Sir William Herschel

THE science of astronomy, which, from the time of Copernicus, had been gradually improving, through the laborious exertions of Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Huygens, Newton, Halley, Delisle, Lalande, and other eminent observers of the starry firmament, was considerably advanced by the discoveries of Herschel, whose biography now comes under our notice.

William Herschel was born at Hanover on the 15th of November 1738. He was the second of four sons, all of whom were brought up to their father's profession, which was that of a musician. Having at an early age shown a peculiar taste for intellectual pursuits, his father provided him with a tutor, who instructed him in the rudiments of logic, ethics, and metaphysics, in which abstract studies he made considerable progress. Owing, however, to the circumscribed means of his parents, and certain untoward circumstances, these intellectual pursuits were soon interrupted, and at the age of fourteen he was placed in the band of the Hanoverian regiment of guards, a detachment of which he accompanied to England about the year 1757 or 1759. His father came with him to England, but after the lapse of a few months, he returned home, leaving his son, in conformity with his own wish, to try his fortune in Great Britain - the adopted home of many an ingenious foreigner. How or when he left the regimental band in which he had been engaged, we are not informed. After struggling with innumerable difficulties, and no doubt embarrassed by his comparative ignorance of the English tongue, he had the good fortune to at tract the notice of the Earl of Darlington, who engaged him to superintend and instruct a military band at the time forming for the Durham militia. After fulfilling this engagement, he passed several years in Yorkshire, in the capacity of teacher of music. He gave lessons to pupils in the principal towns, and officiated as leader in oratorios or concerts of sacred music - a kind of employment in which the Germans are eminently skilled, from their love of musical performances. Herschel, however, while thus engaged in earning an honorable livelihood, did not allow his professional pursuits to engross all his thoughts. He sedulously devoted his leisure hours in improving his knowledge of the English and Italian languages, and in instructing himself in Latin, as well as a little Greek. At this period he probably looked to these attainments principally with a view to the advantage he might derive from them in the prosecution of his professional studies; and it was no doubt with this view also that he afterwards applied himself to the perusal of Dr. Robert Smith's Treatise on Harmonics ' - one of the most profound works on the science of music which then existed in the English language. But the acquaintance he formed with this work was destined ere long to change altogether the character of his pursuits. He soon found that it was necessary to make himself a mathematician before he could make much progress in following Dr. Smith's demonstrations. He now, therefore, turned with his characteristic alacrity and resolution to the new study to which his attention was thus directed; and it was not long before he became so attached to it, that almost all the other pursuits of his leisure hours were laid aside for its sake.

Through the interest and good offices of a Mr. Bates, to whom the merits of Herschel had become known, lie was, about the close of 1765, appointed to the situation of church-organist at Halifax. Next year, having gone with his elder brother to fulfill a short engagement at Bath, he gave so much satisfaction by his performances, that he was appointed organist in the Octagon chapel of that city, upon which he went to reside there. The place which he now held was one of some value; and from the opportunities which he enjoyed, besides, of adding to its emoluments by engagements at the rooms, the theatre, and private concerts, as well as by taking pupils, he had the certain prospect of deriving a good income from his profession, if he had made that his only or his chief object. This accession of employment did not by any means abate his propensity to study for mental improvement. Frequently, after the fatigue of twelve or fourteen hours occupied in musical performances, he sought relaxation, as he considered it, in extending his knowledge of the pure and mixed mathematics. In this manner he obtained a competent knowledge of geometry, and found himself in a condition to proceed to the study of the different branches of physical science which depend upon the mathematics. Among the first of these latter that attracted his attention, were the kindred departments of astronomy and optics. Some discoveries about this time made in astronomy awakened his curiosity, and to this science he now directed his investigations at his intervals of leisure. Being anxious to observe some of those wonders in the planetary system of which he had read, he borrowed from a neighbor a two-feet Gregorian telescope, which delighted him so much, that he forthwith commissioned one of larger dimensions from London. The price of such an instrument, he was vexed to find, exceeded both his calculations and his means; but though chagrined, he was not discouraged he immediately resolved to attempt with his own hand the construction of a telescope equally powerful with that which he was unable to purchase; and in this, after repeated disappointments, which served only to stimulate his exertions, he finally succeeded.