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From Musician to Astronomer: The
Great William Herschel Metamorphosis
Harry J. Augensen
Department of Physics & Astronomy
Widener University
American Astronomical Society
Harlow Shapley Lecture
Oberlin College, 2002 Apr 04
I. Early Years
II. The Musician
III. Early Interest in Astronomy
IV. The Turning Point
V. Astronomical Pursuits
VI. Life Changes
VII. Later Years
VIII. Caroline Herschel
IX. Herschel’s Legacy
X. Oboe Concerto No. 2 in C
Early Years
 Born 1738 November 15, Hanover, Germany,
Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel
 Father Isaac was oboist in band of Hanoverian Foot Guards,
instructed William in principles of music theory & gave him
oboe & violin lessons
 William studied French with tutor, Herr Hofschlager, who
encouraged him to study science
 In 1753 William left garrison school to take position as oboist
& violinist in the Guards band
Early Musical Career
 In 1756, William moved to London and found immediate
employment as music copyist
 In 1760, appointed director of Militia Band at Durham, &
made important musical connections – Charles Avison
 In years 1759 – 1770, most of Herschel’s instrumental works
were composed, including symphonies, concertos, and sonatas
 In 1767, appointed organist of Octagon Chapel in Bath
 In 1780, appointed director of Bath Orchestra
The Musician
• Performer
• Composer
• Conductor
Herschel’s Musical Contemporaries
Thomas Arne (1710 - 1778)
Charles Avison (1709 - 1770)
C.P.E. Bach (1714 - 1788)
Johann Christian Bach (1735 - 1782)
John Garth (c.1722 - 1810)
(Franz) Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)
Andre Danican Philidor (1726 - 1795)
Wolfgang A. Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Musical Performer
• Played oboe, violin, organ, harpsichord
• Performed oboe-soprano duets with Sister Caroline
“Never before have I heard the concertos of Corelli,
Geminiani and Avison performed more chastely, or more
according to the original intention of the composer, than by
Mr. Herschel.”
- commentary from Edward Miller on Herschel’s violin
24 symphonies
3 oboe concertos (c. 1760) & numerous chamber works
Organ pieces
Several harpsichord pieces - the only instrumental
compositions published in his lifetime
• Numerous anthems & other vocal music
Later concertos & accompanied keyboard sonatas show
italianate galante style popularized by J.C. Bach
Cadenzas for Movements 1 and 2 of Oboe Concerto
No. 2 in C
Adagio from Oboe Concerto No. 2 in C
Conductor & Concert Manager
• A “true timist” - tempos are to be strictly adhered to
• Sometimes came to blows with performers who disagreed
with him
House in Bath
Early Interest in Astronomy
 First evidence of Herschel’s interest in sky found in
excerpts from his diary for 1766:
Jan. 7 Concert at Concaster at Sir Bryan’s relations
Feb. 19 Wheatly. Observation of Venus
Feb. 24 Eclipse of the moon at 7 o’clock A.M. Kirby.
Mar. 7 Halifax. The Messiah.
• 1773 Purchased Ferguson’s Astronomy
• 1774 Made first entries into his astronomical journal
Astronomical Pursuits
Telescope design
Planetary surfaces
Motion of Sun through
Double stars
Structure of Milky Way
Infrared radiation
Telescope Building
7-foot Reflectors
• 6.5-inch diameter
• Used for early star
• Used to discover
planet Uranus
The Turning Point:
Discovery of Georgium Sidus (Uranus)
• 1781 March 13 in Gemini
• Made Herschel’s name famous
• Planet ultimately named Uranus
• Eventually was offered royal
pension by King George III to
devote his time solely to
• In 1782, Herschel moved to
near London, Caroline
accompanied him
Herschel’s 20-foot Reflector
• 18 inch diameter mirror
• Herschel made most
observations with this
• Lacked clock drive
The Great 40-foot Telescope
• Work begun in 1785 in
Old Windsor
• Completed 1789 near
• Impressive, but
Charles Messier
1730 - 1871
• French comet hunter
• Published list of 103 fuzzy
objects which could be
confused with comets
• Herschel sought to
determine nature of these
Globular Cluster M3
The Orion Nebula M42
Planetary Nebula
Ring Nebula in Lyra M57
Stellar Parallax
Binary Stars
The Milky Way
Structure of the Milky Way
The Andromeda Nebula M31
Observations of Mars
Herschel Discovers Infrared Rays
Life Changes
• Marriage to Mary Pitt
in 1788
• Son John born 1792
House at Slough
Musical Visitors
• Herschel’s fame as astronomer
attracted prominent musicians
to meet him
• In 1791, while touring London,
F.J. Haydn visited Herschel’s
observatory near Slough and
peered through his telescopes
• Haydn popularized Hershel’s
Later Years
• 1793 became British
• 1802 traveled to France &
met Napolean and Laplace
• 1817 was knighted
• 1821 became first
president of Royal
Astronomical Society
• 1822 died
Caroline Lucretia Herschel
1750 - 1848
• Born 1750 March 16, Hanover
• Mother wanted her to become
housekeeper, & disapproved of
her work with William
• 1772 Traveled with William
from Hanover to Bath, where
she remained as his assistant
• William taught her English,
music, mathematics
Caroline’s Partnership with William
• Soprano soloist at concerts with William
as conductor & performed soprano-oboe
duets with William
• Looked after William while he spent
hours with his hobby of building
• Recorded and processed astronomical
observations for William
• Was deeply hurt by William’s marriage to
Mary Pitt, but eventually reconciled
• Returned to Hanover after William’s
death in 1822
Caroline’s Astronomical Discoveries
• Discovered 8 comets
between 1786 and 1797
• Published her catalogue of
2500 nebulae in 1828
• Awarded gold medal by
Royal Astronomical
Society 1828
• Died 1848 Jan 9 at age 98
Sir John Herschel
1792 - 1871
• Continued in his father’s
footsteps as astronomer
• Took William’s telescopes
to South Africa to make
observations of nebulae in
southern skies
• Pioneered use of
photography in
astronomical research
Herschel’s Legacy
• William Herschel made more astronomical discoveries
than any other single astronomer, before or since
• He pursued areas of research such as stellar astronomy and
nature of nebulae that were neglected by professional
astronomers of his day
• Herschel introduced notion of evolutionary changes in
astronomical bodies, and also attempted to find their
• Today is considered the “Father of Modern Astronomy”
Excerpt of a contemporary description of Herschel:
• “Dr. Herschel is a man of unassuming manners; a free,
communicative, and pleasant companion; and he enjoys
that vigour of constitution which is so essential to an
astronomical observer in a climate like that of England.
It may be hoped, that his name will endure as long as the
planetary system, to illustrate which he has devoted his
– Taken from Public Characters, printed by R. Phillips, St. Paul’s
Church Yard, London 1801. (Included 71 biographies of
distinguished persons.)
Special Thanks to:
• Dr. W. Davis Jerome, Rutgers University
• Dr. Sterling Murray, West Chester State
• Dr. Owen Gingerich, Harvard University