John Frederick William Herschel

Sir John Herschel, the astronomical and mathematical genius, chemist and English polymath of the 19th century, was the son of the renowned astronomer William Herschel. John Herschel was born, to his mother Mary when she was 42 years of age, in the year 1792. John was brought up by his parents and also his musically talented aunt Caroline Herschel.

Sir-John-Herschel
Sir John Herschel

John Frederick William Herschel: Childhood Upbringing

John Herschel was brought up in a house that was filled with scientific gadgets, musical instruments, and religious books. The house was called Observatory House. His aunt used to come daily to the house to teach John and help him with various science-related experiments.

John went to several schools such as Dr. Gretton’s School, Eton College, and St. John’s College Cambridge. When he was in Cambridge college, Herschel made two good friends known as Peacock and Babbage. These three undergraduate students started the Analytical Society to introduce new continental ways of mathematical analysis throughout the universities of England.

John Frederick William Herschel’s Mathematical Contributions

Herschel and Peacock managed to translate tough Lacroix’s theories that examined different unique approaches to the calculus theory. Sadly, his Analytical Society did not last long and was shut in the year 1813 when Herschel graduated with flying colours, having come first in the final exam. In the same year, Herschel received the fellowship of the Royal Society in London, when he published a mathematics paper on the Cotes’s Theorem. John Herschel continued his algebraic studies and published several papers. His research work in mathematics progressed until the year 1820.

John Herschel was never able to stick to one single area and always jumped or moved on to other things instead of devoting his full attention to one subject. In 1814 he surprised his father by entering the legal profession and after a few months realised that he was not cut out for legal training. He soon left it to return to Cambridge and become a mathematics tutor.

John Frederick William Herschel’s Astronomical Journey

In the bright summer of 1816, when Herschel spent his University holiday at home with his father, he decided to turn his focus towards astronomy. He wanted to assist his old father and continue the astronomical observatory work. He even wrote a letter to his friend Babbage in October the same year about his sudden decision.

John Frederick William Herschel Facts

  • Herschel undertook astronomy work in 1816 and soon published his first paper on astronomy

  • He published other papers on chemistry and photography in the year 1819

  • The experiment on photography proved to be very important in the progress or development

  • of photography after 20 years.

  • The term ‘Julian Day System’ in astronomy was introduced by John Herschel

  • He also named total 7 moons of Saturn and 4 moons of the planet Uranus in the solar system

  • He got involved in founding the Astronomical Society in the year 1820, where he was chosen as the vice-president

  • This versatile genius was awarded the prestigious Copley Medal by the Royal Society London for his wondrous work and contribution on mathematical analysis

  • He created the term ‘Photography’ in 1839

  • The terms negative & positive film development in photography was applied by Herschel

  • In 1824 his astronomical publication on a catalogue of double stars received critical acclaim.

  • He was also honoured for the publication

Sir John Herschel’s World Travels

He mixed work and pleasure by travelling extensively with his friend Babbage. The two embarked on a journey to Switzerland and Italy in the year 1821. They had fun with mountain-climbing and Herschel also observed the natural beauty on his foreign trips. He also travelled with Babbage to meet other scientists and discuss topics like astronomy and mathematics. John Herschel’s father passed away in the year 1822 and John looked after all the astronomical work left by his late father.

Continuing his Astronomical Works

He was honoured with several awards for his publications in astronomy. The Paris Academy gave him ‘Lalande Prize’ in the year 1825, and the next year he was felicitated by the Astronomical Society with a Gold Medal. In 1826, he again wrote a major paper that determined the parallax of a star.

And he also continued his work on the double stars subject until the end of 1833. In the 30s decade, Herschel also suffered a major disappointment as he was not elected as the President of the Royal Society, He failed in the election by a narrow margin. However, he was given the honour of being the President of the Astronomical Society and was given Knighthood in the year 1831.

In 1833, he sailed to South Africa with his wife Margaret Brodie and a personal 20 ft. refractor telescope. The ship touched the South African port in the month of January 1834. His work done in South Africa was completed only after he returned to his homeland. His full report or publication on the observations in 1847 earned him many laurels. He was also honoured with the second Copley Medal (Royal Society of London) for the same.

Sir John Herschel’s Photography Publications

In 1819 John Herschel made a breakthrough experiment and published a report on the procedure of chemical processes related to the science of photography. Herschel later published several papers on the topic of photography from 1839 until 1842. Historians and photography experts are amazed that Herschel never took any action to make himself known as the actual inventor of photography.

Sir John Herschel’s Last Days

He was appointed as rector in the Marischal College in Aberdeen in the year 1842. Cambridge University also made him the President of the British Association in the year 1845. When he became the Master of Mint he found it very difficult to pursue his scientific activities. He finally retired from his job at the Mint at the age of 63 years.

He was one of the leading English scientists in the Victorian Era. Sir John Herschel died in the year 1871 and was honoured with a National Funeral. He was duly buried in the holy ground of Westminster Abbey. His obituary was beautifully penned comparing him to Newton and his death as an irreplaceable loss to the British scientific society.

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