period of 3.3 years. It is also known for having a very short orbital period compared to other known comets in the solar system.

The last comet that Herschel discovered was comet C/1797 P1 (Bouvard-Herschel) which she and another astronomer, Eugene Bouvard, discovered independently on the same night of August 14, 1797. This comet came very close to Earth, coming within only 0.0879 A.U. (Astronomical Unit, distance between Earth and the Sun) on August 16th.

Caroline Herschel and the New General Catalogue

C/1797 P1 (Bouvard Herschel) was the last comet that Herschel is credited with discovering. She also made discoveries of several important nebulae, expanding what eventually would become the New General Catalogue (NGC). The New General Catalogue is a catalog of nebulae, galaxies, star clusters and other deep space objects that Caroline and William Herschel began recording by the 1780s.

By the early 19th century, William and Caroline had recorded over 2,500 objects. This was continued by Caroline Herschel’s nephew, John Herschel , who recorded thousands more from his observatory in South Africa. The NGC catalogue is one of the most extensive catalogues used in modern astronomy.

Four different planetary nebulae from the NGC catalogue. (Jcpag2012 / )

Among the nebulae that Caroline Herschel helped to record, two that she is famous for are NGC 2360 and NGC 205. NGC 2360 is a star cluster that Caroline Herschel discovered on February 26, 1783. It is significant in being the first deep sky object that she discovered in her own right.

NGC 2360 is now known to be an open star cluster that is about 6,150 light years from Earth and has a magnitude of 7.2. From the perspective of our solar system, it is located in the constellation Canis Major.

Open star clusters are composed of stars that are loosely bound to each other by mutual gravitational attraction. They are believed to originate most often from clouds of interstellar gas and dust within the arms of spiral galaxies.

Open star clusters are principle star forming regions and all stars in our galaxy and in other galaxies are believed to likely have their origin in an open star cluster. Caroline Herschel’s discovery eventually helped lead to an understanding of how the stellar population in galaxies evolves over time.

Another object that Caroline Herschel is famous for discovering is NGC 205. NGC 205 was first observed on August 10, 1773 by Charles Messier, but Messier, for whatever reason, failed to put it in his catalogue. It was discovered again by Caroline Herschel on August 27, 1783 and William Herschel added it to his catalogue on October 5, 1784. It was finally added to the Messier catalogue in 1966 by Kenneth Glyn Jones as Messier 110 or M110.

Caroline Herschel observed Messier 110 in 1783. ( Donald Pelletier / CC BY-Sa 4.0)

NGC 205 is significant as a satellite galaxy to the Andromeda Galaxy which is the closest large galaxy to the Milky Way. NGC 205, as a result, is about the same distance from the Milky Way, 2.9 million light years. It is now known to be an elliptical or dwarf spheroidal galaxy.

As a spheroidal galaxy, it consists of old stars and relatively little gas and dust. These spheroidal galaxies are apparently very useful for doing X-ray astronomy because the stellar bodies are far apart from each other and there is relatively little gas and dust to absorb the X-rays and re-emit them at longer wavelengths.

Caroline Herschel’s Role in Discovering the Universe

Caroline Herschel along with their brother observed many objects, which they referred to as nebulae, which later turned out to be very significant cosmic objects. In the late 18th century, not much was known about the structure of the universe. Astronomers had only discovered that Earth was not the center of the universe a few centuries earlier.

The discoveries that Caroline Herschel and her brother William Herschel made paved the way for a modern understanding of the universe. Astronomers later discovered that many of the nebulae that the Herschel siblings found were galaxies.

Up until the early 20th century, astronomers and cosmologists believed that our galaxy was the only galaxy and that these nebular structures were within our galaxy. The astronomer Edwin Hubble showed that spiral nebulae, at least, must be other galaxies and that our galaxy was only one among many other galaxies.

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Spiral Galaxy NGC 3982 displays numerous spiral arms filled with bright stars, blue star clusters, and dark dust lanes. (BevinKacon / )

Once astronomers knew that these mysterious cosmic objects were other galaxies, they also determined that most galaxies were redshifted, that is, their light was shifted to the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Edwin Hubble also played a major role in the discovery that “redshifted” galaxies were in fact moving away from us, supporting the idea that the universe was expanding.

The universe is not static but changes and evolves. We now know that galaxies themselves also evolve and change over billion-year timescales as stars are born, live, and die within them. This revolution in modern cosmology largely began with the humble observations of nebulae initiated by Caroline Herschel and her brother.

William Herschel passed away in 1822. After his death, Caroline Herschel decided to leave England and go back to Hannover. While in Hannover, she continued her recording of nebulae and star clusters. During her final years, she enjoyed fame as a woman scientist.

It was very unusual for a woman to make major accomplishments in science, let alone receive a salary as a scientist, at the time. As a result, she was somewhat of a celebrity. Her accomplishments were also recognized.

She received a medal from the Astronomical Society for her scientific work in 1828. By the time of her death in 1848, she was well respected within the scientific community. Her scientific accomplishments have helped to shape modern astronomy and cosmology.

Caroline Herschel at 78, one year after winning the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. (Bernd Schwabe in Hannover / )

Her role as a woman scientist also helped to empower women which is why she is a feminist icon today. She has been an inspiration to both female and male scientists around the world ever since.

7 Horribly Sexist Moments In STEM History

Sexist discrimination in STEM — an acronym bringing together science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — is such incredibly old news that it's a serious wonder we haven't discovered the words "WOMEN CAN'T BE TRUSTED TO ADD" in cave paintings. The topic reared its head again last week, when a (male) peer reviewer of a scientific paper written by two female scientists advised them to “find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors)" to stop them "drifting too far away from empirical evidence." Women: apparently so incapable of rational thought that they can't be trusted to produce science that's unbiased. (And, according to the same peer reviewer, possessing far less "health and stamina" than men.) If that doesn't start you frothing at the mouth, just wait — there's plenty more where that came from in the sexist history of science and math.

As much as Google rejoices over figures like Ada Lovelace, and Marie Curie is a household name (deservedly — have you won two Nobel prizes lately?), gender discrimination remains a serious problem in STEM fields all the way through, from recruitment to publication. A seriously upsetting study in 2014 revealed that the exact same resume for a lab management job won significantly more positions, was offered a higher salary, and was seen as far more competent if it was submitted under the name "John" rather than "Jennifer." Every time progress seems to be made, evidence continues to mount that serious gender biases still exist, like, oh, men being twice as likely to be offered jobs in mathematical fields as women. (The shocking thing about that study is that women also offered fewer jobs to women.)

Implicit gender bias is keeping women out of STEM, and it's been that way for a seriously long time. So let's put it into a little historical context, shall we? Be prepared to steam at the ears: here are some of the worst sexist moments in the history of Western science.

1. Caroline Herschel Has To Live In An Attic

If the name "Herschel" rings a bell to you, it's probably because of Caroline Herschel's brother, Sir William Herschel, a famous astronomer who discovered Uranus and was the British King George III's "Court Astronomer." His sister Caroline, however, had her own luminous career, discovering eight comets and becoming the first woman to receive a salary from the king for scientific work — when she had time, in between running Herschel's entire household and living in his attic (and later in his barn).

Herschel was encouraged by her brother in her astronomical talents, which were considerable, but she had a hard time of it: he was the astronomical star of the family, pun intended, and she was the one who polished the telescope mirrors and made notes of his observations. When they lived in Bath, she resided in the family attic while he had comfortable rooms downstairs, and when William got married in 1788, Caroline moved out of their house to an external building. To add insult to injury, Caroline's mostly been depicted as a harpy who clung to her brother's coattails, although a recent biography ( Age Of Wonder by Richard Holmes) has resurrected her reputation a bit.

2. Vera Rubin Is Rejected By Princeton

Dr. Vera Rubin is a pioneering astronomer who found the first empirical proof of "dark matter," invisible matter that makes up a large proportion of the mass of the universe, by measuring the orbital speeds of stars in spiral galaxies. Before that, however, she was rejected by Princeton for a graduate degree because their astronomy program didn't accept women. At all.

This was in 1948, and they held onto that policy until 1975. Rubin has spoken openly about her battle with sexism through her career, and made it a point to be available for mentoring for women following in her footsteps: she once said, "It is well known that I am available twenty-four hours a day to women astronomers."

3. Esther Lederberg Loses Nobel Prize Credit To Her Husband

Esther Lederberg is a Nobel Laureate That Wasn't — because her husband got all the credit. Her field was in bacterial genetics, and she made huge strides of knowledge, including discovering a virus that infected bacteria, but the establishment at the time wasn't willing to acknowledge that a woman could do such amazing work on her own. They awarded her collaborator, her husband Joshua, the Nobel Prize in 1958 for their combined work on how bacteria mate — and excluded her entirely.

Lederberg's pioneering work also didn't garner her the academic standing she deserved she had to fight tooth and nail to keep academic jobs at Stanford when she should have been a tenured professor the second she walked in the door.

4. Rosalind Franklin Has Her DNA Work Stolen

If there's one name that probably rings a bell when it comes to sexist injustice in science, it's probably Rosalind Franklin's. She was famously cheated out of credit for her contribution to the discovery of the DNA helix by an effective hijacking: James Watson, one of the two credited discoverers, was secretly shown her work by her colleague Maurice Wilkins, who'd taken it without asking.

Both Watson and the other co-discoverer, Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, have since said that Franklin should have shared the award (though James Watson has since revealed himself to be a racist, sexist idiot).

5. Maria Margarethe Kirch's Husband 'Discovers' Her Comet

Maria Margarethe Kirch was a somewhat unusual woman: living in the late 1600s and early 1700s, she was educated to the same standard as boys at the time, and was the respected work partner of her husband, astronomer Gottfried Kirch. The problem arose when Maria discovered a comet by herself in 1702 — and Gottfried took public credit. We're not sure entirely why perhaps the couple thought she wouldn't be believed on her own, or he feared ridicule. Or he was just being a dick.

At any rate, Gottfried owned up publicly in 1710, but by that point, it was too late. When he died, Maria tried to take her husband's position at the Royal Academy Of Sciences, but the committee were incredulous and appointed a dude with little experience instead.

6. Emmy Noether Has To Lecture Under A Man's Name

Emmy Noether is regarded as one of the most influential figures in mathematical history. Ever. Albert Einstein thought she was the most important woman in the history of mathematics. And no, she's not a household name either.

Noether, whose work underpins a lot of modern physics, including the search for the Higgs Boson, was left out in the cold so thoroughly in her early career in Germany that she wasn't allowed to even give a lecture under her own name.

Her appointment to the University of Göttingen in 1915 was nearly blocked by an academic who remarked, "What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?" Noether lectured anyway, but the lectures were advertised under the name of her colleague David Hilbert so nobody could kick up a fuss.

7. Jocelyn Bell Burnell Is Cheated Of The Nobel Prize

In 1967, as part of her Ph.D. thesis, Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered radio pulsars, astronomical phenomena which are actually neutron stars that "pulse." There's no doubt that she was the first to discover and observe pulsars, but recognition was stolen from her. Her thesis supervisor, Anthony Hewish, took all the credit — and a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1974 with another man, Martin Ryle.

The exclusion of Bell Burnell, now a Dame of the British Empire, from that award has been a hugely controversial part of Nobel Prize history, but it's hardly the first time she'd seen that sort of thing: she wasn't initially allowed to learn science at school because it wasn't a "ladylike" subject.

Images: Wikimedia Commons, BBC Archives, Trends In Biological Sciences Magazine

Caroline Herschel at The Dinner Party

Caroline Herschel’s place setting and runner reference astronomy and her monumental achievements in the field. The eye in the center of the plate reminds the viewer of Herschel’s search through the telescope to discover the components of the universe. The illuminated capital letter “C” cradles a telescope similar to the Newtonian model Herschel’s brother gave her that launched her career. The shape that surrounds her name is derived from Herschel’s own rendering of the Milky Way (Chicago, The Dinner Party,114).

The runner is intricately designed and embroidered with images of the cosmos, including clouds, stars, and representations of the eight comets Herschel discovered over an eleven-year span. The main body of the runner illustrates a brightly shining star or sun whose rays intersect with concentric rings that are suggestive of charting or mapping. Astronomical notations as well as references to the trajectories of comets are also embroidered on the back of the runner (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 209). Gold and silver threads embellish a deep navy and jet black sky, referencing the brilliance of stars seeming to shine in celebration of Herschel’s invaluable contributions to the field of astronomy.

Discoverers of the Universe – the Herschels

William and Caroline Herschel were the binary stars of the cosmos. The sibling astronomers, who worked together during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, transformed our understanding of the Universe, rewrote the language of the solar system and pioneered the science of deep space.

Their triumphs were revolutionary and blazed a trail across the heavens for others to follow.

But almost as astonishing as these stellar achievements were the Herschels themselves, as Michael Hoskin so brilliantly shows us in this book.

In mesmerising detail, he lays out the lives of these incredible German-born stargazers. There is William, an accomplished court composer who finds his true genius lies not in music but in his passion for amateur astronomy. Then there is Caroline, his devoted younger sister, whose own talents blossomed during the long cold nights she spent toiling at her brother’s elbow.

It is a tale of fierce ambition, bitter disappointments and glittering successes, riven through with the complex emotions of their unique scientific partnership. It is an unbelievable story told with bravura.

William first made his mark in his forties, when observations made on his home-made telescope led to the discovery of Uranus. This was followed by an invitation to become Court Astronomer to King George the Third – and from then on his star was in the ascendent.

He went on to discover infrared radiation, decode the true dynamic nature of our solar system and track 2,500 nebulae. He even found time in his astonishingly active career to coin the term “asteroid”. Beside his scientific work he also established an unrivalled reputation as the builder of telescopes, some of which were 20ft high.

In between lending her brother crucial assistance in his work, Caroline carved her own niche in cosmological history, becoming a celebrated comet hunter – discovering nine – and pioneering the role of women in science.

The achievements of the Herschels are relatively well documented, but thanks to painstaking research, peerless knowledge of his subject and a rare talent for story-telling, Hoskin manages to bring both them and the England they inhabited gloriously alive.

  • Herschel built instruments far better than any being used at the royal observatory.
  • Aided by his sister Caroline, he commenced a great systematic survey that led to his discovery of Uranus in 1781.
  • Unlike observers before him, whose telescopes did not reveal them as astronomical objects, Herschel did not ignore misty patches of light. Hoskins points out Herschel’s achievement in surveying, cataloguing, and describing them as “nebulae” and even coming to the correct conclusion that their structure evolved over time, with Newton’s gravity being the agent of change.
  • Herschel’s surveys established a new astronomy – looking at the universe rather than the planets! Michael Hoskin’s account includes sketches and diagrams from Herschel’s manuscripts in the Royal Astronomical Society Archives in which he attempts to delineate the structure of the Milky Way galaxy.

While it is well-known that Herschel was a revolutionary in telescope design who constructed the world’s largest telescopes, Hoskin also gives the full picture of the man as an entrepreneur who built and traded some 400 telescopes.

Hoskin also pays close attention to the role of William's sister Caroline Herschel, who is usually portrayed as a “helpmate” to her brother. But in fact she became a significant astronomer in her own right.

This book also offers a wealth of information of the wider Herschel family. It is enriched by a complete set of portraits of William and Caroline Herschel with an extensive set of images of their residences and closes with a charming appendix on how visitors to the Herschels recorded their encounters.

William and Caroline Herschel – Pioneers in Late 18th-Century Astronomy will appeal to amateur astronomers and all those interested in popular astronomy. This book will rapidly establish itself as the primary introductory work for students, astronomers, and scholars working on the history of natural science in the late 18th century.

When young Joseph Banks stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, he hoped to discover Paradise. Inspired by the scientific ferment sweeping through Britain, the botanist had sailed with Captain Cook in search of new worlds. Other voyages of discovery—astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical—swiftly follow in Richard Holmes's thrilling evocation of the second scientific revolution. Through the lives of William Herschel and his sister Caroline, who forever changed the public conception of the solar system of Humphry Davy, whose near-suicidal gas experiments revolutionized chemistry and of the great Romantic writers, from Mary Shelley to Coleridge and Keats, who were inspired by the scientific breakthroughs of their day, Holmes brings to life the era in which we first realized both the awe-inspiring and the frightening possibilities of science—an era whose consequences are with us still.

Soon making scientific discoveries in her own right, she swept to international scientific and popular fame. She was awarded a salary by George III in 1787 – the first woman in Britain to make her living from science.


NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book ReviewEntertainment WeeklyO: The Oprah Magazine • NPR • Financial TimesNew YorkIndependent (U.K.) • Times (U.K.) • Publishers WeeklyLibrary JournalKirkus ReviewsBooklistGlobe and Mail

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine: The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, which are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel

Discoverers of the Universe tells the gripping story of William Herschel, the brilliant, fiercely ambitious, emotionally complex musician and composer who became court astronomer to Britain’s King George III , and of William’s sister, Caroline, who assisted him in his observations of the night sky and became an accomplished astronomer in her own right. Together, they transformed our view of the universe from the unchanging, mechanical creation of Newton’s clockmaker god to the ever-evolving, incredibly dynamic cosmos that it truly is.

William was in his forties when his amateur observations using a homemade telescope led to his discovery of Uranus, and an invitation to King George’s court. He coined the term “asteroid,” discovered infrared radiation, was the first to realize that our solar system is moving through space, discovered 2,500 nebulae that form the basis of the catalog astronomers use today, and was unrivalled as a telescope builder. Caroline shared William’s passion for astronomy, recording his observations during night watches and organizing his papers for publication. She was the first salaried woman astronomer in history, a pioneer who herself discovered nine comets and became a role model for women in the sciences.

Written by the world’s premier expert on the Herschels, Discoverers of the Universe traces William and Caroline’s many extraordinary contributions to astronomy, shedding new light on their productive but complicated relationship, and setting their scientific achievements in the context of their personal struggles, larger-than-life ambitions, bitter disappointments, and astonishing triumphs.

"The Herschels, claims Hoskin, were foremost in changing the view of the universe from a static, mechanical creation to that of a living, changing cosmos. . . . Drawing from William's papers, as well as journals and autobiographies penned by Caroline, Hoskin relates the fascinating story of a man who pursued his passion and left a large legacy to science, and the sister who abandoned a singing career to familial obligations, which in time produced rewards for her as well."Publishers Weekly

"The fascinating story of how the Herschels ventured to Slough and beyond is told well in this book written for the general reader by Michael Hoskin."—Peter Rodgers, Nature

"In this joint biography, written with the cooperation of the Herschel family, historian of astronomy Michael Hoskin portrays the siblings' shared passion for the night sky, and the triumphs and pitfalls of their work. Using an amateur telescope, the pair charted thousands of stars and nebulae in catalogues that are still used today."Nature

"[Hoskin brings] the Herschels to life against the background of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century society in England. . . . This is an elegant and enjoyable book that will delight equally readers who have no background in astronomy and those who think they already know about the Herschels."—John Gribbin, Literary Review

"This is very readable and deeply informed."—Steven Carroll, The Age

"Brisk and engagingly written. . . . [Hoskin is] such an experienced historian of astronomy that his account and evaluation of the Herschels' technical progress within that discipline is unrivalled."—William Poole, Times Higher Education

"Fascinating. . . . A very highly readable account of the Golden Age of British astronomy, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in getting a look at just how those astronomers of yore operated."—David Dickinson, Astroguyz

"An amazing book. . . . Although everyone interested in astronomy should read this book, you will love it because it takes readers back in time to visit the Herschels and witness their interactions with people ranging from the king to commoners."—Dr. Milton Friedman, Montgomery News

"All in all I found this a great read, and Michael Hoskin is to be congratulated for producing a volume that gives us far more than a mere scientific or technical account of the Herschels. This fascinating book deserves to be on the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in the history of astronomy."—Wayne Orchiston, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage

"This is a charming book. . . . It is also beautifully produced with quality illustrations throughout to complement the text. I could not recommend it more highly. Read it and you will never again be able to read or hear the name 'Herschel without recalling the vivid characters it depicts."—Jacqueline Mitton, Journal of the British Astronomical Association

"Hoskin provides a comprehensive scientific and social biography of siblings William and Caroline Herschel, told with a liveliness that often reads like a novel. . . . Amateur astronomers of today should find inspiration in this work."Choice

"This splendid account brings the characters to life and will be enjoyed by anyone with the remotest interest in the history of science, and even those who just like a good story."—David Stickland, Observatory

"Hoskin's sympathetic and balanced portrait of this remarkable family is a culminating lesson from a Cambridge don: science is composed of equal parts passion and hard work, while great contributions require openness to the evidence, even when it contradicts the prevailing view. This book will interest amateur stargazers, scientists, those interested in women's history and 18th-century English life, and anyone who has gazed in wonder at the night sky."—Susan Meadows, Santa Fe New Mexican Pasa Tiempo

"The achievements of the Herschels are relatively well documented, but thanks to painstaking research, peerless knowledge of his subject and a rare talent for story-telling, Hoskin manages to bring both them and the England they inhabited gloriously alive. Discoverers of the Universe deserves a place on any bookshelf."—Peter Smith, SpaceStories.com

"The book shows an extraordinary volume of research, but then Hoskin has been researching and writing about the Herschels for nearly half a century. Where it is strongest is on his effortless explanations of William's developing research projects once he became an astronomer."—Emily Winterburn, Journal of BJHS

"Obviously, this book was not written with mathematicians in mind, but aims at a general audience instead. Those readers with an interest in astronomy and/or history of science will surely find it as enjoyable as I did."—Álvaro Lozano-Robledo, MAA Reviews

"This book is a delight. Like the Herschels themselves, Hoskin's dual-biography combines unusual qualities. Carefully researched and gracefully written, it can be appreciated by astronomers, sopranos, oboists, and snooty specialists. Hoskin has forever fixed the Herschels in the firmament. Rightly so."—Robert Alan Hatch, Metascience

"[T]he intertwining of the family life, records from new sources, and the Herschels' contributions to astronomy make this an interesting volume and one that anyone with a modicum of interest in the history of astronomy will find fascinating."—Randall Brooks, Eighteenth-Century Fiction

"Hoskin's portrayal of the careers and significance of the Herschels will be compelling and satisfying for the general reader and an excellent introduction to these topics for historians of astronomy, though the broad strokes used will occasionally leave the historian asking for more. . . . The strength of the book is that it is built on a career centered on working to understand the Herschels and is presented by one who genuinely admires them. This admiration and expertise go hand in hand to create a compelling and accurate survey of two truly remarkable careers."—Michael J. Crowe and Stephen Case, ISIS

"Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel springs from the findings of a lifetime of scholarly endeavor by Michael Hoskin. Accessible and brightly written in a very fluent style as well as splendidly illustrated, it will bring the Herschels and their remarkable lives to still wider attention."—Robert W. Smith, Canadian Journal of History

"This book should now become the standard entry point to the considerable body of historical literature on the Herschels as well as to the primary literature . . . Hoskin's deep knowledge of Hershel's techniques and instruments allows him to understand and explain the challenges and constraints that shaped the way they worked and drove the constant technical innovations that were part of the reasons for their spectacular success. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this book is the detailed and occasionally even intimate insights into the very origins of modern astronomy in the real night-by-night work of William and Caroline."—James Lattis, European Legacy

"The understanding of the cosmos as a whole has been profoundly influenced by the early work carried out by William Herschel with the assistance of his sister Caroline. Michael Hoskin brings out so very well in this book the many incidents and stories that establish how this was achieved, while placing them within the broader context of the astronomical establishment and aristocracy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries."—John Herschel-Shorland

"Nobody is better qualified than Michael Hoskin to assess the crucial role of the Herschels in transforming our cosmic perspective. He clearly conveys their extraordinary energy and commitment, and sets their great achievements in the context of their lives and their era. His elegant writing ensures that this book can be enjoyed even by those with no background in astronomy."—Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

"Hoskin's keen observations provide exceptional resolution of the binary pair, William and Caroline Herschel. Transforming himself from a stargazing musician into the world's best astronomer, William also paved the path for his remarkable sister to become an astronomer in her own right. Together, they revolutionized astronomy itself, to reveal the structure and evolution of the universe. Hoskin is a meticulous and thoughtful guide to the lives and achievements of these extraordinary siblings."—Robert P. Kirshner, author of The Extravagant Universe

"The Herschel clan of Hanover produced a whole family of perennially split personalities, divided between Germany and England, music and astronomy, personal ambitions and family responsibility. Hoskin succeeds marvelously in conveying what made the Herschels click, individually and collectively, masterfully interweaving scientific excitement, personal crises, local color, and social mores in a vividly written, beautifully illustrated double biography. Even King George III comes off as a sympathetic character."—Ingrid D. Rowland, author of Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic

"A wonderfully detailed picture of the famous astronomer William Herschel and his family, illustrating the crucial roles of his sister Caroline in his observation program, of his brother Alex in the construction of his telescopes, and of his son John in completing his survey of nebulae."—Michael Rowan-Robinson, Imperial College London

"Michael Hoskin is a storyteller of science, here relating the fascinating story of the unlikely pair, brother and sister, who pioneered our modern understanding of the larger universe. William Herschel's discovery of Uranus and mapping of nebulae are widely known while Caroline Herschel's collaboration and her independent discovery of comets deserve to be more widely known. Here are their lives, and their extended family's lives, well told and well illustrated."—Jay M. Pasachoff, Williams College

"Discoverers of the Universe is full of fascinating information that has never before seen the light of day. No other account comes close to the richness of detail found in this book, which will become the definitive reference source on the Herschels. Hoskin is exactly the right person to write such a biography."—Owen Gingerich, author of God's Universe

Related Books

Herschel, Caroline Lucretia

(b. Hanover, Germany, 16 March 1750 d. Hanover, 9 January 1848),

Herschel spent the middle half-century (1772–1822) of her long life as assistant and, until William’s marriage in 1788, housekeeper to the brother who had rescued her in 1772 from domestic drudgery in their native Hanover. In 2003 the two (incomplete) autobiographies that she wrote were edited and published, and although the second was composed when she was in her nineties, her command of facts continued to be extraordinary. As a result we now have a better understanding of her first thirty-eight years. In addition, her observing books have been studied in detail and the objects she saw identified.

When William and Caroline arrived in the fall of 1782 in the neighborhood of Windsor Castle, William provided Caroline with a simple refractor and told her to search for objects of interest, such as comets, nebulae, and

double stars. After a year he made her an ingenious reflector to use in place of the refractor, and in the early 1790s, a larger version of the same. From the end of 1783, Caroline’s nights were often taken up with acting as amanuensis to William while he was searching for nebulae but in 1786, when William was away in Germany, Caroline had leisure to observe on her own account and found her first comet. After William married in 1788, she was free of household duties and her brother observed less often, and so she could regularly “sweep” for comets. Between 1788 and 1797, when she made the disastrous and inexplicable decision to leave the cottage next to William’s house and move into lodgings (so effectively ending her career as an observer), she found seven more comets. One we know as Encke's, and it returns every 3.3 years. Another returned in 1939 and is expected again in 2092.

These discoveries brought her fame, but they were to prove less significant than her earliest sweeps with the little refractor. Soon after Caroline first began observing, she came across some of the bright nebulae that the French comet-hunter Charles Messier had listed because they were confusing his searches for comets. Then, on 26 February 1783, she found two nebulae that she and William agreed were unknown to Messier. This was in fact true of only one of the two, but William was left with the conviction that nebulae were present in the heavens in great numbers and could be found even by an inexperienced observer with a telescope that was little more than a toy. The nature of the nebulae—were they all distant star clusters, or were some truly nebulous?—was an unsolved problem in astronomy, and on 4 March William committed himself “to sweep the heaven for Nebulas and Clusters of stars.” With Caroline’s help, this would lead to his catalogs of 2,507 nebulae and eventually, late in the nineteenth century, to the New General Catalogue that astronomers use today. Faced with the need to classify these nebulae, which for a time he believed were all clusters of stars, William took as his criterion the degree of clustering. The implication was that scattered clusters would in time become more condensed as gravity continued to bring the component stars ever closer together: scattered clusters were young, condensed clusters old. In this way William began the transformation of astronomy from the clockwork universe of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to the modern view whereby everything, even the universe itself, evolves.

Caroline’s contribution to the setting in motion of these momentous developments far outweighed the negligible importance of the nebulae and clusters she herself discovered, fewer than twenty in total. If William later rediscovered one of them in his regular “sweeps,” and if it was recognized as one that Caroline had seen earlier, her initials were inserted in the published catalog if not, it languished in her observing books. Two of her observations, however, defy identification. In the summer of 1783 she twice observed “a rich spot” in neighboring regions of sky, and although she is specific as to the locations, no nebulae are to be found there today. It seems likely that she was observing a comet that is otherwise unknown.

Her own published volume relating to John Flam-steed’s great British Catalogue of stars is better appreciated today. William and she used the catalog all the time while sweeping, yet occasionally they found that it did not correspond correctly to what was in the sky. The problem was that there was no way of proceeding back, from the stars as listed in the British Catalogue (volume 3 of Flamsteed’s Historia coelestis britannica) to the observations in volume 2 on which the catalog entries were based. Caroline, in a work that was routine but called for endless patience and meticulous accuracy, supplied this need, and in the process found many errors and no fewer than 561 stars that Flam-steed had overlooked when compiling the catalog.

Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel began her life in astronomy supporting the work of her amateur astronomer brother William. She was working with him when he discovered Uranus.

She became the world’s first professional woman astronomer, her salary provided by King George III of Great Britain. The catalogue of nebulae she produced brought her the British Royal Astronomical Society’s 1828 Gold Medal – the first awarded to a woman. She personally discovered five comets and rediscovered Comet Encke.

Working as a team, William and Caroline Herschel increased the number of known nebulae from about 100 to 2,500.


Caroline Lucretia Herschel was born in the German town of Hanover on March 16, 1750, the eighth child of Isaac Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. Isaac was a musician while Anna was illiterate and vehemently opposed to the education of girls, believing they should work only at home.

Anna objected to Isaac’s attempts to educate his daughters – even opposing violin lessons.

Caroline suffered smallpox at age 3, leaving her face marked. At age 11, she suffered typhus, stunting her growth. Her father and mother believed it would be difficult for Caroline to find a husband. Her mother decided Caroline would become the family’s domestic servant.

Escape to a New Life

Caroline’s brother William moved to the English city of Bath, where he taught music, performed in concerts, and was a church organist. William wanted his young sister Caroline to have a better life than she could as their mother’s servant. He proposed to his family that Caroline should come and live with him in Bath, train to be a singer, and give concerts with him.

In August 1772, William returned to Hanover and took Caroline with him to Bath. He agreed to pay his mother for a servant to replace Caroline, who had been doing most of the household chores.

Life in Bath was not easy for Caroline: she was poorly educated and spoke little English. She did housework for William, who taught her English and mathematics. Breakfast was always taken with a math lesson.

William gave Caroline singing lessons – two or three a day. She took dancing lessons, and by 1777, age 27, she was a notable soprano and had sung the lead in works such as Handel’s Messiah.

Caroline and William Herschel. The Herschels’ telescope lenses were ground at their home. Here William is polishing a mirror and Caroline is applying lubricant to help the grinding process.

A Passion for Astronomy

However, William’s passion for music was decreasing and his passion for astronomy was increasing. He felt driven to understand the heavens better than anyone before he desperately wanted to see objects so faint that nobody had seen them before.

To achieve his goals, he needed the greatest telescopes in the world. The only way to get them was to build them himself – a remarkable endeavor for an amateur to consider, never mind tackle.

William became so obsessed with his goals that, in addition to helping him grind mirrors and lenses, Caroline often had to prepare food and feed it into his mouth as he worked!


In March 1781, William discovered Uranus.

Since prehistoric times, our ancestors had known Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Herschel’s discovery of a new planet was a singular moment in the history of science: if a planet had remained unrecognized for so long, what else might be out there? After all, Uranus was actually visible to the naked eye!

Artist’s impression of the discovery of Uranus.

British scientists petitioned the king, asking that Herschel be paid a government pension to allow him to give up music and devote his life to the construction of his magnificent telescopes offering the possibility of making further stunning discoveries. The king agreed and William became a full-time astronomer. He assumed Caroline would also be happy to give up her musical career to act as his assistant.

Miserable Astronomy Full Time

Caroline was far from happy. She had escaped drudgery in Hanover to become a singer, praised and loved by audiences. She now had to abandon her singing. In August 1782, age 32, she moved with William from Bath to Datchet, near Windsor Castle, closer to the king. Her first months as a full-time astronomer were miserable and lonely. She described her thoughts:

“I was to be trained for an assistant astronomer and by way of encouragement a telescope adapted for sweeping [the night skies] was given to me. I was to sweep for comets… But it was not till the last two months of the same year before I felt the least encouragement for spending the starlight nights on a grass-plot covered by dew or hoar frost without a human being near enough to be within call.”

Things are Looking Up

By the end of the following year, Caroline had discovered four comets and she felt much happier. To be the first human to see these remarkable objects inspired her.

During her career, Caroline discovered or co-discovered eight comets and 14 nebulae, including, in 1783, the Andromeda nebula’s companion Messier 110, also known as NGC 205.

Messier 110, a nebula discovered in 1783 by Caroline Herschel. Nebulae – clouds in space – remained mysterious until the 1920s, when Edwin Hubble established that they are galaxies.

In 1788, Caroline discovered the periodic comet 35P/Herschel–Rigollet. This comet will return in 2092.

In 1795, Caroline rediscovered the remarkable Comet Encke, a comet on a 3.3 year orbit of the sun. The comet was first discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1786.

Comet Encke.
Nebulae and comets looked similar in the night sky.

Survey of the Northern Skies

In October 1783, William finished building a superb instrument, an 18-inch (460 mm) reflecting telescope with 20-foot (6.1 m) focal length. He and Caroline became one of the most formidable teams astronomy has ever known. Night after night, William would systematically observe different regions of the sky, calling out sightings, declinations, and right ascensions of nebulae. Caroline recorded the observations, making the necessary calculations to standardize them for factors such as time, then compiled the data ready for publication in journals. In twenty years of ceaseless exertion, William and Caroline increased the number of known nebulae from about 100 to 2,500.


In 1787, at age 37, Caroline began receiving a pension from King George for her work – she became the world’s first professional woman astronomer.

Finding their work badly hampered by errors in the British Catalogue of Stars, Caroline spent almost two years compiling a list of errors, which she published in 1798, earning her the thanks of all the country’s astronomers.

One Last Great Effort

At age 75, and in retirement, Caroline learned that William’s son John Herschel intended making an updated catalog of nebulae. To make life easier for her nephew, she undertook a huge reconstruction of the existing catalog so that known nebulae were listed by position rather than class.

Her work won her the British Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal in 1828.

Family and the End

Caroline was devoted to her brother William, who had rescued her from drudgery and poverty. In 1788, William married Mary Pitt, a local widow, which seems to have made Caroline deeply unhappy. As time passed, however, relations between the two women improved. Caroline doted on John Herschel, the sole child from the marriage.

William died in 1822. He left Caroline an annual income in his will, enough for her to live very comfortably. Believing she would soon die herself, at age 72 she sought the familiarity of her childhood surroundings in Hanover, and returned there to live with her brother Dietrich and his family.

In fact, she lived for many more years. At age 75, her devotion to her nephew John Herschel pushed her into a frenzy of work to produce a reformulated catalog of nebulae.

On a visit to her when she was 82 years old, John noted:

“She runs about the town with me and skips up her two flights of stairs as wonderfully fresh at least as some folks I could name who are not a fourth of her age… In the morning till eleven or twelve she is dull and weary, but as the day advances she gains life, and is quite ‘fresh and funny’ at ten or eleven p.m. and sings old rhymes, nay, even dances to the great delight of all who see her.”

In 1846, the great naturalist Alexander von Humboldt brought the 95 year-old Caroline a large gold medal from the King of Prussia:

In recognition of the valuable services rendered to Astronomy by you as the fellow-worker of your immortal brother, Sir William Herschel.

Caroline Herschel died peacefully, age 97, on January 9, 1848 in her home in Hanover. She was buried, with a lock of her brother William’s hair, beside her parents’ graves in the churchyard of the Gartengemeinde in Hanover.

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Further Reading
Mark Littmann
Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System
Dover Books on Astronomy, 2004

Michael Hoskin
Herschel, Caroline Lucretia 1750-1848
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 22 September 2005

Constance A. Lubbock
The Herschel Chronicle
Cambridge University Press, Oct 2013

Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel&rsquos father, Isaac Herschel, was the son of a landscape-gardener to the King of Saxony. Rather than following in his father&rsquos footsteps Isaac pursued his passion for music, becoming an oboe player in the Royal Hanoverian Band in 1731 at the age of twenty-four. The next year he and Anna Ilse Moritzen were married and her very traditionally-minded family background, especially concerning the role of women, would later have an impact on their daughters. The Herschels' still-growing family was disrupted in 1743 by the Battle of Dettingen, in which Isaac fought, and from which he returned with an acute rheumatism which would weigh on his health for the remaining years of his life. Two years later, however, Caroline Lucretia was born in Hanover&mdashthe fourth of six children.

Caroline Herschel&rsquos father, Isaac Herschel, was the son of a landscape-gardener to the King of Saxony. Rather than following in his father&rsquos footsteps Isaac pursued his passion for music, becoming an oboe player in the Royal Hanoverian Band in 1731 at the age of twenty-four. The next year he and Anna Ilse Moritzen were married and her very traditionally-minded family background, especially concerning the role of women, would later have an impact on their daughters. The Herschels' still-growing family was disrupted in 1743 by the Battle of Dettingen, in which Isaac fought, and from which he returned with an acute rheumatism which would weigh on his health for the remaining years of his life. Two years later, however, Caroline Lucretia was born in Hanover&mdashthe fourth of six children.

All the children, except the eldest daughter Sophia Elizabeth, very early exhibited distinct musical talent, but Caroline's gifts in that direction were almost entirely neglected&mdashwriting and reading being, in her mother's estimation, the only necessary accomplishments for a woman. During her father's lifetime he supplied her with occasional lessons on the violin, and to him may be traced the musical and scientific tastes which distinguished his children. When asthma and rheumatism finally necessitated his retirement from the army in 1760, it was his great delight to discuss musical and scientific matters with them but after his death in 1762 Caroline was entirely relegated to the kitchen, and to the manifold duties which accrue to a servantless household.

But Caroline Herschel never thought of herself she had a "royal instinct for serving others," and to be useful in the narrow sphere of a modest German home was as much a religion to her as was afterwards the loving service which she devoted to her brother in England.

Entirely devoid of self-consciousness, with an hereditary spirit of discipline running in her veins, united with an instinctive love of self-sacrifice for the sake of duty, there is a nobility and a "divine enthusiasm" about Caroline Herschel which invests all her deeds with an enduring grandeur which she herself would have sincerely deprecated.

For many years the daily routine of cleaning and cooking and knitting went on, but at last the relief came, in the shape of a request that was almost a command, from her beloved brother William, that she should go back with him to England, where he had been promoted from Halifax parish church to the post of Organist to the Octagon Chapel at Bath, then recently consecrated. In August 1772, at the age of twenty-seven, Caroline landed on English shores at Harwich.

&hellipAt the time of her arrival in England she could only read and write, so we may well believe that it was with mingled delight and diffidence that she entered upon her new life at Bath. From being a maid-of-all-work in Hanover to being the coadjutor of a man like William Herschel was indeed a change which our imagination "boggles at" and had she been a woman of less heroic mould, she might have given herself up to alternate moods of exaltation and despair, without our feeling any reasonable wonder.

But Caroline was made of true Teutonic stuff, and this was soon made manifest in her everyday life with the "Hanoverian fiddler" whose scientific discoveries and deductions subsequently electrified the whole civilised world. Seven years his junior, disliking publicity, and a "hausfrau" bred if not born, it is simply amazing to watch the loyalty and devotion with which she followed and smoothed every step of the path which her brother elected to pursue.

Strait was the gate and narrow was the way, but no stumbling-block was allowed to interfere, no difficulties discouraged. An innate spirit of obedience enabled her to perform what seem almost like miracles and the young woman whose acquirements would now be sneered at by many a girl in her teens, was thereby made capable of carrying through schemes, both musical and scientific, which at first sight must have seemed well-nigh impossible, had such a word ever occurred to her in connection with any of her brother's desires or designs.

On Sundays she received her weekly housekeeping money, accompanied in early days with due directions as to "debit" and "credit" and, after six weeks in England, she was trusted to go marketing alone, though her brother Alexander, then in England as well, generally hovered at no great distance, in case she should find any insuperable difficulty in making known her requirements.

William was now making a considerable income by concerts, compositions, teaching, and organ-playing, and for a time her attention was principally devoted to making herself of service to him in the musical world.

By diligent practising, she made herself equal to performing in oratorios and concerts with no inconsiderable success, the only stipulation which she ventured to make being that, only when William was conducting should she be asked to do so. The marvellous activity of those first ten years may be guessed from the fact that William Herschel was giving from thirty-five to thirty-eight music lessons every week, and that during this time Caroline persevered in her novel duties&mdashpractising, performing, and copying scores, just as directed by the beloved brother. She saw and heard nothing save through him but it is evident that, had self-aggrandisement been ever in her thoughts, she might have made for herself a permanent position in the musical world. For, incredible as it may appear, she was soon counted worthy, even by such stern critics as her own brothers, to take the part of leading treble in oratorios and the fashionable leaders of Bath society were loud in their praises of her voice and manner. This admiration, however, was not reciprocated, and, in her blunt German fashion, she denounced the ordinary young ladies as "very little better than idiots."

But the poor little prima-donna housekeeper had by no means exhausted her duties when she returned weary and jaded from a long evening of responsibility and exertion in the crowded concert-rooms of Bristol or Bath. Music to William was but a means to an end, and that end was Astronomy. Unconscious of fatigue himself, he seems to have lost all count of time when bent upon solving some of the mighty mysteries of infinite space and his sister's aid was found invaluable. He had tested his brothers, but had found them wanting and her obedient zeal in helping forward all his schemes made him realise that here, at last, was one upon whose deftness, adaptability, and strenuous help he could confidently depend. Night after night for eight years they worked together&mdashcalculating, measuring, mirror-grinding, examining, writing memoranda,&mdashand not until daylight had chased away the stars did she allow herself to be tired.

Never was a man of science so favoured in his assistant. Alexander, though both musical and mechanical, had no perseverance and, while his 'cello solos were "divine," he lacked the steady fixedness of purpose which would have raised him to the first rank of public performers. It was Caroline, therefore, on whom William relied for help in the construction of tools, for grinding and polishing. "Logarithms made easy" is a book which has yet to be written but with these also Caroline had to be conversant, as well as with mathematical problems of which her ready brain had to assimilate the working, while her tiny hands dispensed the frugal meals. Sometimes William used laughingly to make her forego part of her dinner if she could not describe the angle of the piece of pudding which she was cutting. She it was who fashioned the pasteboard model of the tube to hold the first large telescope, and her dexterous fingers and eager longing to be of service made her&mdashas, with a touchingly proud modesty, she herself expresses it&mdash"almost as useful as a boy."

At one stage of fashioning a reflector it is necessary for the workman to remain for many hours with his hands on the mirror. On one occasion William never stirred for sixteen hours, his sister meanwhile feeding him and reading to him, ready at any minute to obey his slightest wish. At such times as these she read aloud the novels of Sterne and Fielding, and the gorgeous stories of 'The Arabian Nights' but the fairy tales of science were all their own, and we can fancy that silence would often fall between them as they speculated upon the wonder-lands of the moon with its flame-breathing craters, the mazy labyrinths of the "Milky Way," or the faithful satellites of Saturn.

And she never failed him. In all his work she was his veritable "alter ego." In winter nights, when the ink froze upon her pen, she still was by his side&mdashin garden or in garret&mdashhelping him to do work which, without her, would have been well-nigh impossible. As in music so in astronomy- her one idea was, "All I am, all I know, I owe to him. I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy-dog would have done: that is to say, I did what he commanded me. I was a mere tool, which he had the trouble of sharpening." Here, between the lines, we can read the faint, underlying bitterness with which she looked back upon her neglected education. In a note to her nephew (afterwards Sir John Herschel) she says, "My only reason for saying so much of myself is to show with what miserable assistance your father made shift to obtaining the means of exploring the heavens." This was her own self-estimate ours is far different, and so we are convinced was his also. He might have discovered scores of planets but, had he not appreciated her skilful help, he would nevertheless have been a contemptible cur.

For some years they lived at 7 New King Street, but for the sake of better accommodation in 1779 they removed to No. 19, where, on the 13th of March 1781, William discovered the planet Uranus.

In spite of the most careful frugality, all this while they had still found it impossible to give up the earnings derived from music but the time was nigh, even at the door, when organ and oboe should be put aside, and when science, the first love of William Herschel's life, should reign preeminent over the lives of both brother and sister. They made their last public appearance together, on the Whit-Sunday of 1782 at St Margaret's Chapel, Bath,&mdashthe anthem, in which Caroline sang, being composed and conducted by William himself.

Henceforward, astronomy was their only care and study though, when her allotted threescore years and ten were long past, Caroline was constantly to be seen at the concerts in Hanover, and the "little old lady" was a familiar figure in the stalls of the opera-house.

It was in August 1782 that, through the influence of His Majesty George II., the Herschels left Bath for Datchet, William having been created Astronomer-Royal, with a salary of £200 per annum. It was a post that brought with it more honour than honoraria but money with the Herschels had never been plentiful, and the deceitfulness of riches was to them an unknown danger. They cheerfully determined to live upon eggs and bacon, and set to work upon the construction of that wonderful 40-foot telescope which swept the heavens with such unthought-of results. Recognising her share in its construction with gratitude and astonishment, we see in it a monument of unremitting industry and endurance, such as dwarfs all other astronomical instruments into insignificance, and her woman's wit doubtless supplied suggestions as to ways and means, and expedients which would not have occurred to the less practical mind of her brother. Hers is not a solitary instance of deliberate self-effacement, but the world will never know how much more than the mere discovery of eight comets was due to the tireless energy and unselfish adaptability of Caroline Herschel&hellip.

One winter's night, when the snow lay a foot deep upon the ground, they were examining stars outside the house. She was hurrying to a little distance from the telescope to make some special observation when she fell heavily upon an unseen butcher's hook, which penetrated deeply into her leg. "Make haste, Caroline," came his voice across the dark whiteness. "I can't, William, I'm hooked," was the feeble answer and when, with much difficulty, the bleeding limb was extricated, nearly two ounces of flesh had to be left behind. Even then her only thought was of him, and her only comfort amid the pain was that, as clouds were coming up rapidly, she had not materially hindered his night's work.

The Datchet landlady proved herself a failure, and Clay Hill, Windsor, their next abode, was insufferably damp, so that in April 1786 they again had to move themselves and their weighty belongings&mdashno slight consideration&mdashand at last got comfortably settled in Slough. The king now gave to William Herschel a further grant, in order to enable him to prosecute his scientific labours unhampered by pecuniary anxiety, and, as Astronomer-Royal, he was frequently summoned to London. Many of Caroline's observations were now made in solitude. Alone, in the cold star-lit nights, the sweeping of the heavens was not an unmixed pleasure, though the discovery of "the first lady's comet," which so much interested Fanny Burney, must have been a really delightful experience. When she found herself invested with the dignity of a discoverer she surely must have realised, if only for the first time, that she was neither a tool nor a fool. In reply to her modest announcement, we find the famous scientist Alexander Aubert writing&mdash

"You have immortalised your name, and you deserve such a reward from the Being who has ordered all these things to move as we find them, for your assiduity in the business of Astronomy, and for your love for so celebrated and so deserving a brother."

A salary of £50 per annum was now granted her as "assistant" to the Astronomer- Royal, and in 1787 she received "the first money that ever in all my life I thought I could spend as I liked."

We find from another entry in her Diary that she had been accustomed to put down her little personal expenses in her brother's account-book as "for Car." but that, since leaving Bath, they had never exceeded £8 per annum. Such a statement is too touching in its simple honesty to need comment but in these days, when the papers think it worth while to discuss the question as to whether £100 per annum is a niggardly dress allowance, we can but admire, and wonder, and adore!

The Herschels received at their home many aristocrats and other distinguished persons desiring to see their telescope and to make the acquaintance of the Royal astronomers, among whom were the Prince of Orange and the Princesse de Lamballe.

But the happy days of solitude à deux, as the French prettily call it, were now drawing to a close, and it was another woman's hand that was destined for many a long day to darken the happiness of the devoted little sister.

On the 8th of May 1788 William Herschel married Mary, only child of James Baldwin, and widow of Mr John Pitt.

For sixteen years Caroline had devoted herself to him with an identity of interest and a supreme self-sacrifice, unique even among the histories of unselfish women and we can almost see the tear-dimmed eyes and quivering fingers with which she made the last entry in her Journal of that year, "I gave up my place as housekeeper."

We cannot doubt that expostulations ensued, and that propositions were made that she should continue to live at Collingwood but she was no longer needed&mdashthere lay the sting. Through evil report and good report she had never thought but of him, and now another was to enter into her kingdom. That the bride was gentle and amiable, and that she brought with her a jointure which enabled her husband to experiment still more unfetteredly, did not make the blow any less hard for Caroline to bear and, in the destruction of all her personal papers from 1788 to 1798, we can see plainly that she thought it best to destroy what in the very anguish of her soul she had written. In after years she learned to love and esteem her sister-in-law, for her own sake as well as for the sake of him whom both loved so dearly.

"I gave up my place as housekeeper"&mdashthe sorrowful undertone is in every word of the brief entry&mdashbut she reserved to herself the right of access at all times to the roof of her brother's house, the observatory, and the workroom. Hither she came daily, returning for her meals to the Spratt ménage. When the family were away she used to go and stay in the house, looking after the interests of him whom she loved so well but there is a profound melancholy in an entry in her Journal made on one of these occasions, "All came home and I went to my solitude again."

Her "Book of work done" shows no decrease of mental or physical activity, but the contrast between her own small lodging and the happy home-life so near, from which, rightly or wrongly, she felt herself debarred, must often have been very bitter. Within a stone's-throw was all that she most cared for, brother and nephew&mdashthe little John Herschel, born in 1792, who in after years inherited the love which she had lavished upon his father, and the genius which enabled him to sweep the southern hemisphere, from his observatory at Feldhausen, with the same earnest assiduity which had characterised his father and his aunt in their northern surveys.

Of this South African Expedition she exclaimed in her vigorous Anglo-German, "Ja, if I was thirty or forty years younger and could go too! In Gottes Namen!"

"Bills and receipts for my Comets" is the quaint way in which she docketed her memoranda relative to these erratic phenomena, for five of which, at least, she could claim undisputed priority of discovery. The most laborious of her undertakings, however, was a catalogue of all the star-clusters and nebulae observed by her brother, and it was for this that the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society was voted to her in 1828, followed by the extraordinary distinction of an honorary membership. This catalogue was the outcome of many years of labour, but it was a labour of love, as being the corner-stone in the temple of his fame.

The Royal Family showed much attention to the clever Herschels, and there are several entries in her Diary as to days at Frogmore and dinners with the Queen.

She was under some anxiety at this time as to her eyes, but the oculist having reassured her, she continued her work with unabated interest. Her constitution must have been extraordinarily good, for though the strain upon it for many years must have been excessive, she never spent a day in bed from 1761 to 1821. She is but another illustration of the truth of Bacon's aphorism&mdash"One of the rewards of philosophy is long life." That her brother should die before her does not seem to have entered into her calculations, and, with a view to her death, she made all arrangements for simplifying matters for her survivors but the love of living was still strong in Caroline when, in 1822, the tie of more than fifty years was for ever broken, and William Herschel, full of age, wisdom and honour, saw the sun set for the last time on earth, and woke to find himself beyond the stars. It was when stupefied with grief that Caroline took the fatal step of making over herself and all her little capital to the care of her younger brother, Dietrich. What was at the root of her action we can only guess. Possibly she had some sort of craving to take up once more a place in the home of her childhood, and hoped to bury her sorrow in associations that would be both old and new&hellip.

"A few books and my sweeper" is the pathetically brief inventory of her possessions at this time and her only capital, £500&mdashthe savings of fifty years of toil&mdashshe transferred to Dietrich, thus giving herself no possibility of retracting her determination of leaving England for ever and settling in Hanover with him. Little did she expect that twenty-five years more of life would be given her, in which to chafe against the narrow interests of that small German town. After the width and wisdom which she had enjoyed in "happy England" the monotonous flatness of her life was almost unbearable. Her nephew's advice had been all against her going, and deeply did she regret her hasty action, as the long years passed uneventfully by. But she had "burned her boats," and retreat was impossible. Dietrich, who knew his own inferiority, despised the sister whose perspicacity had not been equal to seeing it also. She made up her mind to endure, thinking that she must soon die but Death&mdashwho claims so many unwilling followers&mdashseemed to have forgotten her, and home-sick, lonely, and sad, she rusted there for another quarter of a century. Her books and telescope she sent back to England shortly after her arrival in Hanover, as she soon had reason to fear that Dietrich's extravagant habits might induce him to sell them after her death&hellip.

Till 1827 she lived with, and nursed, this fractious and ill-conditioned mortal&mdashof whom she says, "I hardly ever knew a man of his age labouring under more infirmities, nor bearing them with less patience." Then her patience and his impatience alike ended, and he went to his own place&hellip.

After Dietrich's death she removed to 376 Braunschweiger Strasse, where, with her confidential servant Betty, she lived for fifteen years in an eventide that had in it some faint after-glow of the days that were gone.

The sparseness of her belongings seems to have been a source of amusement to her rather than of chagrin, as witness the following items in her household inventory:&mdash

"Requisites for self and servant, mostly bought at fairs.

"Cane-bottomed chairs, each valued at eighteen-pence" (of which she says proudly, "after seven years' use, like new").

"About fifty books, and a few tea-things."

At the age of eighty-eight, in one of her merry moods, she put her foot behind her back, and scratched her ear with it! This astounding acrobatic feat beats the record as far as we are aware! But apparently it created no great surprise, for Sir John Herschel says of her only a year or two earlier, "In the morning she is dull and weary, but as the day advances she gains life, and is quite fresh and funny at 10 P.M., and sings hymns, nay, even dances, to the great delight of all who see her."

In 1846, Alexander von Humboldt conveyed to her the Prussian Gold Medal for Science. It was a tardy recognition from the King of Prussia, but we can fancy that it gave enormous pleasure both to the envoy and the recipient&hellip

Within four days of her death, in reply to General Halkett's message that he hoped soon to come and give her a kiss, as he had done on her ninety-seventh birthday, the dear old lady looked up quite saucily and said, "Tell the General that I have not tasted anything since that I liked so well."

Her characteristic fortitude never forsook her, but at last she "fell asleep," and on the 9th of January 1848 she joined her brother in that land where no sun, no moon appeareth, where no shadow ever falls.

In the old garrison church where she had been baptised ninety-seven years before, the burial service was read over the body of Caroline Lucretia Herschel. Garlands of laurel and cypress covered the coffin, and within it, at her express desire, were buried with her a lock of her brother William's hair, and an old almanac which had belonged to her father.

Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel was born on March 16, 1750 in Hanover, Germany. Her father Isaac was a talented musician. Isaac Herschel encouraged all six of his children to train in mathematics, French and music. Caroline's mother did not see the need for a girl to become educated and preferred to make Caroline a house servant to the rest of the family.

At the age of ten Caroline was stricken with typhus. The disease permanently stunted her growth. Her parents concluded that she would never marry but would live her life as an old maid. Caroline remained in her parents' home until, at the age of twenty-two, her brother, William took her to live with him in Bath, England. Caroline became her brother's housekeeper.

William was an accomplished musician and a conductor. He gave Caroline voice lessons and trained her in mathematics as well. Caroline became a well known soprano and began to sing professionally. William's hobby was astronomy and he devoted most of his free time to making more and more powerful telescopes with which to look deeper into space.

William's reputation as a telescope maker grew to such an extent that he quit his job as a musician and devoted all of his time to the making of telescopes and to astronomy. Caroline began to help her brother in the manufacture of telescopes and to share his passion for astronomy. Caroline first served as her brother's apprentice then began to function more and more on her own. She helped her brother develop the modern mathematical approach to astronomy.

In 1783 Caroline Herschel discovered three new nebulae ( hazy clouds where stars form). Between 1786 and 1797 she discovered eight comets. In later years, Caroline catalogued every discovery she and William had made. Two of the astronomical catalogues published by Caroline Herschel are still in use today. On her ninety sixth birthday, Caroline Herschel was awarded the King of Prussia's Gold Medal of Science for her life long achievements.

Watch the video: Caroline Herschel: Discoverer of Comets (July 2022).


  1. Nadir


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