The Herschel space observatory borrows
its name from Sir William Herschel, probably the most
influential 18th century observer of the night sky.
However, William was not the only one in his family
who was captivated by the beauty of the stars. Astronomy
was a family business for the Herschel’s:
The first of the Herschel family to devote himself
to searching the heavens, William Herschel
(1738 – 1822) was also the most successful.
The son of a military musician in the small dukedom
of Hannover, he was a talented and successful musician
in his own right. He had already joined the army band
in his teens. At the time Hannover was part of the
British Empire, and during the Seven-Year War between
France and England it was occupied by the French.
In 1757 William and one of his brothers fled from
the war, escaping to England. William stayed in England,
and his brother returned to continental Europe.
As a professional musician
he made a living conducting and playing the organ, finally
securing a well-paying job as a church organist in Bath.
In 1772 he paid a short visit to his hometown of Hannover,
bringing his younger sister Caroline Herschel (1750
– 1848) to join him and his wife in Bath.
Caroline was the fifth of six surviving siblings. Her parents
planned her life, expecting her to be a caretaker in their
home. Caroline received no formal education, and her chances
of leaving home by way of marriage were minimal since she
had suffered from typhus in childhood, stunting her height
at only 4’ 3’’. When Caroline moved to
Bath, William had to pay for a maid to take care of his
parents’ place. The congenial brother-sister team
worked together in many ways. They made music together (Caroline
was a talented singer), and they became one of the best
astronomers of their time. Their brother Alexander visited
periodically, and supported his siblings astronomical interests
by helping them build the support frames for their large
telescopes. Together, William and Caroline developed an
enduring passion for sky-gazing. With considerable effort
including hours of painfully tedious polishing of mirror
surfaces, they built a very good telescope for their backyard
from scratch, and looked at the sky night after night.