Herschel | Sir | John Frederick William | 1792-1871 | astronomer

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871) was a notable astronomer, as well as an accomplished chemist and contributor to the science of optics and photography. Born into a family of astronomers - his father was Friedrich Wilhelm (William) Herschel (1738-1822, who discovered Uranus, Herschel was educated in a number of public schools, at home by a Scottish mathematician and subsequently at St John's College, Cambridge, which he graduated from with a BA in 1813. He was a founder member of the Astronomical Society (later the Royal Astronomical Society). At university, Herschel was close friends with Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and George Peacock (1791-1858).

Herschel was a methodical recorder of information. He created detailed records of the skies he studied and made objective comparisons of the brightness of stars. An example of this was the nova of the star Eta Carinae that he observed while in South Africa, his home for nearly five years. In his time at Cape Town, he made a large catalogue of the objects he observed, many of which he was the first to identify, thanks to his powerful telescope.

On his return to England, he was awarded a Baronetcy. After this period in Africa, he continued his work in astronomy and experimented with optics (his father had been a manufacturer of telescopes) and photography. His work in optics produced a detailed paper on the theory of spherical aberration in lenses, a subject he, as an astronomer, must have had extensive experience of. In the realm of photography, Herschel experimented (with only limited success) with colour reproduction. He was the first to produce a photograph on a glass plate, and coined the terms "positive" and "negative".

Herschel wrote many papers and articles, including those on meteorology, physical geography and the telescope from the eighth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Son of astronomer Sir Friedrich Wilhelm (William) Herschel.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

On the Aberration of Compound Lenses and Object-Glasses , (1821)

Outlines of Astronomy, (1849)

Manual of Scientific Inquiry (ed.), ( 1849)

Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects, ( 1867)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1813: Awarded Batchelor of Arts (BA), University of Cambridge

1816: Awarded Master of Arts (MA), Cambridge University

1831: Created Knight of the royal Hanoverian Guelphic order

1838: Awarded baronetcy

1839: Awarded Doctor of Law (DCL), University of Oxford

1842: Appointed Lord Rector, Marischal College, Aberdeen

1845: Elected President, British Association for the Advancement of Science

1850: Appointed Master of the Mint

1855: Elected to the Institut Français


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol XI, (New York , Scribner's, 1972)

Lee, Sidney, Dictionary of National Biography, vol IX, (London, Smith, Elder & Co, 1908)