William Herschel and his work/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI

ENDOWMENT OF RESEARCH

It was clear to men of science that something had to be done for Herschel. He could not toil or slave as a teacher of music and a conductor of concerts during the working hours of the day, and improve the telescope or keep watch on the stars by night, without discredit to a nation that was proud of its maritime supremacy, and offered a large reward for the best means of finding the longitude at sea. Since the discovery of Uranus, his name was in everybody's mouth, especially in Bath. People of celebrity, with or without introductions, came to see him. Among them was the Astronomer-Royal, Dr. Maskelyne, who proved a steady and admiring friend. At their first interview, Caroline thought they were quarrelling. Eagerness to make sure that this musician was a reality, not a sham, may account for the high tone of voice that sounded to her like quarrelling, while her brother's remark when Maskelyne left, "That is a devil of a fellow," reads more like a compliment than a censure. Dr. Watson, between whom and Herschel a friendship had sprung up, that lasted for the remainder of a long life, was constantly at his house, helping to grind or polish, offering money to meet expenses, which was gently declined, and communicating papers and letters from Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society. Herschel was rapidly outgrowing his surroundings. The dullest eye could see that something had to be done for the honour of the country. Herschel, though resident in England, was not an Englishman; but he was a subject of the King of England as Elector of Hanover, and the nation that reaped the honour, it might soon come to be the profit, of his discoveries, was bound to mark its sense of the value it set upon his presence within its borders. The Royal Society did what they could, but it was far from enough. As they honoured Benjamin Franklin with the Copley Medal in 1753 for "curious experiments and observations on electricity," so they showed their high regard for William Herschel by awarding the same medal to him in November 1781 for his "discovery of a new and singular star." On December 6 of that year he was also elected a Fellow of the Society. But these honours did not meet the case. They were prizes won in the race for fame; they did not provide a living or leisure for further triumphs. But the King personally was bound to interpose. He had a name throughout Europe for love of science, and especially of astronomy, which no other monarch enjoyed. A great French writer described him, long before Herschel appeared above the horizon, as "véritablement amateur de la Physique et de l'Astronomie." For years he had supported an observatory and a King's Astronomer at Richmond. Parliament had provided ample funds in the form of a Civil List, of which at that time it got no account. But the funds were squandered or spent with such a lavish hand that enormous arrears remained unpaid. Apparently the King was helpless.

Public opinion outside of scientific circles had also something to say about Herschel, for he had become a power and a wonder in the country. "Mr. Herschel's astronomical papers," it said, "have justly excited peculiar attention; and his account of a comet, or, perhaps, a new planet, hath procured for him the honour of Sir Godfrey Copley's Medal. Mr. Herschel, who is a musician at Bath, is one of those extraordinary men, whose genius for astronomy and whose talents for the improvement of instruments have enabled him to break through every disadvantage of situation, and to make discoveries which, as they call for the warmest approbation of mankind, ought to obtain for him a more than common encouragement and patronage."[1] A year later the same organ of public opinion wrote; "Mr. Herschel, of whom we spoke in our last volume, hath carried on his astronomical researches with amazing success. He hath discovered a great number of double and triple stars, which are surprisingly and beautifully diversified in their appearance and their colours. The new star or comet, for the discovery of which he obtained the Gold Medal in 1781, is now, without controversy, ascertained by him to be a regular primary planet, beyond the orbit of Saturn. He hath given it the name of the Georgium Sidus, in honour of the King, who hath settled a handsome salary upon him and taken him into his immediate service. This instance of Royal patronage and munificence to eminent scientific merit is equally glorious to His Majesty and to Mr. Herschel."[2]

The instincts of the writer were correct, but his knowledge of "the handsome salary" was perhaps defective.

"Among the Bath visitors were many philosophical gentlemen, who used to frequent the levees at St. James's when in town. Colonel Walsh,[3] in particular, informed my brother that from a conversation he had had with His Majesty, it appeared that in the spring he was to come with his seven-foot telescope to the King. Similar reports he received from many others, but they made no great impression nor caused any interruption in his occupation or study," till "one morning in Passion Week, as Sir William Watson was with my brother, talking about the pending journey to town, my eldest nephew arrived to pay us a visit, and brought the confirmation that his uncle was expected with his instrument in town."[4] This nephew was George Griesbach, son of the elder daughter in the Herschel family, and a musician well known and favoured at Court. A chaise was at the door to take brother and sister to Bristol, ten miles away, for a forenoon rehearsal of the Messiah, which was to be performed in the evening. The conductor was too much absorbed in his nephew's news from Court to attend the rehearsal. Caroline was left to do it for him, and to fill "the music box with the necessary parts for between ninety and one hundred performers." This was how news of the endowment of research came from London to Bath. It was a reality, not a romance gilded with glory, like the news brought by an imaginary rider from Ghent to Aix. But the news, however satisfactory, came in so unsatisfactory a way, and were so long in bearing fruit, that something was at work behind the scenes delaying progress. It appeared that the King's private astronomer, Mr. De Mainborg, was dead. Herschel's friends imagined he was to succeed to the vacant post at Kew,[5] for George III. was known for his patronage of astronomy long before he heard of Herschel. In an observatory at Richmond, built under the superintendence of Bevis, 140 feet long and of two storeys, were several grand instruments made by Sisson of London.[6]

Laden "with everything necessary for viewing double stars," Herschel, accompanied by his friend. Sir William Watson, left home on May 8. No letter reached the anxious household at Bath for a fortnight. At last Caroline and Alexander learned that "he had been introduced to the King and Queen, and had permission to come to the concerts at Buckingham House, where the King conversed with him about astronomy." He was also so favoured that "the King gave him leave to come to hear the Griesbachs play at the private concert which he has every evening." Even his brother Alexander was known to the King, and was inquired after in the same breath apparently as he inquired after "the great speculum." Had Miss Burney been telling the story, she would probably have said that "What? what? what?" looked upon the two as creatures of the same kind. But his pupils and Mr. Palmer, the manager of the theatre at Bath, must be told that he could not return till the King had seen the planets with the seven-foot reflector, and given him permission to leave. That telescope had found a temporary home in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, where it put Dr. Maskelyne out of conceit with the instruments he had for national use, and, not long before, for exhibition, with handling by the public, at so much per head![7] Colonel Walsh again makes his appearance as entertaining Herschel at dinner with the Astronomer-Royal, and Mr. Aubert, a well-known observer of those days. Both of them were delighted with the new telescope and its inventor.

Maskelyne was provided at Greenwich with two mural quadrants of eight feet radius at a cost of £280 each, a great transit instrument, a sector of 12 feet, and many other instruments. An assistant also was kept constantly at work on the observations made. Astronomers allowed that at no place had so many good observations been made as at Greenwich, but Maskelyne was dissatisfied when he compared the instruments with the telescope of Herschel, the work of the ablest craftsmen in England with that of a novice.[8] On February 20, 1806, the French mathematicians,"notwithstanding the spirit of hostility that had so long animated England and France against one another," gave a most gratifying proof of the regard in which they held Maskelyne and his predecessors in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. They wrote by De Lambre to Maskelyne, sending him seven copies of their newly published astronomical tables, and paying the homage of gratitude and esteem to "the author of the greatest and most precious collection of observations that exists." They were "deduced, by the rules of Laplace, chiefly from a series of more than three thousand two hundred observations made at Greenwich between the years 1766, 1793."[9] Science was thus the mother of peace and goodwill between two bitterly hostile nations.

An attack of influenza, which wore off in less than a week; a series of dinners, at which the new lion of science was exhibited to the gaze of "the best company," and little was talked "of but what they called his great discoveries"; two nights of star-gazing at Greenwich; state concerts, at which the King "kept him in conversation for half an hour," and even asked George Griesbach for a solo-concerto that his uncle might hear him play; acting the showman by explaining the speculum to the Princesses, and, on a cloudy evening, showing them, "with fine effect" through the telescope, a pasteboard Saturn at the bottom of the garden wall,"—these and other tricks of this "showman of the heavens" were his employment for the next few weeks. "Company is not always pleasing," he wrote, "and I would much rather be polishing a speculum." In the midst of this mental dissipation he was brought down from heaven to earth by his money running short. Several times he wrote to Bath for a supply! Delays so unnecessary, and the thoughtless indifference with which a working musician was kept hanging on at Court, without regard to his loss or his expenses, were not creditable to those concerned. It looks as if there were a hitch somewhere.

His sister relates in a letter written in 1842, twenty years after his death, that the King was surrounded by wiseacres, who knew how to bargain. They proposed to send her brother back to Hanover on a salary of £100 a year. Her idea was that Parliament had "granted to the King £80,000 a year for encouraging sciences." She also believed that West the painter and her brother were the first who benefited by this grant. She is referring, of course, to the arrangements regarding the Civil List, which came into effect in 1782.[10]

It seems to me that the King had more serious difficulties in dealing with William Herschel than are generally supposed. Unquestionably he had deserted the army of Hanover after a severe defeat, and in presence of an advancing enemy. A quarter of a century had passed since then; but could the Elector of Hanover, as King of Great Britain, pass over an offence so grave, and knowingly honour the offender even after that lapse of time? So long as it was simply letting bygones be bygones, the matter was easy of solution; but it came to have another look when the offender was received under the shelter of the palace, admitted to intercourse with the Royal Family, and paid a pension out of the King's purse. That the offence was unknown to the King is altogether improbable. He knew Herschel's younger brother, Alexander, and inquired after him at a state concert in Buckingham House. He knew also the Griesbachs, Herschel's nephews, and employed five of them at these concerts. A family from the town of Hanover, and of such outstanding ability, would be so much in the mouth of Hanoverians that echoes at least of their gossip could not fail to reach the King's ears. The King's knowledge of every petty detail of gossip among the Hanoverians had passed into a proverb in England. "Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this," Keats wrote, while George iii. was living: "each of the moderns, like an Elector of Hanover, governs his petty state, and knows how many straws are swept daily from the causeways in all his dominions, and has a continual itching that all the housewives should have their coppers well scoured."[11] It is manifest, too, that Herschel had no desire to return to his Hanover home, or even to the mother who aided him to escape in 1757, and was the foolish cause of many perplexities and troubles. In fifteen years his visits were few, only three apparently, and his stay was brief. There was something in the air of the place that disagreed with him. It may therefore be that the King required to consult his ministers in Hanover before he could overlook the offence of a young guardsman, who had now become an astronomer, with whose fame all Europe was ringing. For two months the uncertainty about William Herschel's future continued. Communication with Hanover on business of state in those days was conducted by a "quarterly messenger," who was sometimes delayed, even in George iv.'s reign, forty years after this time. Delay was thus perhaps unavoidable.[12] Clearly, the King or his advisers could not make up their minds what to do. At last they came to a decision in the way people do when in doubt. They split the difference, and made a bargain with Herschel unworthy of the King and the country. It looks as if Britain incurred odium for the sake of Hanover.

That the bargain included a pardon under the King's own hand is asserted on what is called unquestionable evidence, and is in itself extremely probable from a story told of George iv. on his visit to Hanover in 1821. "Early in the morning," his physician-in-ordinary says, "a poor woman, with a countenance apparently much worn with sorrow, on her knees presented a petition to the King's Hanoverian chamberlain, which was rejected. I saw this from the saloon, from which I was looking down on the many thousand persons assembled in the courtyard, and I observed the expression of despair which followed. I hastened down, fearing to lose sight of her, got her petition, and presented it to the King.

"It craved his mercy for her husband, who was doomed to five years' hard labour in a fortress. She was the mother of eight little children, and, it need not be added, in great poverty and want. The crime was of a nature to be pardoned, and this was done with his pen instantly; for here his authority is absolute. We had the poor woman in the saloon, and you may imagine the rest."[13]

The view taken of the bargain at the time was given voice to by Caroline Herschel, and has since been frequently repeated to the King's discredit, without the retractation which she made after her brother's death. Here is the retractation. Writing to her nephew, in April 1827, she says:—"P.S.—I must say a few words of apology for the good King, and ascribe the close bargains which were made between him and my brother to the shabby, mean-spirited advisers, who were undoubtedly consulted on such occasions; but they are dead and gone, and no more of them! Sir J. Banks remained a sincere, well-meaning friend to the last." Not many days after (May 8, 1827) she writes what it never occurred to her, apparently, might account for this alleged mean-spirited shabbiness: "When in 1758 he again went to England, it was under such unpleasant circumstances that he was obliged to leave it to his mother to send his trunk after him to Hamburg."[14] The nation or mob that shot Admiral Byng for incapacity four months before the Hanoverian bandsman deserted, that cashiered Lord George Sackville for less two years before, and that not only ridiculed the King's own uncle, "the poor Duke," as Cumberland was called, "the lump of fat crowned with laurel on the altar,"[15] but "were new grinding their teeth and nails to tear him to pieces the instant he lands,"[16] for a similar fault to Byng's, had to be reckoned with in bestowing honours on a deserter. So the King may have thought, and so his dilatoriness and apparent shabbiness may be accounted for, as well as the secrecy in which the affair was shrouded during their lives.

But there are circumstances which involve in still greater obscurity the whole of these so-called bargains between the King and William Herschel. Some years after the death of both, an English writer spoke of the ingratitude of England. But there is no proof that Herschel, though settled in England, was ever naturalized. His sister, so far as words could go, threw off her German nationality; but words are not law. "I was always sure to be noticed by the Duke of Cambridge as his countrywoman," she wrote in 1835, "(and that is what I want, I will be no Hanoverian!)"[17] That these sentiments were simply an echo of her brother's, we can scarcely doubt. As far also as is now known, "the bargains" made were not reduced to writing. Everything seems to have been done by word of mouth. In fact, George iii. and his advisers dealt with Herschel, not as an Englishman but as a German. No English honours were bestowed on him, such as were bestowed on younger or less deserving men. Sir Humphry Davy received the honour of knighthood from the Prince Regent in 1812. He was forty years younger than Herschel. Dr. Smith, one of the founders of the Linnean Society, was knighted by the Prince two years afterwards, although he was not specially known as a man of science.[18] Two years later Herschel received a paltry honour, at least as Englishmen counted honours. There must have been reasons for this apparent neglect. But whatever they were, the truth remains that as far as can now be known, the rashness and anxiety of a woman of small capacity saved her son from the life of a musician in a Hanoverian regiment, not to his honour or hers certainly, and made a present of him to the cause of science with results of unspeakable honour to himself and the human race. The lad of nineteen who was induced by his mother to desert an army, led by an incompetent "lump of fat," as they then said, was no coward. He perilled life and limb too often in his work as an astronomer to be counted a poltroon as a soldier.

When George iii. thus resolved to endow research in the person of William Herschel by appointing him Royal Astronomer at a salary of £200 a year, coupled with permission to make and sell telescopes for his own behoof, and with the requirement that he should act as "showman of the heavens" to princes and princesses, it was neither an uncommon nor an ungenerous act in the world of science. It is presented to us in the gossip of the day as lacking in generosity, and reflecting small credit on the King and his advisers. The salary of Dr. Maskelyne, then Astronomer-Royal, and the head of the most famous observatory in Europe, a man of high standing to boot, and of worldwide scientific attainment, was only £300, to the discredit of the nation, not of the King. Besides, the Civil List from which, presumably, the pension was paid, was then in a transition and probably a crippled state. Two years before, Mr. Dunning moved in the Commons, and, after a feeble resistance, carried, "That it was competent to the House, whenever they thought proper, to examine into and correct abuses in the expenditure of the Civil List revenues." The Court required to be on its guard, as, in the very year the pension was granted to Herschel, the King sent a message to the Commons, "requesting a discharge of arrears of Civil List, amounting to nearly £296,000; the House voted the requisite sum."[19]

The endowment of research was far from being a new thing in Europe. It had been the work of princes; it was now becoming the work of parliaments and people. James i. when, in defiance of the witches of Scotland and Denmark, he crossed the North Sea to fetch home his bride, spent eight days under the roof of "that princely promoter of astronomy," Tycho Brahe. He found the astronomer living in comfort, encouraged by the splendid allowances of the King of Denmark, and able to build an observatory, which is said to have cost £20,000. Though always in straits for money, he not only honoured Tycho at his departure with "a magnificent present, but also addressed to him a copy of verses" One of James's grandsons, Charles ii., appointed Flamsteed to be Astronomer-Royal at a salary of £100 a year. So inadequately was he paid that he had to eke out his income by taking orders in the Church of England. But James's great-grandson, William, was a more generous patron of science than his uncle. In his reign Newton received the post of Master of the Mint with a salary of £1200 or £1500 a year, at a time when the commercial interests of England required a man of great intelligence, honesty, and resource to rescue society from the embarrassments into which incompetence and gambling had plunged the Mint and the country. A man of ability was required to cope with the evils of the time, and Newton, in spite of the sneers with which his appointment was hailed even by Pope, proved himself to be the right man in the right place.[20] But the sneer cast at our Government was true then, and may still be true, as it was seventy years ago when first uttered, "Able men are sure of office when its emoluments are abolished." Men of science, men devoted to the best interests of their country, Dalton, Priestley, Ivory, Young, Wollaston, and Murdoch, to name no others, were treated with neglect, or considered well paid if a Royal Society medal were awarded to them. Some, like James Watt, had even to save their own inventions from the grasp of unscrupulous claimants, who wished to rob them of the fruits of their genius. The result of this policy of indifference was plain to all who could see. "In England, whole branches of Continental discovery are unstudied, and, indeed, almost unknown, even by name. It is in vain to conceal the melancholy truth. We are fast dropping behind. In mathematics we have long since drawn the rein, and given over a hopeless race. In chemistry the case is not much better." These were the words of Sir John Herschel in 1830, fifteen years after the great war was ended, and could no longer be pleaded as a reason for our isolation and ignorance. Sir Humphry Davy, President of the Royal Society, spoke in the same terms and about the same time. Babbage, the inventor of the wonderful calculating machine, expressed views equally strong. "In England, particularly with respect to the more difficult and abstract sciences, we are not merely much below other nations of equal rank, but below several even of inferior power, . . . and nothing but the full expression of public opinion can remove the evils that chill the enthusiasm, and cramp the energies of the science of England."[21] Seventy years have passed since then, and though it cannot be said that the ground lost has been all regained, a vast change for the better has taken place. Public opinion has been awakened to the danger that threatens the country from this neglect.

It was long in vain that learned men, loving their country, and seeing where one source at least of its true greatness lay, called attention to our rulers' disregard of education and science. "The return of the sword to its scabbard" in 1815, says an author who wrote fifteen years later, "seems to have been the signal for one universal effort to recruit exhausted resources, to revive industry and civilisation, and to direct to their proper objects the genius and talent which war had either exhausted in its service or repressed in its desolations. In this rivalry of skill, England alone has hesitated to take a part." France was leading the way, and was making up the ground it had lost. "Let us frankly acknowledge the fact," Arago wrote, "at the time when Herschel was prosecuting his beautiful observations, there existed in France no instrument adapted for developing them; we had not even the means of verifying them. Fortunately for the scientific honour of our country, mathematical analysis is also a powerful instrument. Laplace gave ample proof of this on a memorable occasion, when from the retirement of his chamber he predicted, he minutely announced, what the excellent astronomer of Windsor would see with the largest telescopes which were ever constructed by the hand of man." And he adds, "It is for nations especially to bear in remembrance the ancient adage, noblesse oblige!"[22]

It was not and had not been an uncommon thing for kings and princes to encourage research, when George iii. extended his patronage to the toiling musician of Bath. For two hundred years, at least, it had been a common thing in Europe—so common, indeed, that, if Herschel thought of it as a possibility in his own case, he was justified by what the world knew of the lives of men of science on the Continent. He could say, as Galileo said before him, "My private lectures and domestic pupils are a great hindrance and interruption to my studies; I wish to be entirely exempt from the former, and in great measure from the latter." Herschel had the same wishes, but not the same success, for Galileo was relieved of all professional duty, except giving lectures on extraordinary occasions to sovereign princes and other strangers of distinction. He was honoured with pensions and rewards from a petty prince in Italy, far superior at first to what Herschel enjoyed from the bounty of the wealthiest monarch and the richest country in the world.

Galileo was only one example out of a multitude. Leibnitz, the contemporary and rival of Newton, was another. He was laden with honours and rewards showered on him from one end of Europe to the other. He left "a fortune of sixty thousand crowns, which were found, after his death, accumulated in sacks in various kinds of specie." Descartes, Euler, the two Bemoullis, Huyghens, and many more are proofs of the encouragement given to science by kings and princes. But the example of Fraunhofer, the contemporary of Herschel, of Dollond, of Wollaston, first a common worker, then a great inventor and discoverer, shows best what George iii. might have done for Herschel, and what Herschel was justly entitled to expect from a prince who was twofold his sovereign, as Elector of Hanover and King of Great Britain. Of Fraunhofer it is said "his own sovereign, Maximilian Joseph, was his earliest and his latest patron; and by the liberality with which he conferred civil honours and pecuniary rewards on Joseph Fraunhofer, he has immortalised his own name and added a new lustre to the Bavarian crown." The German and other astronomers, who refused to accept Georgium Sidus as a name for the planet discovered by Herschel, were right, as things then stood: the King, who then did so shabbily by the astronomer, deserved neither part nor lot in the astronomer's heavens; and the common sense of mankind gave him none. But the King was unfairly judged, notwithstanding.

This encouragement of science stood on a different footing from the degradation of private patronage and fulsome dedications, to which literature had been subjected, and from which it had shaken itself free. But both literature and science were exposed to another danger than neglect—disparagement and envy from within their own borders. In the case of Herschel we have a curious example of what seems this meanness, written in 1830, eight years after his death: "Herschel's fame rests on discoveries, for which he was indebted solely to the great power of his telescope. That of the planet, sometimes called by his name, was an accidental discovery, in which genius had no part, and which could not have been much longer deferred. He did not, like his illustrious contemporaries Delambre and Piazzi, distinguish himselfby the amelioration of the tables, or the reduction of catalogues of the stars, or by improving methods of computation, or indeed by any labour of practical utility. He devoted himself to the observation of astronomical phenomena, and in this department his unrivalled telescopes gave him a sort of supremacy. His speculations concerning the structure of the universe—the progressive condensation of nebulæ and clusters of stars—the nature of the sun and the seasons of the planets—occupying a large portion of the goodly collection of sixty-seven Memoirs, which he contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Society—are lively and amusing, but they are entirely useless to astronomy, and have added nothing to the mass of real knowledge." What an ungenerous, narrow-minded, unjust criticism! Most certainly the man who, by patient effort and ingenious contrivance, advances the boundaries of human knowledge, if he is not a genius, deserves something better from his fellows than thus to be lightly esteemed for long-continued and successful labours. If Herschel had done nothing but invent a sounding-line to fathom the depths of space, and reveal worlds of light in countless profusion, he would have deserved well of humanity. The same criticism might have been passed on Galileo, who, in a letter to a friend, was proud to say that the Grand Duke "Ferdinand had been amusing himself with making object-glasses, and always carried one with him to work it wherever he went." Herschel, like Galileo and the Grand Duke, but on a vastly grander scale, was a grinder of mirrors for telescopes that were the wonder or envy of the world. And a distinguished man of science in our own time wrote of Herschel: "The success of this celebrated astronomer gave birth to a spirit of observation and inquiry which was before unknown. The heavens have been explored with the most unwearied assiduity, and this laudable zeal for the advancement of astronomy has been crowned with the discovery of four new planets,"[23] It was thus not only what Herschel was doing himself, but what he was inducing others to do.

George iii. would not suffer William Herschel to return to his profession as organist, teacher of music, and director of concerts in Bath He was in this guided by an impulse worthy of the King of a great commercial and earth-exploring country. But for more than two months Herschel was kept in London and the neighbourhood, waiting the King's pleasure. Double the time had elapsed during which he could be absent from duty without loss of money, but until he got leave from the King to return home he had to remain in attendance at Court. Whoever was advising His Majesty in the matter seems to have acted with singular want of thought. A Cosmo of Florence, a King of France, a Queen of Sweden, or an Empress of Russia would not have kept a man of science, who had at one bound sprung into greatness, dangling about the Court so long without providing for his personal wants. In Herschel's case it was otherwise, for he wrote to Bath "several times for a supply of money"! His friends in that city, loath to lose him, were, and not without cause, afraid that the offers made to him were not "very advantageous." They were certainly not creditable to those concerned. Herschel appears to have thought so himself, for, to all inquirers, but Dr. William Watson, his answer was, "that the King had provided for him."

It was a poor provision, even though no demands had been made on his time and strength. It was shabby when the return he had to make was set off against the salary he received. A teacher of elocution, the father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, had enjoyed a pension of the same amount for about twenty years, through the influence of Lord Bute, "to enable him to carry on his literary pursuits."[24] But small though the allowance was, Herschel preferred the post of Royal Astronomer at Windsor to the troubles of a teacher's life at Bath. His friend Dr. Watson, not having yet forgotten, it may be, the discreditable civil war between "the sharps" and "the blunts," in which the King did not figure to advantage, four years before, only echoed what would have been the general sentiment of scientific men, had they known, as he did, the money part of the arrangement, when he exclaimed, "Never bought monarch honour so cheap!" It is far from pleasant to look back on this transaction or on the one-sided record of it given by Miss Herschel. Well would it have been had she laid the burden of blame on advisers, whom apparently she was not ignorant of. Probably it added to the bitterness which dropped from her pen, that in the following year, Pallas, or Mr. Pallas as he was called in this country, a student of George iii.'s own University of Göttingen, and a man of science far from equal to Herschel, got an addition of £200 to his salary in Russia![25] For the transaction, as we have seen, had a shabbier look than appears on the surface. At least, as it is represented, so it seems. Herschel was to give lessons in astronomy to the Princesses of the Royal Family, when called upon, and to receive the visitors whom His Majesty might send. This might and did prove a tax upon him, especially if he had been up all night watching the heavens. Still, it seemed a leaf taken out of the book of duties laid on Galileo by Cosmo de Medici, and promised to be both a relaxation and a pleasure. The same cannot be said of the other part of Herschel's commission. He was at liberty and he was encouraged to make reflecting telescopes for sale, as a means of adding to his income. An arrangement so unwise, from the shopkeeping look it wore, should not have been proposed or sanctioned. It was a source of profit to the astronomer; but it did not differ from allowing Herschel to set up a factory for the manufacture and sale of telescopes with the Royal arms over the door, and "By appointment Royal Astronomer to the King" painted underneath. No one who reads the language in which Buonaparte wrote to Laplace not many years after, can be surprised that, in view of this lowering of science, England should have been spoken of by him as a nation of shopkeepers. The King himself became Herschel's first customer, ordering from him four 10-feet reflectors, one of which was intended as a present to the University of Göttingen, which had been founded by his grandfather, George ii., forty-five years before, and was then rising into fame. These four reflectors cost six hundred and forty guineas apiece, and yielded a handsome profit.[26] Others, less costly, but still remunerative, were also ordered. Two hundred guineas was a common price. To be an instrument-maker, and to sell telescopes, was allowed him by the King; but his sister's judgment on these conditions of the appointment is marked by her usual outspoken candour. Unfortunately, she presented the business in the least favourable light for the King, and her sentiments have been unfairly echoed to his discredit.[27]

Time so valuable as Herschel's was often absorbed by idle visitors, who understood little of his work, and made him no intellectual return. Sometimes a visit was paid to Slough that came to be remembered from its surroundings, but from nothing else. Of these none was more tragic than that of "the Princesse Lamballe, who came with a numerous attendance to see the moon, etc. About a fortnight after, her head was off." [28]

  1. Annual Register for 1781 [118]
  2. Annual Register, 1782 [219].
  3. Apparently one of the King's equerries, of whom we shall hear more in the course of the story.
  4. Caroline Herschel, Memoirs, p. 44.
  5. Memoirs, p. 821.
  6. Lalande, Preface, i, xxxvii.
  7. Weld, ii. 28.
  8. Lalande, Preface, xxxvii. (1771).
  9. Edin. Rev., 1809, pp. 65, 69.
  10. Memoirs, p. 321.
  11. Life, February 3, 1818, i. 84.
  12. Memoirs of Sir William Knighton, i. 321; Car. Her. also, pp. 282, 240, 239.
  13. Knighton, i. 169.
  14. Memoirs, p. 211.
  15. Referring to a cartoon of the day.
  16. Walpole's Letters, iii. 475, 284.
  17. Memoirs, p. 276.
  18. Weld, History, etc., ii. 327, 198.
  19. Adolphus, History, iii. 119, 372 (1780, 1782). By the Parliamentary regulations passed in 1782 "no pension was to exceed £800 a year" (15th April) (Cassell's History, iv. 290-91). In 1783 arrears were again accumulating (Cassell, iv. 301).
  20. Macaulays Works iv. 248.
  21. Quarterly Review, xliii. 305, "Reflexions on the Decline of Science in England, and on some of its Causes."
  22. Arago, Biographies, 223, 237.
  23. Sir David Brewster in his edition of Ferguson's Astronomy, published in 1823, the year after Herschel's death, ii. 85.
  24. Watkins, Memoirs, etc., i. 104.
  25. Scots Mag., 1786, p. 536.
  26. This looks like the market price, if we may judge from Short's charges forty years before. "After Short had established himself in London in 1742 he received £630 for a 12-feet reflector from Lord Thomas Spencer. In 1752 he executed one for the King of Spain for £1200. The King of Denmark offered twelve hundred guineas" for another (Life of Newton, i. 67). In Lalande's Astronomy, vol. i. xlix-lii, is a price-catalogue of astronomical instruments. Short's prices were—
    12-inch reflector, 14 guineas.
    18 " 20 "
    24 " 35 "
    36 " 75 "
    48 " 100 "
    72 " 300 "
    144 " 800 "

    Only one telescope of 12 feet was made by Short. In presenting a 10-feet reflector to the Society at Göttingen, George {{sc|iii}. was following the example of his grandfather, the founder of the University, who presented it in 1756 with a mural quadrant of 6-feet radius, made by Bird (£175), and other instruments.

  27. Sir David Brewster goes too far on the other side when he says, "None of the sovereigns who either preceded or followed him have an equal claim on the homage of astronomers" (Life of Newton, i. 60). This could not be said of the King at first.
  28. Memoirs p. 332. This is assigned to 1787, when she was certainly in England; but the Princess perished in 1792.