Sir William And Caroline Herschel
In Hanover, Germany, in the year 1732, Isaac Herschel and a plain,
industrious girl, Anna Ilse Moritzen, began their home life together.
The young man did not like the calling of his father, the cultivating of
the royal gardens, and learned to play the oboe in the royal band.
He became skilled in music, and, as, one after another, ten children
were born into the little home, he taught them to play on the violin and
oboe, and such other branches of knowledge as he possessed. After a time
his health became impaired with exposure in the Seven Years' War, and
then he earned his living by lessons in music, given to scholars at his
The children attended the garrison school in Hanover, and learned the
ordinary rudiments, besides French and German. Though the father
sometimes copied music half the night to eke out his scanty living, he
spared no pains to teach them all he could of his favorite art.
The fourth son, William, born November 15, 1738, not only learned French
and English rapidly, but studied Latin and arithmetic with the teacher,
after hours. He became passionately fond of books, reading their own
little store with avidity. The mother, who could not even write, viewed
with alarm this intellectual development, feeling that her children, if
they became learned, would go away from home--possibly from Germany.
Poor, ignorant heart! She cooked and sewed, and prevented her daughters
from learning French or drawing; but her weak hand could not stay the
power of a mind like William's, bent on acquiring knowledge.
Caroline, the eighth child, born in 1750, twelve years younger than
William, looked upon this brother as a marvel; and shy, plain, and
silent herself, watched the boy with pride, who, perchance, would be
somebody by and by. Alexander, a little older than Caroline, was skilled
on the violoncello, and both the boys became members of the Hanover foot
Years later, Caroline gave this picture of that early life: "My brothers
were often introduced as solo performers and assistants in the orchestra
of the court, and I remember that I was frequently prevented from going
to sleep by the lively criticism on music, on coming from a concert; or
by conversations on philosophical subjects, which lasted frequently till
morning, in which my father was a lively partaker and assistant of my
brother William, by contriving self-made instruments....
"Often I would keep myself awake that I might listen to their animating
remarks, for it made me so happy to see them so happy. But generally
their conversation would branch out on philosophical subjects, when my
brother William and my father often argued with such warmth that my
mother's interference became necessary; when the names Leibnitz, Newton,
and Euler sounded rather too loud for the repose of her little ones, who
ought to be in school by seven in the morning. But it seems that on the
brothers retiring to their own room, where they shared the same bed, my
brother William had still a great deal to say; and frequently it
happened that when he stopped for an assent or reply, he found his
hearer was gone to sleep, and I suppose it was not till then that he
bethought himself to do the same.
"The recollection of these happy scenes confirms me in the belief, that
had my brother William not then been interrupted in his philosophical
pursuits, we should have had much earlier proofs of his inventive
genius. My father was a great admirer of astronomy, and had some
knowledge of that science; for I remember his taking me, on a clear
frosty night, into the street, to make me acquainted with several of the
most beautiful constellations, after we had been gazing at a comet which
was then visible. And I well remember with what delight he used to
assist my brother William in his various contrivances in the pursuit of
his philosophical studies, among which was a neatly turned four-inch
globe, upon which the equator and ecliptic were engraved by my
When William was seventeen, the guards went to England for a year, and
on their return home he brought one precious memento of the country,
Locke "On the Human Understanding." Such a boy would not remain in the
foot guards forever. He was delicate in health, so that his parents
removed him from the army.
At nineteen, he determined to try his fortune in England. He said
good-by to the culture-loving and warm-hearted father, to the poor
mother who knew "no other wants than good linen and clothing," and
started out to make his way in the world. For three years nothing is
known of him, save that he passed through many hardships. He played in
military bands whenever and wherever he could find a situation, or at
concerts, and led probably a cramped and obscure life.
There was little prospect then that he would become, as Prof. Edward S.
Holden says in his admirable life, "the greatest of practical
astronomers, and one of the world's most profound philosophers." What
the poor German youth thought and felt in those years of trial, we do
not know. He had one resource in his loneliness, the reading of useful
After about three years, a fortuitous circumstance occurred. It proved
"fortuitous" only because young Herschel had studied music faithfully,
and had made himself ready to fill a fine position, if, poor and without
influence, such a position could be obtained.
As Dr. Miller, a noted organist, "was dining at Pontefract with the
officers of the Durham militia, one of them, knowing his love of music,
told him they had a young German in their band, as a performer on the
oboe, who was also an excellent performer on the violin. The officer
added that if Miller would come into another room, this German should
entertain him with a solo. The invitation was gladly accepted, and
Miller heard a solo of Giardini's executed in a manner that surprised
"He afterwards took an opportunity of having some private conversation
with the young musician, and asked him whether he had engaged himself
for any long period to the Durham militia. The answer was, 'Only from
month to month.'
"'Leave them, then,' said the organist, 'and come and live with me. I am
a single man, and think we shall be happy together; and doubtless your
merit will soon entitle you to a more eligible situation.'
"The offer was accepted as frankly as it was made, and the reader may
imagine with what satisfaction Dr. Miller must have remembered this act
of generous feeling, when he heard that this young German was Herschel,
the astronomer. 'My humble mansion,' says Miller, 'consisted at that
time but of two rooms. However, poor as I was, my cottage contained a
library of well chosen books.'
"He took an early opportunity of introducing his new friend at Mr.
Cropley's concerts. The first violin was resigned to him, 'and never,'
says the organist, 'had I heard the concertos of Corelli, Geminiani, and
Avison, or the overtures of Handel, performed more chastely, or more
according to the original intention of the composers, than by Mr.
"'I soon lost my companion; his fame was presently spread abroad; he had
the offer of pupils, and was solicited to lead the public concerts both
at Wakefield and Halifax. A new organ for the parish church of Halifax
was built about this time, and Herschel was one of the seven candidates
for the organist's place. They drew lots how they were to perform in
succession. Herschel drew the third; the second fell to Dr. Wainwright,
of Manchester, whose finger was so rapid that old Snetzler, the
organ-builder, ran about the church exclaiming, "He run over te keys
like one cat; he will not give my piphes room for to shpeak."
"'During Mr. Wainwright's performance,' says Miller, 'I was standing in
the middle aisle with Herschel. "What chance have you," said I, "to
follow this man?" He replied, "I don't know, I am sure fingers will not
do." On which he ascended the organ loft, and produced from the organ so
uncommon a fulness, such a volume of slow, solemn harmony, that I could
by no means account for the effect. After this short extempore
effusion, he finished with the Old Hundredth psalm-tune, which he played
better than his opponent.
"'"Ay, ay," cried old Snetzler, "tish is very goot, very goot inteet.
I will hef tish man, for he gives my piphes room for to shpeak." Having
afterwards asked Mr. Herschel by what means, in the beginning of his
performance, he produced so uncommon an effect, he replied, "I told you
fingers would not do!" and, producing two pieces of lead from his
waistcoat pocket, "One of these," said he, "I placed on the lowest
key of the organ, and the other upon the octave above; thus, by
accommodating the harmony, I produced the effect of four hands, instead
Herschel was the successful candidate among the seven. He was now
twenty-seven years old. Only once do we learn of his going home to
Germany, and that in the year previous. Of this visit, Caroline, now
grown to fourteen, says, "Of the joys and pleasures which all felt at
this long-wished-for meeting with my, let me say my dearest brother,
but a small portion could fall to my share; for with my constant
attendance at church and school, besides the time I was employed in
doing the drudgery of the scullery, it was but seldom I could make one
in the group when the family were assembled together.
"In the first week, some of the orchestra were invited to a concert, at
which some of my brother William's compositions--overtures, etc.--and
some of my eldest brother, Jacob's, were performed, to the great delight
of my dear father, who hoped and expected that they would be turned to
some profit by publishing them, but there was no printer who bid high
After a year at Halifax, Herschel obtained a position as organist at the
Octagon Chapel in Bath, a fashionable city of England. This was another
and higher step on the road to fame. He now gave nearly forty lessons a
week to pupils. He composed music, and wrote anthems, chants, and
psalm-tunes for the cathedral choir where he played. He became so
popular from his real ability, coupled with pleasing manners, that he
was occupied in teaching from fourteen to sixteen hours daily.
But he did more than this. As his hopes brightened, he determined to
devote every minute to the pursuit of knowledge, in which he found his
greatest happiness. He studied Greek and Italian. He would unbend his
mind, after he retired, with Maclaurin's "Fluxions," or Robert Smith's
"Complete System of Optics," and Lalande's Astronomy.
What if he had devoted this time to ease or amusement! Would he have
become learned or distinguished? Every young man and woman is obliged to
decide the matter for himself and herself. We cannot idle away life and
In 1767, the fond father, Isaac, died of paralysis. Caroline, who loved
him tenderly, was desolate. He had taught her the violin when the
prosaic mother "was either in good humor, or out of the way." It is
quite possible that music, like inventions, did not bring an adequate
support for ten children, and that the practical mother wished her
daughter to learn something whereby she could earn a living. She
thereupon sent her two or three months to a seamstress to be taught to
make household linen. After a time a delightful proposition came from
the organist at Bath. He would take her to England, and see if she
"could not become a useful singer for his winter concerts and
oratorios." If she did not succeed, after two years, he would carry her
back to Germany.
In 1772, William came to Hanover and took his sister to Bath, at 7 New
Kings Street. She was now twenty-two; an untutored girl, with a bright,
eager mind, and a heart that went out to her brother in the most rapt
devotion. History does not show a more complete, single-hearted,
subservient affection, nor a sadder picture of a woman's sorrow in later
years, in consequence of it.
At once Caroline began her work of voice culture, lessons in arithmetic,
English, and in keeping accounts, from her brother, and in managing the
house. Alexander, now in England, boarded with William, and he and
Caroline occupied the attic. The first three winter months were lonely,
as she saw little of William.
"The time," she says, "when I could hope to receive a little more of my
brother's instruction and attention was now drawing near; for after
Easter, Bath becomes very empty, only a few of his scholars, whose
families were residents in the neighborhood, remaining. But I was
greatly disappointed, for, in consequence of the harassing and
fatiguing life he had led during the winter months, he used to retire to
bed with a basin of milk or glass of water, and Smith's Harmonics and
Optics, Ferguson's Astronomy, etc., and so went to sleep buried under
his favorite authors; and his first thoughts on rising were how to
obtain the instruments for viewing those objects himself of which he had
"There being in one of the shops a two-and-a-half-foot Gregorian
telescope to be let, it was for some time taken in requisition, and
served not only for viewing the heavens, but for making experiments on
its construction.... It soon appeared that my brother was not contented
with knowing what former observers had seen, for he began to contrive a
telescope eighteen or twenty feet long.... I was much hindered in my
musical practice by my help being continually wanted in the execution of
the various contrivances, and I had to amuse myself with making the tube
of pasteboard for the glasses, which were to arrive from London, for at
that time no optician had settled at Bath. But when all was finished, no
one besides my brother could get a glimpse of Jupiter or Saturn, for the
great length of the tube would not allow it to be kept in a straight
line. This difficulty, however, was soon removed by substituting tin
Herschel had attempted to buy a telescope, but found the price far
beyond his means. But he was not discouraged. Caroline soon saw "almost
every room turned into a work-shop. A cabinet-maker making a tube and
stands of all descriptions in a handsomely furnished drawing-room;" this
could be so occupied when the music scholars had left Bath in their
vacation; "Alex putting up a huge turning machine in a bedroom, for
turning patterns, grinding glasses, and turning eye-pieces, etc."
The longed-for time to see more of her brother never came to Caroline,
except as she finally grew into his life-work, and became his second
He had one unalterable purpose, the study of the construction of the
heavens. Nothing ever drew him from it. Nothing ever could draw him. And
herein lay one of the elements of his great power. As an English writer
has well said: "So gentle and patient a follower of science under
difficulties scarcely occurs in the whole circle of biography." Yes, he
was "gentle and patient," but with an untiring and never ending
perseverance. Too poor to buy telescopes, he made them. With no time to
read books during the day, he took the hours from sleep. With little
opportunity for education, he educated himself.
In 1774, the music teacher made for himself a five-and-one-half-foot
Gregorian telescope; and a year later, a Newtonian, with a
four-and-a-half-inch aperture, which magnified two hundred and
twenty-two times. The making of these instruments showed great
mechanical skill and accurate knowledge. He began now to study the
heavens in earnest, but the teaching must go on to provide daily bread.
He directed an orchestra of nearly one hundred pieces, and Caroline
copied the scores and vocal parts. So absorbed was he in his
astronomical work, however, that at the theatre, between the acts, he
would run from the harpsichord to look at the stars. This boyish
eagerness and naturalness he kept through life.
He soon made a seven-foot reflector, then a ten-foot reflector. The
mirrors for these telescopes were all made by hand, machines for the
purpose not being invented till ten or more years later. Alexander, with
his mechanical skill, assisted, and Caroline was always busy at the
work. She says, "My time was taken up with copying music and practising,
besides attendance on my brother when polishing; since, by way of
keeping him alive, I was constantly obliged to feed him, by putting his
victuals by bits into his mouth. This was once the case, when, in order
to finish a seven-foot mirror, he had not taken his hands from it for
sixteen hours together. In general he was never unemployed at meals, but
was always at those times contriving or making drawings of whatever came
in his mind. Generally I was obliged to read to him while he was at the
turning-lathe, or polishing mirrors, 'Don Quixote,' 'Arabian Nights'
Entertainment,' the novels of Sterne, Fielding, etc.; serving tea and
supper without interrupting the work with which he was engaged."...
So busy that he could not find time to eat or sleep! Rare devotion of a
rare mind! He now began to study every star of the first, second, third,
and fourth magnitudes in the sky. He carefully observed the moon, and
measured the height of about one hundred of her mountains. Her extinct
volcanoes, and her unpeopled solitudes, without clouds or air, were an
He was now forty years old,--not young to begin the study of a new and
illimitable science, but not too old, for one is never too old to begin
a great or a noble work.
Through Dr. William Watson, Fellow of the Royal Society, who
happened--if anything ever happens in this world--to see Herschel at
his telescope, he became a member of the Philosophical Society of Bath,
and soon in 1780 sent two papers to the Royal Society, the one on the
periodical star in Collo Ceti, and the other on the mountains of the
moon, which were read by Dr. William Watson, Jr.
When he was forty-three, he says, "I began to construct a thirty-foot
aerial reflector, and, having made a stand for it, I cast the mirror
thirty-six inches in diameter. This was cracked in cooling. I cast it a
second time, and the furnace I had built in my house broke." But he
persevered. This same year, 1781, after he had lived in Bath nine years,
on the night of Tuesday, March 13, having removed to a larger house, 19
New King Street, he says, "In examining the small stars in the
neighborhood of H. Geminorum I perceived one that appeared visibly
larger than the rest; being struck with its uncommon appearance, I
compared it to H. Geminorum and the small star in the quarter between
Auriga and Gemini, and, finding it so much larger than either of them, I
suspected it to be a comet."
The orbit of this "comet" was computed and its distance from the sun
found to be eighteen hundred million miles! The world soon awoke to the
fact that a new planet had been found, the greatest astronomical
discovery since Galileo invented the telescope, and the unknown musician
at Bath had become famous! So little was Herschel known at this time,
that one journal called him Mersthel, another Herthel, and still another
In December of the same year, 1781, Herschel was elected a Fellow of the
Royal Society and received the Copley gold medal. He was no longer the
poor German youth playing the oboe among the guards; he was the renowned
discoverer. He called the planet Georgium Sidus, in honor of his
sovereign, George III., but it was decided later to call it Uranus, from
Urania the muse of astronomy.
Herschel went eagerly on with his work. Fame did not change his simple
nature. The truly great are never ostentatious. He erected in his garden
a stand for his twenty-foot telescope, and perfected his mirrors.
"Though at times," says Caroline, "much harassed with business, the
mirror for the thirty-foot reflector was never out of his mind, and if
a minute could but be spared in going from one scholar to another, or
giving one the slip, he called at home to see how the men went on with
the furnace, which was built in a room below, even with the garden."
The next year, 1782, Herschel went to London, and met with a gracious
reception from George III. He wrote back to his devoted sister: "Dear
Lina: All my papers are printing, with the postscript and all, and are
allowed to be very valuable. You see, Lina, I tell you all these things.
You know vanity is not my foible, therefore I need not fear your
"I am your affectionate brother,
Again he wrote,--
"I pass my time between Greenwich and London, agreeably enough, but am
rather at a loss for work that I like. Company is not always pleasing,
and I would much rather be polishing a speculum.... I am introduced to
the best company. To-morrow I dine at Lord Palmerston's, next day with
Sir Joseph Banks, etc., etc. Among opticians and astronomers nothing now
is talked of but what they call my great discoveries. Alas! this shows
how far they are behind, when such trifles as I have seen and done are
called great. Let me but get at it again! I will make such telescopes,
and see such things--that is, I will endeavor to do so."
And this great ambition nerved him for action, continued and laborious,
as long as he lived. He was never satisfied; always achieving. Little
can be expected from those who are easily satisfied.
George III. wisely appointed Herschel Royal Astronomer, though with the
too small salary of one thousand dollars yearly. He came back to Bath
only to perform the last musical duty on Whit Sunday, 1782, the anthem
for the day being his own composition, and to say good-by to his pupils.
He moved to Datchet in 1782, and set up his twenty-foot telescope. In
1783 he had made three reviews of the heavens. In 1784 he made a fourth
review with his twenty-foot telescope. Caroline says: "My brother began
his sweeps when the instrument was yet in a very unfinished state, and
my feelings were not very comfortable when every moment I was alarmed by
a crash or a fall, knowing him to be elevated fifteen feet or more on a
temporary crossbeam, instead of a safe gallery. The ladders had not even
their braces at the bottom; and one night, in a very high wind, he had
hardly touched the ground before the whole apparatus came down.... I
could give a pretty long list of accidents which were near proving fatal
to my brother as well as myself."
A gentleman who visited him at Datchet wrote: "The thermometer in the
garden stood at 13 deg. Fahrenheit; but in spite of this, Herschel observes
the whole night through, except that he stops every three or four hours
and goes in the room for a few moments. For some years Herschel has
observed the heavens every hour when the weather is clear, and this
always in the open air, because he says that the telescope only performs
well when it is at the same temperature as the air. He protects himself
against the weather by putting on more clothing. He has an excellent
constitution, and thinks about nothing else in the world but the
But, occupied as Herschel was about "celestial bodies," he yet found
time to think about earthly things, for we find him at forty-five, May
8, 1783, marrying Mary, the wealthy widow of John Pitt, Esq., a lady of
much intelligence and amiability.
The sad feature of the new relationship was the misery it brought to
Caroline. Her whole life had centred in William. For eleven years she
had devoted every moment, every wish, every thought to him. She had
watched all night among the stars with him, month after month, and year
after year, in cold and in heat, and superintended his home by day. His
every desire was her law. She loved no other, and he was her all.
Perhaps she ought to have known that another might come into his life,
but she trusted blindly, and did not question the future.
When the wife came into the home, Caroline went out of it forever. For
more than twenty years she lived in lodgings, always "cheerless and
solitary," her only happiness found in coming day by day to help her
brother in his great work. Sometimes, when the wife was absent, Caroline
came back for a few days and lived over the old unalloyed life, and then
went back to her lonely lodgings.
For ten years following this marriage, she probably told her heart-aches
in her journal; but before her death she destroyed the record of these
years, that the feelings of those who were alive might not be pained. In
later days she became more reconciled to Lady Herschel, as "a dear
sister, for as such I now know you," and idolized their only son, the
renowned Sir John Herschel, born nine years after their marriage.
In 1785, Herschel began to construct his great forty-foot telescope, and
the next year removed to Slough, not far from Windsor. "In the whole of
the apparatus," he said, "none but common workmen were employed, for I
made drawings of every part of it, by which it was easy to execute the
work, as I constantly inspected and directed every person's labor;
though sometimes there were not less than forty different workmen
employed at the same time. While the stand of the telescope was
preparing, I also began the construction of the great mirror, of which I
inspected the casting, grinding, and polishing; and the work was in this
manner carried on with no other interruption than that occasioned by the
removal of all the apparatus and materials from where I then lived, to
my present situation at Slough." He had his first view through the
telescope February 19, 1787. George III. gave twenty thousand dollars
for the building of this instrument, and one thousand dollars yearly for
A half-century afterwards, the woodwork having become decayed, it was
taken down, the great tube laid horizontally, and, after Sir John
Herschel and his family had passed through it, a poem written by Sir
John having been read, it was sealed January 1, 1840, and placed on
With this great telescope, Herschel discovered two satellites of Saturn,
Mimas and Enceladus; one on August 27, 1789, and the other on September
17 of the same year. Two years before this, January 11, 1787, he
discovered two satellites of Uranus, Oberon and Titania. Sixty years
afterwards, Mr. Lassell, of England, discovered the remaining two
satellites of Uranus, called Ariel and Umbriel.
From this time his work went forward grandly. He had already completed
more than two hundred seven-foot, one hundred and fifty ten-foot, and
eighty twenty-foot mirrors. For many of the telescopes sent abroad he
made no stands, but provided the drawings. He wrote much about Saturn
and its rings, and showed that its most distant satellite, Japetus,
turns once on its axis in each revolution about its primary, as our moon
does about the earth.
He studied carefully the nature of the sun, its probable gaseous
surface, and its spots, and was the first to suspect their periodic
character. What would Herschel have said to the wonderful photographic
representations of these spots given by Professor Langley, in his New
Astronomy; spots which are one billion square miles in size; more than
five times the surface of the land and water on the earth? He saw, as
astronomers to-day see, that heat cannot be produced without expenditure
of force; and that the sun is probably cooling, even though scarcely
perceptibly for ages to come. He saw what science now generally
concedes, the rise and fall of the solar system; its gradual fitness for
the coming of man, through almost countless centuries; and its final
unfitness, when his generations shall have gone forever.
He wrote much about the Milky Way, believing at first that it could be
completely resolved into stars, about eighteen millions of them; but
later he changed his theory, having found so much nebulous matter--in a
state of condensation as though new worlds were forming, possibly to be
the homes of some new race, or of man in the ages to come.
His study of the variable stars attracted wide attention. He found that
the star Mira Ceti was for several months invisible to the naked eye;
then it grew brighter and brighter, and finally disappeared for months,
as before. He saw that other stars are periodic, and came to the
conclusion that this is occasioned by the rotation of the star upon its
axis, by which different parts of its surface are presented to us
He made a catalogue of double stars, and found by laborious calculations
that such stars have a common centre of gravity; that one sun revolves
about another. He found that our solar system has a motion of its own; a
grand orbit round some as yet unknown centre, and that other systems
have a like motion.
What this centre may be, whether a great sun like Sirius, one hundred
times larger than ours, with unknown powers and unknown uses, is of
course only conjecture.
Herschel gave much attention to nebulae, discovering and describing
twenty-five hundred new nebulae and clusters. He gave his life to the
study of the construction of the heavens. Concerning his statement of
the general construction, Professor Holden, himself a brilliant
astronomer, says: "It is the groundwork upon which we have still to
build.... As a scientific conception it is perhaps the grandest that has
ever entered into the human mind. As a study of the height to which the
efforts of one man may go, it is almost without a parallel.... As a
practical astronomer he remains without an equal. In profound philosophy
he has few superiors. By a kindly chance he can be claimed as the
citizen of no one country. In very truth his is one of the few names
which belong to the whole world."
The distinguished man, though unassuming and gentle in manner, must have
had a realizing sense of the greatness of his work, for he said, "I
have looked further into space than ever human being did before me. I
have observed stars of which the light takes two millions of years to
travel to this globe."
He gave much study to light and heat. So boundless was his knowledge
believed to be, that a farmer called one day to ask the proper time for
cutting his grass.
"Look at that field," said the scientist, "and when I tell you it is
mine, I think you will not need another proof to convince you that I am
no more weatherwise than yourself or the rest of my neighbors."
He worked earnestly till he was seventy-six, always depending upon his
faithful and inseparable Caroline for aid in his labors. He made a
telescope for her, with which she swept the heavens for comets, finding
eight, five of which she discovered for the first time.
At seventy-six his health began to fail. He had worked incessantly from
his struggling boyhood, but brain work does not wear us out; care and
anxiety bring the marks of age upon us. He now took little journeys away
from Slough for change of scene and air, while Caroline stayed at home
to copy his papers for the Royal Society, and to arrange his
manuscripts. In 1816, he was made a knight of the Royal Hanoverian
Guelphic Order, by the Prince Regent, and in 1821 was the first
president of the Royal Astronomical Society, his son being its first
In February, 1818, Caroline spent twelve precious days with her brother,
"not in idleness," she says, "but in sorrow and sadness. He is not only
unwell, but low in spirits." Later he went to Bath with Lady Herschel.
"The last moments before he stepped into the carriage," says the loving
Caroline, "were spent in walking with me through his library and
workrooms, pointing with anxious looks to every shelf and drawer,
desiring me to examine all and to make memorandums of them as well as I
could. He was hardly able to support himself, and his spirits were so
low, that I found difficulty in commanding my voice so far as to give
him the assurance he should find on his return that my time had not been
"When I was left alone I found that I had no easy task to perform, for
there were packets of writings to be examined which had not been looked
at for the last forty years. But I did not pass a single day without
working in the library as long as I could read a letter without
candle-light, and taking with me papers to copy, etc., which employed me
for the best part of the night, and thus I was enabled to give my
brother a clear account of what had been done at his return."
On the 4th of July, 1819, Herschel sent a note to his dear co-worker.
"Lina,--There is a great comet. I want you to assist me. Come to dine
and spend the day here. If you can come soon after one o'clock we shall
have time to prepare maps and telescopes. I saw its situation last
night,--it has a long tail."
Caroline wrote on this small slip of yellow paper: "I keep this as a
relic! Every line now traced by the hand of my dear brother becomes a
treasure to me."
Every day hereafter she spent the forenoon with Sir William. On the 15th
of August she went as usual and found that he was confined to his room.
"I flew there immediately," she says. "As soon as he saw me, I was sent
to the library to fetch one of his last papers and a plate of the
forty-foot telescope. But for the universe I could not have looked twice
at what I had snatched from the shelf, and when he faintly asked if the
breaking up of the Milky Way was in it, I said 'Yes!' and he looked
content. I cannot help remembering this circumstance, it was the last
time I was sent to the library on such an occasion. That the anxious
care for his papers and workroom never ended but with his life was
proved by his frequent whispered inquiries if they were locked and the
key safe, of which I took care to assure him that they were, and the key
in Lady Herschel's hands.
"After half an hour's vain attempt to support himself, my brother was
obliged to consent to be put to bed, leaving no hope ever to see him
rise again. For ten days and nights we remained in the most
heart-rending situation till the 25th of August, when not one comfort
was left to me but that of retiring to the chamber of death, there to
ruminate without interruption on my isolated situation. Of this last
solace I was robbed on the 7th of September, when the dear remains were
consigned to the grave."
Faithful and devoted watcher over his dead body, to the last! When he
had been buried in the little church at Upton, Windsor, at the age of
eighty-four, honored by all Europe and America, Caroline could live no
longer where remembrance of him made it intolerable.
She went back to Hanover, "a person," she said, sadly, "that has nothing
more to do in this world," to live with her brother Dietrich. She had
come to England, a girl of twenty-two; she went back an elderly woman,
seventy-two. The home in Germany did not prove a happy one, but how
could it without William? She lived simply, not spending half of the
five hundred dollars a year left her by her dead brother.
She had already published "A Catalogue of eight hundred and sixty Stars,
observed by Flamsteed, but not included in the British Catalogue," and
"A General Index of Reference to every Observation of every star in the
above mentioned British Catalogue." She also prepared "The Reduction and
Arrangement, in the form of a Catalogue in Zones, of all the Star
Clusters and Nebulae observed by Sir William Herschel in his Sweeps," "a
work," said Sir David Brewster, "of immense labor; an extraordinary
monument of the unextinguished ardor of a lady of seventy-five in the
cause of abstract science."
For this the Royal Astronomical Society voted her the gold medal, and
gave her the unusual distinction of honorary membership.
Sixteen years after her return to Hanover, Sir John Herschel, her
nephew, who had made his wonderful review of the southern heavens,
discovering as many new nebulae as his father, took his only boy, Willie,
to see her.
She was now eighty-eight. The visit was overwhelming to her affectionate
heart. She watched the child with the most intense delight. Fearing the
results if she knew the time of their departure for England, Sir John,
with mistaken kindness, went away at four o'clock in the morning,
without saying good-by. But the anguish of separation was thereby
The years went by slowly. On her ninety-sixth birthday the King of
Prussia sent her a gold medal, Alexander von Humboldt writing her a
letter from Berlin to accompany it.
January 14, 1848, at the age of almost ninety-eight, Caroline Herschel
died, and was buried from the same garrison church where nearly a
century before she had been christened. In her coffin was placed, by her
desire, a lock of her brother's hair. Beautiful affection! great
co-workers in their immortal study of unnumbered worlds!