Postcards from Slough
Postcards from Slough

Sir John Herschel

Sir John Frederick William Herschel, 1792-1871

Son of astronomer William Herschel and Mary Baldwin, John Frederick William Herschel was an English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor, who also conducted valuable botanical work.

 

Herschel was born in Slough, Berkshire, and studied at Eton College and St John’s College, Cambridge where he became friends with mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage. He graduated as senior wrangler or top mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge University in 1813.

Photography

Herschel made several contributions to the new science of photography. He invented the cyanotype process which later became the blueprint. In 1819 he discovered that sodium thiosulphate was a solvent of silver halides and thus could be used to fix photographs based on silver halide. All he needed was a subject for his photograph.

 

In 1839 John demolished the Great Telescope that his father William had built 50 years earlier, as the woodwork had become rotten. Before completely dismantling it, John photographed it and, using his own technique for fixing the photograph, created the first glass plate negative ever produced.

Astronomy

Herschel took up astronomy in 1816, with an 18in diameter 20ft focal length reflecting telescope that he built himself. Between 1821 and 1823 he and James South studied double stars including some already catalogued by his father. The pair jointly catalogued 380 double stars and South went on alone to catalogue a further 458.

 

On the 3rd March 1829 Herschel married Margaret Brodie Stewart in Edinburgh. The couple would have 12 children. In 1833 the couple travelled to South Africa to catalogue the stars, nebulae and other objects in the southern sky. Herschel set up a telescope in Wynberg near Cape Town and collaborated with South African Royal Astronomer Thomas Maclear.

The Natural World

A diversion from his astronomical work came between 1834 and 1838 as he collaborated with Margaret to produce botanical illustrations of the Cape Flora. The method was to use a camera lucida, a device which uses a mirror or prism to project an image onto the drawing surface, to trace the outline of the subject. Margaret would then have the task of finishing with the fine details. The couple produced 132 illustrations in this way and 112 of these were much later used in Flora Herscheliana written by Brian Warner and John Rourke published in 1998.

 

A further diversion came from reading geologist Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. The book used geology to strengthen the argument for Uniformitarianism, the principle that the processes that are occurring in the present are the same processes that occurred in the past and this led to the understanding of evolution.

 

At the beginning of the 1830s, inspired by Lyell’s work, Herschel contributed his own work to Lardner’s Cabinet cyclopaedia which was a series of 133 scientific books. Herschel’s contribution was his Preliminary Discourse on the study of Natural Philosophy. This along with Lyell’s publication influenced the young Charles Darwin in his studies and later in his own work, The Origin of Species.

Herschel was created a baronet soon after his return to England in 1838. He published his Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope in 1847 in which he proposed the names for the seven then known satellites of Saturn: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, and Iapetus. In 1852, he proposed the names for the four then known satellites of Uranus: Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon.

 

In 1864 Herschel published the General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters which was a compilation of his own work and that of his father’s. Herschel’s General Catalogue of 10,300 Multiple and Double Stars was published posthumously. John Herschel died at his home near Hawkhurst in Kent in 1871. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey after a national funeral.

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