Sir William Herschel, 1738–1822, born Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel, was a great pioneer in astronomy. Born in Hanover, Germany, the son of a musician, he early became a skilled performer on several instruments. He went to England in 1757 and worked as a musical conductor, organist, and teacher of music and studied mathematics and astronomy in his leisure time. He constructed telescopes and systematically explored the sky. On Mar. 13, 1781, he discovered a new planet later named Uranus. Because of this discovery he was appointed private astronomer to the king (1782), and was then able to devote his time to astronomy.
In 1789 at his home in Slough, Herschel erected his great telescope, with a 48-in. (122 cm) mirror and a focal length of 40 ft (12.2 m). Sir William discovered the sixth and seventh satellites of Saturn, determined the rotation period of Saturn, and studied the rotation of other planets. He concluded from the motions of double stars that they are held together by gravitation and that they revolve around a common center, thus confirming the universal nature of Newton's theory of gravitation. He cataloged over 800 double stars. His research in the field of nebulae suggested a possible beginning of new worlds from gaseous matter. Before this time only about 100 nebulae had been known; Sir William's catalog contained about 2,500. He concluded that the whole solar system is moving through space, and he was able to indicate the point toward which he believed it to be moving.
See biographies by J. B. Sidgwick (1955), A. Armitage (1962), and D. Crawford (1968); biography of William and Caroline by M. Hoskin (2011); study by M. A. Hoskin (1963).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.