William Herschel (1738-1822)

Frederick William Herschel was an astronomer chiefly famous for his discovery of Uranus in 1781. Born Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel in Hanover, Germany, Herschel trained as a musician and initially followed his father into the Military Band of Hanover. He emigrated to Britain aged 19, teaching music and working as an organist and conductor.

In the 1770s, Herschel developed an interest in astronomy and began making his own telescopes. He embarked on a systematic survey of the sky, recording new nebulae and star clusters. During his career he found some 2500, which he published in three catalogues.

In 1781 he discovered the planet Uranus and a year later was appointed astronomer to King George III. He deduced the Sun’s motion through space in 1783 and, based on star counts, developed a model for the distribution of stars in our Milky Way galaxy in 1784. He also discovered two satellites of Uranus in 1787.

Herschel continued building even larger telescopes, culminating in his 40-foot (12-metre) reflector, completed in 1789. Using this instrument he discovered two moons of Saturn.

In 1783 he gave a telescope to his younger sister Caroline (1750-1848), who worked with him and soon began making her own astronomical discoveries. His son, John Herschel (1792-1871), also became an astronomer and mathematician. Herschel was knighted in 1816. He died at his home in Slough, Berkshire.