Postcards from Slough
Postcards from Slough

Other Herschels

Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848)

William Herschel’s sister Caroline contracted typhus at the age of ten and the disease stunted her growth and she never grew beyond 4 feet 3 inches. Her mother felt that she wouldn’t amount to much in life other than to find work as a servant, but her father educated her so that she would be able to support herself.


In 1772, after her father died, William brought Caroline to England where he had established himself as an organist and music teacher in Bath. Here she would learn to sing and help look after his house. As William became more interested in astronomy, Caroline assisted him reluctantly at first but gradually her interest grew and she became a distinguished astronomer in her own right.


Discoveries and Personal Achievements

Caroline discovered eight comets between 1786 and 1797, in particular, comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. She took on the task of cross-referencing and correcting a star catalogue produced by English astronomer John Flamsteed. She added 560 stars to his catalogue. When William died she helped his son, her nephew John with his education and later worked with him as an independent astronomer. She later completed a catalogue of 2,500 nebulae.


Caroline became the first woman to be funded by the state for her contributions to science at a time when that was some achievement even for a man. In 1828 she received the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for completing and editing the star catalogues of her brother. She was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835 and an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1838. In 1846, on her 96th birthday, the King of Prussia presented her with a Gold Medal for Science.


Caroline died in Hanover on the 9th January 1848 aged 97. A minor planet or asteroid was named Lucretia, Caroline’s second name, in 1889 and an 8 mile wide crater on the moon is named C Herschel.

William James Herschel (1833-1917)

Born in Slough on the 9th January 1833, grandson of astronomer Sir William Herschel, and son John Herschel who followed in the footsteps of his father to also become an astronomer, it was quite clear that William James Herschel would join the East India Company. In an equally odd way this led him to become renowned in quite a different field. He invented fingerprinting. Obvious when you think about it.


In 1853, Herschel was posted to Bengal and eventually became a member of the Indian Civil Service and further posted to Jungipoor. In 1858 he drew up a contract with a local man for the supply of road building materials. In order to ensure prove the identity of the supplier, Herschel insisted that he made a hand print on the document.


This led Herschel to experiment with further with hand prints and he soon realised that only the fingerprints were necessary for identifying the owner. He collected fingerprints from family and friends and was able to determine that a person’s fingerprints do not change over time.


In 1877, Herschel was appointed Magistrate of Hooghly, West Bengal, and introduced the taking of fingerprints of pensioners to prevent fraudulent claims. He later introduced the taking of fingerprints of criminals to prevent the hiring an imposter to serve their gaol sentences. Herschel never realised the potential for taking fingerprints at the scene of a crime and therefore to catch criminals, he merely developed the technique of taking prints from people’s hands to use as an administrative tool. Francis Galton and Edward Henry followed up Herschel’s work to develop the use of fingerprints to fight crime.

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