1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Herschel, Sir John Frederick William
HERSCHEL, SIR JOHN FREDERICK WILLIAM, Bart. (1792–1871), English astronomer, the only son of Sir William Herschel, was born at Slough, Bucks, on the 7th of March 1792. His scholastic education commenced at Eton, but maternal fears or prejudices soon removed him to the house of a private tutor. Thence, at the early age of seventeen, he was sent to St John’s College, Cambridge, and the form and method of the mathematical instruction he there received exercised a material influence on the whole complexion of his scientific career. In due time the young student won the highest academical distinction of his year, graduating as senior wrangler in 1813. It was during his undergraduateship that he and two of his fellow-students who subsequently attained to very high eminence, Dean Peacock and Charles Babbage, entered into a compact that they would “do their best to leave the world wiser than they found it,”—a compact loyally and successfully carried out by all three to the end. As a commencement of this laudable attempt we find Herschel associated with these two friends in the production of a work on the differential calculus, and on cognate branches of mathematical science, which changed the style and aspect of mathematical learning in England, and brought it up to the level of the Continental methods. Two or three memoirs communicated to the Royal Society on new applications of mathematical analysis at once placed him in the front rank of the cultivators of this branch of knowledge. Of these his father had the gratification of introducing the first, but the others were presented in his own right as a fellow.
With the intention of being called to the bar, he entered his name at Lincoln’s Inn on the 24th of January 1814, and placed himself under the guidance of an eminent special pleader. Probably this temporary choice of a profession was inspired by the extraordinary success in legal pursuits which had attended the efforts of some noted Cambridge mathematicians. Be that as it may, an early acquaintance with Dr Wollaston in London soon changed the direction of his studies. He experimented in physical optics; took up astronomy in 1816; and in 1820, assisted by his father, he completed for a reflecting telescope a mirror of 18 in. diameter and 20 ft. focal length. This, subsequently improved by his own hands, became the instrument which enabled him to effect the astronomical observations forming the chief basis of his fame. In 1821–1823 we find him associated with Sir James South in the re-examination of his father’s double stars, by the aid of two excellent refractors, of 7 and 5 ft. focal length respectively. For this work he was presented in 1826 with the Astronomical Society’s gold medal; and with the Lalande medal of the French Institute in 1825; while the Royal Society had in 1821 bestowed upon him the Copley medal for his mathematical contributions to their Transactions. From 1824 to 1827 he held the responsible post of secretary to that society; and was in 1827 elected to the chair of the Astronomical Society, which office he also filled on two subsequent occasions. In the discharge of his duties to the last-named society he delivered presidential addresses and wrote obituary notices of deceased fellows, memorable for their combination of eloquence and wisdom. In 1831 the honour of knighthood was conferred on him by William IV., and two years later he again received the recognition of the Royal Society by the award of one of their medals for his memoir “On the Investigation of the Orbits of Revolving Double Stars.” The award significantly commemorated his completion of his father’s discovery of gravitational stellar systems by the invention of a graphical method whereby the eye could as it were see the two component stars of the binary system revolving under the prescription of the Newtonian law.
Before the end of the year 1833, being then about forty years of age, Sir John Herschel had re-examined all his father’s double stars and nebulae, and had added many similar bodies to his own lists; thus accomplishing, under the conditions then prevailing, the full work of a lifetime. For it should be remembered that astronomers were not as yet provided with those valuable automatic contrivances which at present materially abridge the labour and increase the accuracy of their determinations. Equatorially mounted instruments actuated by clockwork, electrical chronographs for recording the times of the phenomena observed, were not available to Sir John Herschel; and he had no assistant.
His scientific life now entered upon another and very characteristic phase. The bias of his mind, as he subsequently was wont to declare, was towards chemistry and the phenomena of light, rather than towards astronomy. Indeed, very shortly after taking his degree at Cambridge, he proposed himself as a candidate for the vacant chair of chemistry in that university; but, as he said with some humour, the result of the election was to leave him in a glorious minority of one. In fact Herschel had become an astronomer from a sense of duty, and it was by filial loyalty to his father’s memory that he was now impelled to undertake the completion of the work nobly begun at Slough. William Herschel had searched the northern heavens; John Herschel determined to explore the southern, besides re-exploring northern skies. “I resolved,” he said, “to attempt the completion of a survey of the whole surface of the heavens; and for this purpose to transport into the other hemisphere the same instrument which had been employed in this, so as to give a unity to the results of both portions of the survey, and to render them comparable with each other.” In accordance with this resolution, he and his family embarked for the Cape on the 13th November 1833; they arrived in Table Bay on the 15th January 1834; and proceedings, he says, “were pushed forward with such effect that on the 22nd of February I was enabled to gratify my curiosity by a view of κ Crucis, the nebula about η Argûs, and some other remarkable objects in the 20-ft. reflector, and on the night of the 4th of March to commence a regular course of sweeping.”
To give an adequate description of the vast mass of labour completed during the next four busy years of his life at Feldhausen would require the transcription of a considerable portion of the Cape Observations, a volume of unsurpassed interest and importance; although it might perhaps be equalled by a judicious selection from Sir William’s “Memoirs,” now scattered through some thirty volumes of the Philosophical Transactions. It was published, at the sole expense of the late duke of Northumberland, but not till 1847, nine years after the author’s return to England, for the cogent reason, that as he said, “The whole of the observations, as well as the entire work of reducing, arranging and preparing them for the press, have been executed by myself.” There are 164 pages of catalogues of southern nebulae and clusters of stars. There are then careful and elaborate drawings of the great nebula in Orion, and of the region surrounding the remarkable star in Argo. The labour and the thought bestowed upon some of these objects are almost incredible; several months were spent upon a minute spot in the heavens containing 1216 stars, but which an ordinary spangle, held at a distance of an arm’s length, would eclipse. These catalogues and charts being completed, he proceeded to discuss their significance. He confirmed his father’s hypothesis that these wonderful masses of glowing vapours are not irregularly scattered over the visible heavens, but are collected in a sort of canopy, whose vertex is at the pole of that vast stratum of stars in which our solar system finds itself buried, as Herschel supposed, at a depth not greater than that of the average distance from us of an eleventh magnitude star. Then follows his catalogue of the relative positions and magnitudes of the southern double stars, to one of which, γ Virginis, he applied the beautiful method of orbital determination invented by himself, and he had the satisfaction of witnessing the fulfilment of his prediction that the components would, in the course of their revolution, appear to close up into a single star, inseparable by any telescopic power. In the next chapter he proceeded to describe his observations on the varying and relative brightness of the stars. It has been already detailed how his father began his scientific career by similar observations on stellar light-fluctuations, and how his remarks culminated years afterwards in the question whether the radiative changes of our sun, due to the presence or absence of sun-spots, affected our harvests and the price of corn. Sir John carried speculation still farther, pointing out that variations to the extent of half a magnitude in the sun’s brightness would account for those strange alternations of semi-arctic and semi-tropical climates which geological researches show to have occurred in various regions of our globe.
Herschel returned to his English home in the spring of 1838. As was natural and right, he was welcomed with an enthusiastic greeting. By the queen at her coronation he was created a baronet; and, what to him was better than all such rewards, other men caught the contagion of his example, and laboured in fields similar to his own, with an adequate portion of his success.
Herschel was a highly accomplished chemist. His discovery in 1819 of the solvent power of hyposulphite of soda on the otherwise insoluble salts of silver was the prelude to its use as a fixing agent in photography; and he invented in 1839, independently of Fox Talbot, the process of photography on sensitized paper. He was the first person to apply the now well-known terms positive and negative to photographic images, and to imprint them upon glass prepared by the deposit of a sensitive film. He also paved the way for Sir George Stokes’s discovery of fluorescence, by his addition of the lavender rays to the spectrum, and by his announcement in 1845 of “epipolic dispersion,” as exhibited by sulphate of quinine. Several other important researches connected with the undulatory theory of light are embodied in his treatise on “Light” published in the Encyclopaedia metropolitana.
Perhaps no man can become a truly great mathematician or philosopher if devoid of imaginative power. John Herschel possessed this endowment to a large extent; and he solaced his declining years with the translation of the Iliad into verse, having earlier executed a similar version of Schiller’s Walk. But the main work of his later life was the collection of all his father’s catalogues of nebulae and double stars combined with his own observations and those of other astronomers each into a single volume. He lived to complete the former, to present it to the Royal Society, and to see it published in a separate form in the Philosophical Transactions, vol. cliv. The latter work he left unfinished, bequeathing it, in its imperfect form, to the Astronomical Society. That society printed a portion of it, which serves as an index to the observations of various astronomers on double stars up to the year 1866.
A complete list of his contributions to learned societies will be found in the Royal Society’s great catalogue, and from them may be gathered most of the records of his busy scientific life. Sir John Herschel met with an amount of public recognition which was unusual in the time of his illustrious father. Naturally he was a member of almost every important learned society in both hemispheres. For five years he held the same office of master of the mint, which more than a century before had belonged to Sir Isaac Newton; his friends also offered to propose him as president of the Royal Society and again as member of parliament for the university of Cambridge, but neither position was desired by him.
In private life Sir John Herschel was a firm and most active friend; he had no jealousies; he avoided all scientific feuds; he gladly lent a helping hand to those who consulted him in scientific difficulties; he never discouraged, and still less disparaged, men younger than or inferior to himself; he was pleased by appreciation of his work without being solicitous for applause; it was said of him by a discriminating critic, and without extravagance, that “his was a life full of serenity of the sage and the docile innocence of a child.”
He died at Collingwood, his residence near Hawkhurst in Kent, on the 11th of May 1871, in the seventy-ninth year of his age, and his remains are interred in Westminster Abbey close to the grave of Sir Isaac Newton.
Besides the laborious Cape Observations, Sir John Herschel was the author of several books, one of which at least, On the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830), possesses an interest which no future advances of the subjects on which he wrote can obliterate. In 1849 came the Outlines of Astronomy, a volume still replete with charm and instruction. His articles, “Meteorology,” “Physical Geography,” and “Telescope,” contributed to the 8th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, were afterwards published separately. When he was at the Cape he was more than once assisted in the attempts there made to diffuse a love of knowledge among men not engaged in literary pursuits; and with the same purpose he, on his return to England, published, in Good Words and elsewhere, a series of papers on interesting points of natural philosophy, subsequently collected in a volume called Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects. Another less widely known volume is his Collected Addresses, in which he is seen in his happiest and most instructive mood.
See also Mrs John Herschel, “Memoir of Caroline Herschel,” Month. Notices Roy. Astr. Society, xxxii. 122 (C. Pritchard); Proceedings Roy. Society, xx. p. xvii. (T. Romney Robinson); Proceedings Roy. Society of Edinburgh vii. 543 (P. G. Tait); Nature iv. 69; E. Dunkin, Obituary Notices, p. 47; Report Brit. Association (1871), p. lxxxv. (Lord Kelvin); The Times. (May 13, 1871); R. Grant, History of Phys. Astronomy; A. M. Clerke, Popular Hist. of Astronomy; A. M. Clerke, The Herschels and Modern Astronomy; J. H. Mädler, Geschichte der Himmelskunde, Bd. ii.; Mémoires de la Société Physique de Genève, xxi. 586 (E. Gautier). Reductions, based on standard magnitudes of 919 southern stars, observed by Herschel in sequences of relative brightness, were published by W. Doberck in the Astrophysical Journal, xi. 192, 270, and in Harvard Annals, vol. xli., No. viii. (C. P.)