William Herschel and his work/Chapter 2

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The education of a child is commonly supposed to begin and end at school. It neither begins there nor ends there. Reading, writing, and arithmetic may, and should, be taught in every school, as the indispensable equipment of a boy or girl for the battle of life. But the real school is the world of life, however wide or however narrow its boundaries may be. Surroundings of one kind or another encompass child and man alike, forming the outer and larger school, in which all are entered as pupils for self-control, for truthfulness, for honour, and other often neglected but necessary virtues. In the elementary school for reading, writing, and arithmetic, Caroline Herschel can scarcely be said ever to have been entered. She was a neglected child in these respects. To a woman of her quickness of parts and calculating power the multiplication table continued to be a puzzle throughout life. Elementary learning was considered to be of little or no use to a girl who was to attend her brother's whims, cook his dinner, and brush his clothes. The mother, proud of her sons, took no thought of her little daughter, except to reckon up that the girl might save her a servant's wages Other mothers have committed the same blunder since her days with equally evil results. The ill health of the father, and their straitened means, may help to explain this neglect of the little girl, without excusing it. Up to the close of a long life she never ceased to regret and reprobate the treatment to which she was subjected in childhood. But, unlike her youngest brother, Dietrich, she laid no part of the blame for this neglect on their invalid father. "Dietrich," she says, "never recollected the eight years' care and attention he had received from his father, but for ever murmured at having received too scanty an education, though he had the same schooling we all of us had had before him."

It was different with her brother William. In Hanover there was at that time a garrison school, taught by a capable teacher. Master and pupil, finding in each other what the other wanted, were a credit to their fellowship in learning. All the children were in the habit of attending this school, from the age of two to fourteen; but Caroline seems to have got little good from it, and at two or even four years of age she would have been much better at home under a another's care. The teacher had some knowledge of Latin and arithmetic. Out of school hours he imparted to William Herschel all he knew of these branches. French the boy also learned, as the polite language of the world of civilised men, and the tongue of the enemies of his King and country. English is not mentioned among his acquirements, although the Elector of Hanover was then George II. of England; but a King who spoke indifferent English at Windsor, or none at all, would not encourage the study of it in the garrison school at Hanover. Even the German language did not then rank high in the estimation of kings and princelings who made a pretence to literature. It was the tongue of rude and ignorant boors. Among them French was the language of learning, literature, and politeness. William Herschel was too quick-witted to neglect the language of the country he was destined to look forward to for preferment. He became a proficient in English, though at the best it was sometimes dictionary English, with its long Latin words, that cropped up in his written pages. Towards the end of his life, his mother tongue, the rude language of Germany, as it was then deemed, became somewhat unfamiliar to him. His sister Caroline, after fifty years' residence in this country, had to consult an English dictionary to find or recover words sufficiently strong to describe the objects of her dislike. Her brother, after a longer residence in England, found difficulty in carrying on a conversation in German with the Chancellor of the University of Halle, who paid him a visit at Slough shortly before the close of his life: "All accounts from his native country seemed to please him, although the German language had become somewhat less familiar to his ear." So the visitor wrote. Both brother and sister appear to have felt as Caroline felt when she wrote in her eighty-sixth year that she was a countrywoman of the Duke of Cambridge and would not be a Hanoverian.

The schooldays of William Herschel ended at the age of fourteen; his real education then began. Under the careful instruction of his father, he had become an excellent performer on the oboe and violin. But the father had higher views for a young man of his ability than to see him enrolled as an oboist in the band of George II's Hanover Guards. That was easy of attainment: it was merely the lowest round of the ladder, and did not lead to any height. The eldest brother, Jacob, became organist, at the age of nineteen, in the garrison chapel: he cannot be said to have risen higher. Even then the younger brother was cherishing wider, loftier flights for his ambition than would satisfy a father's eagerest wish in the way of musical success. What these flights were we can dimly see in a few glimpses of mental progress made by the young bandsman during the next few years.

The two brothers, it seems, were often introduced to take part as solo performers in concerts at the Electoral court. Keen criticism of the music followed on their return home. But the criticism was varied by philosophical and scientific talk, which frequently lasted all night. What was the cause of this unusual interlude in a musician's life we are not informed. But among the subjects of discussion were astronomy and mechanics, whether the taste for these studies was awakened or not by what they saw and heard at the court festivities. William Herschel himself showed a decided turn towards the invention and making of mechanical appliances, simple things it might be, but the first appearance above ground of what was destined to be a rich harvest. Encouraged by his father, he persevered in exercising his skill. Long years afterwards, the elements of mechanical skill which were thus fostered, developed into the works which enabled him to search the depths of space for its innumerable worlds.

Another subject which Isaac Herschel was not ignorant of, and seems to have taught some of his children, was a knowledge of the starry heavens. Caroline, who enjoyed little of her infirm father's instruction and guidance, was sometimes taught by him to recognise stars and constellations in the cloudless nights; but the teaching then given was not seed that fell on a good soil. With William it was different. He was of an age and a disposition to be fascinated by the subject, and the golden hopes which the science at that time held out to astronomers must have coloured the dreams of many a youthful star-gazer. The British Government offered a great reward for the best means of finding the longitude of a ship's place at sea. A clockmaker might solve the problem by ingenious contrivances, and win the reward; or an astronomer, by more refined and more subtle methods, might furnish the sailor with knowledge and safety, and carry off the prize. William Herschel was a boy of thirteen when a young mathematician, almost self-taught, was appointed to a chair in the Hanoverian University of Göttingen, not forty miles from the town of Hanover.[1] It was John Tobias Mayer, who taught there from 1751 till his death in 1762, and whose widow got three thousand pounds of the reward for the solution he left behind him of the problem of the longitude. It is probable enough that the name of this famous astronomer, with whose writings Herschel became familiar in after years, was of common occurrence in the talks of father and son. Nothing is more likely, for other great names are known to have been discussed between them. Another astronomer, afterwards a friend of Herschel, made himself a name in the scientific world, Schroeter, of the Observatory at Lilienthal, in the Duchy of Bremen, about twenty miles from Hanover. Gibers and Harding, two of the astronomers who afterwards undertook to rival Herschel in the discovery of planets, belonged to the same neighbourhood. There was at that time something in the air of Hanover and its neighbourhood that turned the eyes of young men of genius to the stars. It is therefore not surprising that students of the sciences so eminent as Newton, Leibnitz, and Euler entered freely into the talks between the father and his two eldest boys. Jacob preferred sleep to talk. William never grew tired of talk on men and subjects so attractive. He was surrounded by living and famous astronomers. Their works and fame served, probably, to nurse in him the spark of science that his father thus lighted or cherished.

The prospect of war with France in 1755 gave Herschel an opportunity of visiting the country of his dreams, England. Discontent was rife in our large towns; incapacity was still more rife in the army and navy. It was the age of Admiral Byng, of Lord George Sackville, and of the Duke of Cumberland. The French king was known to be planning, and was likely to carry into effect, a descent on the English coast. In April it was supposed the storm would burst on Ireland, for that island was so defenceless that ten thousand troops might walk from one end of it to the other. In October it was reported that a flotilla of flat-bottomed boats was assembled at Dunkirk to transport an army to the English coast. The speculations of politicians were prefaced with, "If no French come." The situation was pronounced by some of them comical, and the nation droll. In March of the following year "the King notified the invasion to both Houses, and his having sent for Hessians. There were some dislikes expressed to the latter; but, in general, fear preponderated so much that the cry was for Hanoverians too." Hanoverian officers were even preferred to the native-born. But the cynics of London laughed, invented, and lied. "They said that the night the Hanover troops were voted, George II. sent for his German cook, and said, ' Get me a very good supper; get me all de varieties: I don't mind expense.' " Exquisites, like Walpole, were wondering where their foreign defenders would be encamped. If the Hanoverians should be stationed at Hounslow, "Strawberry Hill would become an inn, and all the misses would breakfast there, to go and see the camp!"[2] Even in George Townshend's "admirable" cartoon, "which so diverted the town," "the Hanoverian drummer, Ellis," "though the least like, was a leading feature." Instead of fighting, Englishmen were sneering or laughing.

It was in these days of fear and threatened invasion that the King's Hanoverian Guards were ordered to England.[3] Isaac Herschel and his two sons, Jacob and William, were in the band of the regiment. Whether they encamped on Hounslow Heath and annoyed Strawberry Hill or not is unknown; but for a whole year they remained in England, till apparently the invasion of Hanover by the French rendered their presence necessary at home. There was no invasion of England except by a flute-player, who saw the comforts of the land, and came back a year later to make it and himself famous in the arts of peace, and to give Walpole a chance of handing down to posterity in his Letters the wonder excited, even among idlers and diners-out, by the earnest labours of William Herschel. The only spoil the musician carried home with him to Hanover was a copy of Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding, on which he spent as much of his pay as he could spare. His brother Jacob took back some English goods and some fine clothes.

Caroline Herschel is of opinion that had it not been for the war troubles, in which Hanover was now involved, and had peace allowed these scenes of happy discussion between father and son to continue till their natural application to practice, her brother would have given proof of his inventive genius long before it revealed itself, in the thirty-sixth year of his age. Prophecies of this kind after the event are not uncommon, but they may be as groundless as they are uncertain. Seed was sown in Herschel's mind by an enlightened father, who "was a great admirer of astronomy, and had some knowledge of that science." The boy of sixteen was also encouraged by him to try his hand on mechanical contrivances, of which one took an especial hold on his sister's childish mind, "a neatly turned 4-inch globe, upon which the equator and ecliptic were engraved." But it was from a passionate devotion to music that the father looked for fame and money for his two sons. He seems just to have missed that aim with the flighty Jacob;[4] it is pardonable to doubt that he could ever have attained it with the staid and persevering William. Neither of them had in him the making of a Handel, who was then, and had long been, the ornament of the English and Hanoverian court, and of whom the aspiring father could not fail to be always thinking.

A greater check to progress than war or poverty was the mothers dislike of learning. She was resolved that, in spite of her husband's wish to educate Caroline, nothing should be taught the girl but what might prove useful to her as a household drudge. She would not allow her to learn French; she relaxed so far as to send her for two or three months to a sewing school to be taught to make household linen, to which the girl added, out of her own ingenuity, the making of bags and sword-knots for her brothers' splendour at concerts, before she knew how to make caps and furbelows The mother made no concealment of her reason for this unjust and narrow-minded treatment of her daughter. Referring to later troubles in which her own folly involved the family, she laid the blame where it had no right to lie: "It was her certain belief that William would have returned to his country, and Jacob would not have looked so high, if they had had a little less learning." "There is a great simplicity in the character of this nation," the physician of George IV. wrote of the Hanoverians, when he accompanied that King on his visit to the Electorate in 1821. Perhaps Herschel's mother was an example of this great simplicity, misplaced. At least it resulted in years and recollections of exceeding bitterness to William Herschel and his sister. There can be little doubt that both of them laid on her the blame of great mistakes committed, and grave responsibilities incurred, which darkened her son's future life. Possibly it had something to do with the difficulty he had, as he approached his eightieth year, in drawing up an autobiography, as he wished to do. He found "himself much at a loss for the dates of the month, or even the year, when he first arrived in England with his brother Jacob." The work was handed over to Caroline, who undertook it with the "proviso not to criticise on my telling my story in my own way." Her youngest brother, Dietrich, the scapegrace of the family, was under three years of age when these sorrowful passages occurred in their household history. When past seventy he was as hard to deal with as in his teens. "Let me touch on what topic I would," she writes, "he maintained the contrary, which I soon saw was done merely because he would allow no one to know anything but himself." There were two strains in this large family, as there are in many others, one tending downwards, another soaring upwards, and the former is usually a grief to the latter. Jacob, Dietrich, and Sophia represented the one: William, Caroline, and, in a lesser degree, Alexander represented the other. The only one who made a fortune was William, and the one who got a larger share of it than any of the others, even than Caroline and Alexander, who helped him to make it, was the scapegrace, Dietrich.[5] Family histories are strange things! And yet Caroline at seventy-eight years of age says to her nephew, "Whoever says too much of me says too little of your father! and can only cause me uneasiness," while Dietrich never believed he got even fair play for himself from parent, brother, or sister.

  1. The favour with which Göttingen was regarded by George II., who founded both University and Observatory, could not fail to exercise an influence on Herschel and his father. In 1756 the King presented the Observatory with a mural quadrant of six feet radius, made by Bird of London.
  2. Walpole, Letters, iii. 109, 164, 165, 206, 209, 217.
  3. "Towards the end of the year 1755," Caroline Herschel says (p. 8). This does not seem to be correct. Horace Walpole's Letters would lead a reader to place it several months later, in 1756. Neither she nor her brother seems to have been sure of the date. (Memoirs, p. 218.)
  4. Barney, History of Music iv. 603. See infra, p. 32.
  5. See William Herschel's will, Gentleman's Magazine, vol. xcii. Dietrich got £2000, but Alexander and Caroline got £100 a year each. As things went in those days, the undeserving fared far better than the really deserving.