Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel was born on November 15, 1738 in Hanover, Germany. His father Isaac was a musician with the regimental band of the Hanoverian Guards. Wilhelm’s formal education was only very basic. However, Isaac instilled in his children a love of music and an interest in observing the heavens. This, combined with Wilhelm’s own thirst for knowledge, meant that his learning was only just beginning when he left school at the age of 14 to join his father as a military bandsman.

Success with music

In 1757, 18-year-old Wilhelm and his elder brother Jacob moved to England where Wilhelm became known as William Herschel. His first job in England was hand-copying music. He then moved around England, becoming a band instructor, private music teacher, performer, composer, and church organist. He finally settled in Bath.

From 1757 to 1772, William achieved ‘success, acclaim, and growing prosperity’ from his music.1 During this time his hobbies were studying mathematics (including Newton’s calculus) and making naked-eye astronomy observations, as he had done as a boy with his father.

Change in focus

About 100 years earlier, Johannes Kepler had successfully analyzed the paths of the planets around the sun using mathematics (geometry). As Herschel read Newton’s work on optics and telescopes, he realized that there was enormous potential in combining his hobbies. He would make accurate astronomical observations by telescope, and interpret them mathematically, using techniques such as calculus. This was the beginning of modern astronomy.

As well as this dramatic shift in his intellectual focus, another significant change occurred in Herschel’s life in 1772. His sister Caroline, who shared his love of music (she was a singer) and astronomy, came to live with him in Bath. She was desperate to escape the restrictive expectations of her family in Hanover, who saw women as merely domestic drudges….

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