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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Regency Astronomer Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was a German/British astronomer and the sister of Sir William Herschel, telescope maker and discoverer of Uranus.

She was born in Hanover, Germany, the principality George I ruled before Parliament declared him king of England. One of six children, she contracted typhus when she was ten. The disease stunted her growth and she never grew taller than four foot three. Her father, although he encouraged all his children to improve themselves, advised her she would never marry. She became her parents' unpaid house servant until her father died and her older brother, William, invited her to live with him in England.

George II had united the crowns of England and Hanover, so Caroline and William were also English citizens. William had emigrated to Britain to pursue a musical career, but his astronomy hobby soon overshadowed his interest in music. He built many large and powerful telescopes and his fame grew. In 1782 he became King's Astronomer. George III awarded him a pension and William quit his job as chorus director to spend all his time on astronomy.

At first, William employed Caroline as an unpaid housekeeper, but soon he trained her in mathematics and used her as an assistant in his telescope-making. Eventually, Caroline became his apprentice in astronomy. In 1787 George III granted her an annual salary of 50 pounds per year for her work as William's assistant.

Comet hunting was a popular pastime in the late eighteenth century and Caroline spent her evenings observing the sky through her brother’s telescopes. Between 1786 and 1797, she discovered eight comets. One was a co-discovery, and one, comet Encke, a rediscovery. Six of them bear her name. A list of her comets are here. She also made an independent discovery of M110 (NGC 205), the second companion of the Andromeda galaxy.

Besides discovering comets, she reorganized the data and corrected the discrepancies in the difficult-to-use, two-volume star catalog of John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal, and also added new observations. The Royal Society published this Catalogue of Stars in 1798.

She and William continued their astronomical observations until his death in 1822. She then returned to Hanover to live with her brother, Dietrich, and cataloged all her and William's work.

This publication earned her honorary membership in the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her their Gold Medal, which no other woman would receive until 1996. Prussia also honored her achievements with the Gold Medal for Science in 1846. She died at the age of 98, one of the world's eminent astronomers.

I named Caroline, the astronomer-heroine of Lady of the Stars, my Regency time travel, for Caroline Herschel.

Thank you all,
Linda

2 comments:

Heart of the wood said...

Thanks for bringing this woman's story to light. Never heard of her before today, and isn't that so often the way with women in history. A great story, well told!

Linda Banche said...

Thanks, Heart of the wood. True, too often women's accomplishments are neither noted nor remembered.