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  • Writer's pictureMark Jeffery

HoA: The Story of the Herschels, by Charles Draper

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Charles is the chairman of the Herschel society in Bath. The Society was founded in the 1970s to rescue the house in New King Street where William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781.

Charles Draper during his talk to the Flamsteed Astronomy Society

William Herschel, hailing from a musical family, made his first voyage to England from Hanover in 1756 as part of a military band. He was a prolific composer with an extensive range of music, which included pieces for the oboe, violin, viola, and even two organ concertos, much of which is accessible on YouTube.

By 1772, Herschel's interests had shifted to astronomy, spurred by Robert Smith's "A Complete System of Opticks," published in 1738. He built several telescopes ranging from 7 feet long to 20 feet long and ground all his own mirrors. His astronomical pursuit began with observing double stars. In 1781, within the constellation of Gemini, he identified an anomaly that would later be recognized as the planet Uranus.

He gained fame and became the King’s Astronomer in 1782.

Caroline Herschel, William's sister, was instrumental in his observations. She meticulously organized and recorded his observational data and, using the 20-foot telescope, discovered several comets from 1786 onwards. Between 1795-1798, she revised the Flamsteed numbers.

John, William's son, also made a significant contribution to music, astronomy, philosophy, and early photography. He is even credited with inventing the terms "positive" and "negative", that we use in photography today. He was his own polymath!

Charles taking questions after his talk

To delve deeper into the Herschel family’s fascinating contributions, we invite you to watch the video of the event here (password protected video - members should check their email for the password).

Our next History of Astronomy Lecture will be on the 21st December and will be given by Richard Westwood from the Society for the History of Astronomy, “The History of Solar Eclipses – the ultimate experience".

Photos from the evening (by Mike Meynell):

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