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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. Outline. I. Early Years II. The Musician

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From Musician to Astronomer: The Great William Herschel Metamorphosis

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from musician to astronomer the great william herschel metamorphosis

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
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
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
The Musician
  • Performer
  • Composer
  • Conductor
herschel s musical contemporaries
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
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 playing

  • 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

conductor concert manager
Conductor & Concert Manager
  • A “true timist” - tempos are to be strictly adhered to
  • Sometimes came to blows with performers who disagreed with him
early interest in astronomy
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
Astronomical Pursuits
  • Telescope design
  • Planetary surfaces
  • Sunspots
  • Motion of Sun through space
  • Double stars
  • Nebulae
  • Structure of Milky Way galaxy
  • Infrared radiation
7 foot reflectors
7-foot Reflectors
  • 6.5-inch diameter mirror
  • Used for early star sweeps
  • Used to discover planet Uranus
the turning point discovery of georgium sidus uranus
The Turning Point: Discovery of Georgium Sidus (Uranus)
  • 1781 March 13 in Gemini
  • Made Herschel’s name famous overnight
  • Planet ultimately named Uranus
  • Eventually was offered royal pension by King George III to devote his time solely to astronomy
  • In 1782, Herschel moved to near London, Caroline accompanied him
herschel s 20 foot reflector
Herschel’s 20-foot Reflector
  • 18 inch diameter mirror
  • Herschel made most observations with this instrument
  • Lacked clock drive
the great 40 foot telescope
The Great 40-foot Telescope
  • Work begun in 1785 in Old Windsor
  • Completed 1789 near Slough
  • Impressive, but unwieldy
charles messier 1730 1871
Charles Messier1730 - 1871
  • French comet hunter
  • Published list of 103 fuzzy objects which could be confused with comets
  • Herschel sought to determine nature of these nebulae
life changes
Life Changes
  • Marriage to Mary Pitt in 1788
  • Son John born 1792
musical visitors
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 symphonies
later years
Later Years
  • 1793 became British citizen
  • 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
Caroline Lucretia Herschel1750 - 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
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 telescopes
  • 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
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
Sir John Herschel1792 - 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
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 distances
  • Today is considered the “Father of Modern Astronomy”
excerpt of a contemporary description of herschel
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 life.”
    • Taken from Public Characters, printed by R. Phillips, St. Paul’s Church Yard, London 1801. (Included 71 biographies of distinguished persons.)
special thanks to
Special Thanks to:
  • Dr. W. Davis Jerome, Rutgers University
  • Dr. Sterling Murray, West Chester State University
  • Dr. Owen Gingerich, Harvard University