Catalogue description Catalogue of the papers of Sir John Frederick William Herschel 1st Baronet Astronomer (1792 - 1871)

This record is held by Royal Society

Details of JH
Reference: JH
Title: Catalogue of the papers of Sir John Frederick William Herschel 1st Baronet Astronomer (1792 - 1871)

The collection contains the letters from many eminent men of science during the period 1812-1871, together with a number of drafts and copies of Herschel's replies.

Date: 1812-1871

The correspondence has been arranged in two distinct alphabetical series and one chronological series. One of the alphabetical series consisted of what were evidently considered to be important letters and the other was of miscellaneous correspondence. The chronological series was of copies of letters from Herschel to the various correspondents. The two alphabetical series were to a certain extent intermingled, so that the sequence of names ran thus;


Adams Adamson Admiralty ........ A-miscellaneous


Babbage Babinet Baillie ..............B-miscellaneous


This intermingling of the series has been retained in the physical arrangement of the letters, but in the catalogue they are arranged in strict alphabetical order.


The collection contains 25 volumes and three boxes. Volumes 1 to 18 contain original letters with a certain number of originals and drafts of Herschel's replies intertwined. Volume 19 contains material other than letters, together with a few letters which for some reason were not included in the main series. Volumes 20 to 25 contain copies of Herschel's replies, a few of which are carbon copies (very faint and not easily legible) and the remainder of which was copied, apparently often from originals whose whereabouts are now unknown, in quite a different hand. These copies are in chronological order.

Held by: Royal Society, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Herschel, Sir John Frederick William, 1792 - 1871, Baronet, scientist and astronomer

Physical description: 1236 files
Immediate source of acquisition:

This collection of scientific correspondence was bequeathed to the Royal Society by the grandson of Sir John Frederick William Herschel, the Reverend Sir John C W Herschel, Bart in 1944.

Custodial history:

This collection was part of a larger collection of papers taken from Observatory House, Slough. Other items passed into the care of the Science Museum and the Royal Astronomical Society.


It appears that the letters had been arranged, and the copies prepared, under the direction of Col. John Herschel, FRS, shortly after his father's death, the object being to collect material for whoever should write a full account of his life. However, no-one was found undertake this task, and the letters remained at Observatory House, Slough, carefully packed up in four large tim trunks. The late Miss Myra Hardcastle, who devoted much time to an examination of the immense mass of Herscheliana of all kinds at Observatory House, drew up some lists of names which, though unfortunately incomplete, were to great assistance in compiling this catalogue.

  • Astronomy
Administrative / biographical background:

1788 May 8 William Herschel marries Mary Baldwin Pitt, the widow of a successful London merchant.


1792 Mar. 7 Birth of John Herschel (hereafter JH).


1809 Oct. 19 After studies at Eton and at Dr. Gretton's private school at Hitcham, JH enters St. John's College of Cambridge University as a Foundress scholar.


1812 Founds, with others, the Analytical Society.


1813 January Takes the Cambridge tripos examinations, coming out as Senior Wrangler and First Smith's Prizeman.


1813 May 27 Elected a fellow of the Royal Society.


1813 Publication of the first volume of Memoirs of the Analytical Society for which JH had written a major portion.


1813 Elected a fellow of St. John's College; remains a fellow until his marriage in 1829.


1814 Jan. 24 Begins preparations at Lincoln's Inn for a career in law.


1815 March Applies for the chair in chemistry at Cambridge, but loses the election by one vote.


1815 May Offered position as sub-lector at St. John's College; declines it at first but finally accepts it.


1815 Dec. 18 Writes Babbage: "You are pretty well aware what a job it must be to be set from 8 to 10 or 12 hours a day examining 60 or 70 blockheads, not one in 10 of whom knows his right hand from his left, and not one in 10 of them knows anything but what is in the book.... In a word I am grown fat, full and stupid.-Pupillizing has done this--and I have not made one of my cubs understand what I would have them drive at."


1816 Made an honorary member of the University of Gottingen.


1816 July 3 Receives his M. A. from Cambridge.


1816 Begins to direct his energies to astronomy and (Oct.) departs from Cambridge.


1819 Discovers that sodium thiosulphate dissolves silver salts, which eventually contributed significantly to the development of photography.


1820 JH and William Herschel construct the mirror and mounting for an 18.25-inch aperture, 20-foot focal length reflector.


1820 Publishes A Collection of Examples of the Application of the Calculus of Finite Differences.


1820 Elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.


1820 Jan. 12 Along with 13 others attends a meeting that leads to the formation of the Astronomical Society, of which JH serves as foreign secretary from 1820 to 1827.


1821 Royal Society awards JH its Copley Medal for his contributions to mathematics.


1821 With Babbage travels through France to Italy and Switzerland. JH meets Arago, Laplace, Biot, Humboldt, Pictet, and Plana and also ascends Breithorn, next to Monte Rosa.


1821-23 Beginning in March, 1821, JH observes double stars in collaboration with James South, working at South's observatory in Blackman Street, Southwark.


1822 Summer JH and his close friend James Grahame visit Holland and Belgium.


1822 Aug. 25 Death of Sir William Herschel, which occurred while JH was on the Continent.


1824 April Travels, along with Babbage, through France, Italy, Sicily, and Germany, meeting Gay-Lussac, Poisson, Fourier, Thénard, Bouvard, Nicollet, von Zach, Amici, Piazzi, Encke, Harding, Pfaff, and Fraunhofer. On his return trip, visits his Aunt Caroline in Hanover. On this trip he also makes ascents of Mount Vesuvius and of Mount Etna, where on July 3 he carries out a barometric determination of the height of Mount Etna. Arrives back in England on 18 October 1824.


1824 November Elected secretary of the Royal Society, which leads him to move from Slough to 56 Devonshire St., Portland Place in London, which was his residence until 1832.


1825 JH along with Babbage invents what is called the "astatic" or neutralized magnetic needle.


1825 Begins a review of all nebulae seen by his father, this review extending to 1833, by which time he had discovered 525 new nebulae.


1825 JH and South receive Lalande Prize of the French Academy of Sciences for their work on double stars. In the same year, South moves to Passy, near Paris, and sets up his observatory there.


1825 July Working with Edward Sabine and a group of troops from the military, JH in collaboration with French scientists attempts to measure the difference in longitude between the Greenwich and Paris observatories.


1826 Publishes studies of the Orion and of the Andromeda nebulae, the Orion paper being directed to determining whether changes had occurred in this nebula.


1826 Mar. 9 Presents to the Royal Society a paper giving the first discussion of the changes of position angle as a means of determining stellar parallax.


1826 Apr. 14 JH and James South receive the Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society for their double star work.


1826 September Brings his actinometer to the top of Puy de Dome to experiment on solar radiation. On this trip, which included many geological observations, he meets Baron Cuvier.


1826 October Despite urgings from friends, JH decides not to compete for the Lucasian professorship at Cambridge, which had become vacant.


1827 Declines an offer by Lord Brougham of the chair of mathematics at the newly founded University of London.


1827 February Elected president of the Astronomical Society.


1827 Autumn JH and Babbage travel to Ireland, where JH attempts but fails to meet William Rowan Hamilton.


1827 December Resigns as secretary of the Royal Society.


1829 Mar. 3 Marries, at St. Marylebone Church in London, Margaret Brodie Stewart, daughter of the Presbyterian divine and Gaelic scholar Dr. Alexander Stewart of Dingwall, Ross-shire. The couple, after a period of travel in Europe, take up residence at JH's house on Devonshire Street.


By 1830 Publishes articles "Light," "Physical Astronomy," and "Sound" in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana.


1830 Nominated for presidency of Royal Society as part of a reform move; JH loses the election to the Duke of Sussex by 8 votes.


1830 Publishes articles "Mathematics" and "Isoperimetrical Problems" in David Brewster's Edinburgh Encyclopaedia.


1830 Publishes an important work on the philosophy of science, his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, which was translated into French, German, and Italian. A second edition appeared in 1851.


1830 July 1 Declines offer to write one of the Bridgewater Treatises, a series of works showing how science supports religion.


1831 Publication of Mary Somerville's Mechanism of the Heavens, on which JH had provided advice before its publication and of which JH published a review (1833).


1831 Efforts made to have JH become the Astronomer Royal.


1831 JH created a knight (Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order) by King William IV.


1831 July William Whewell publishes a major review in the Quarterly Review of JH's Preliminary Discourse.


1832 Jan. 6 JH's mother dies. Shortly thereafter, JH gives up his house on Devonshire Street and moves back to Slough.


1832 Jan. 13 Presents to the Royal Astronomical Society his new method of calculating orbits of double stars.


1832 March Meets William Rowan Hamilton at a dinner given by the Duke of Sussex. Later Hamilton visited JH.


1833 Royal Society awards JH its Royal Medal.


1833 Publishes his Trealise on Astronomy.


1833 July 1 Presents a catalog of 2,307 nebulae and clusters to the Royal Society, including drawings of nearly 100 objects.


1833 Nov. 13 JH, his wife, and their three children depart from Portsmouth for the Cape of Good Hope on the Mountstuart Elphinstone.


1833 Nov. 30 Royal Astronomical Society awards JH its Gold Medal for his method of calculating the orbits of double stars.


1833 Dec. 7 Records in his diary: "Last night saw for the first time the Greater Magellanic Cloud. It is brighter & larger than I expected to see it & a very odd looking object.--"


1834 Jan. 15 Arrives at Table Bay at the Cape of Good Hope, where Thomas Maclear had come a few days earlier to director of the Cape Observatory.


1834 Feb. 1 Begins to move into a large house, which he named "Feldhausen," located about 6 miles southeast of Cape Town at the base of Table Mountain.


1834 Feb. 22 Starts observations with his 18.25-inch aperture reflector. His 5-inch refractor was mounted in a dome and put into operation by June of 1834. JH writes that "on the 22nd of February, I was enabled to gratify my curiosity by a view of [alpha] Crucis, the nebula about [eta] Argus, and some other remarkable objects in the 20-feet reflector, and, on the night of the 5th of March, to commence a regular course of sweeping."


1835 September Richard Adams Locke, a New York journalist, creates a sensation by publishing in the New York Sun a series of articles reporting that JH had sighted living beings on the moon. JH later learns of this fictionalized publication.


1835 Oct. 28 Sights Halley's comet.


1835-6 Sights Mimas and Enceladus, two inner moons of Saturn. These had not been seen since his father's time and were not sighted again until 1846, when Lassell observed them. JH had searched for these satellites in England, but had been unable to sight them.


1836 Feb. 12 Awarded (in absentia) a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. This was apparently for his catalog of nebulae.


1836 Feb. 20 Writes a very important letter to Charles Lyell on that "mystery of mysteries," the species question. Evidence indicates that this letter significantly influenced Charles Darwin.


1836 March Begins determining a sequence of 500 Southern Hemisphere stars arranged in order of brightness.


1836 Mar. 5 Writes in his diary: "Tried a project of Comparing Stars with Moon by total refln at the base of a Prism." This was the beginning of what JH called his "astronometer."


1836 June 15 Charles Darwin visits JH at the Cape.


1836 Aug. 24 JH's June, 1835 letter telling of his Cape observations read at the Bristol meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). It was published in the Athenaeum (1836), 627-8.


1836 Nov. 30 Awarded a Royal Medal by the Royal Society for his catalog of nebulae.


1837 William Whewell publishes his History of the Inductive Sciences, which was dedicated to JH.


1837 JH and also C.S.M. Poullet measure the intensity of solar radiation.


1837 Mar.1 Suggests in a letter to Francis Baily that there exists a relation between solar and auroral activity.


1837 Dec. 16 Discovers the variability of Eta Argus, which is now known as Eta Carinae.


1838 Mar. 11 JH and family board the Windsor Castle for return to England.


1838 Apr. 21 Writes in his diary: "Headaches & utter discomposure from the ship's movements. To live on board ship is equivalent to living in a perpetual earthquake on land with the prospect of being drowned instead of crushed, as a catastrophe."


1838 June 28 "Coronation Day" (diary) of Queen Victoria; JH raised to the baronetcy by the Queen.


1838 July Travels to the Continent with his son William and pays his last visit to Caroline Herschel. Meets with Olbers, Schumacher, and Gauss on his return trip.


1838 Aug. 4 Arrives back in London from his European journey.


1838 August Attends the BAAS meeting in Newcastle. At this meeting he was appointed to a committee for reducing Lacaille's stars. JH wrote the preface for the catalog of them published in 1847. He was also elected president of the mathematics section.


1838 Oct. 15 Dines with Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle to help plan James Ross's South Polar expedition.


1838 Dec. 3 William Whewell tries to persuade JH to accept the presidency of the Geological Society.


1839 Elected President of the Royal Astronomical Society.


1839 Jan. 22 Receives a letter from Sir Francis Beaufort reporting on Daguerre's invention of a photographic process. JH immediately begins to carry out a series of experiments of his own.


1839 Jan. 30 Using a camera obscura, make a photograph of the frame of the 40-foot telescope.


1839 Jan. 31 William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) presents a paper to the Royal Society on his photographic method.


1839 Feb. 1 Fox Talbot visits JH at Slough and JH tells him of the fixing property of sodium thiosulphate. Talbot eventually realizes this is a better method than his own and incorporates a new method of using it in his 1843 patent application.


1839 Mar. 14 Presents paper at the Royal Society explaining his method of using sensitized paper to make photographs.


1839 Mar. 23 Notes in his diary: "Wrote Buckland declining Savilian, " i.e., the Savilian Professorship at Oxford.


1839 June 12 Receives an honorary D.C.L. [Doctor of Civil Laws] from the University of Oxford.


1839 July 9 Succeeds in producing by photographic methods an image of the solar spectrum in its natural colors. JH does not, however, succeed in fixing this image.


1839 Sept. 9 Makes a photograph on a glass plate of the 40-foot reflector.


1840 Jan. 1 In a ceremony at Slough, reads a poem and lays his father's 40-foot telescope to rest.


1840 Jan. 10 Presents a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society announcing his discovery of the variability of Alpha Orionis (Betelgeuse).


1840 Mar. 5 Presents paper to Royal Society on his photographic work; introduces in this paper the now common terms positive and negative.


1840 Apr. 3 JH and family move from Slough to Collingwood in Hawkhurst in Kent. JH renames the house, originally known as "The Moor House," as "Collingwood."


1840 Sept. 7-10 The prominent German astronomer Encke visits JH at Collingwood.


1840 Nov. 30 Awarded a Royal Medal of the Royal Society for his work on photography.


1841 May 18 Completes and dispatches review of Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences and his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences for the Quarterly Review.


1841 June Presents a plan, worked out in conjunction with Baily and Whewell, to the Royal Astronomical Society for constellation reform. His plan, being quite radical, was not accepted. In 1844, he submitted another plan.


1841 At the BAAS meeting at Newcastle, JH presents a report on the plans for setting up stations for terrestrial magnetism observations.


1841 Oct. 17 According to diary, JH writes to Duke of Northumberland in favor of William Whewell becoming Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.


1842 Elected Lord Rector of Marischal College, Aberdeen.


1842 Publication of John Stuart Mill's System of Logic, which drew heavily on JH's Preliminary Discourse.


1842 Feb. 15 Obelisk erected in South Africa on the site where JH's reflecting telescope had stood.


1842 July Friedrich Bessel, the leading German astronomer of the period, meets JH at Manchester BAAS meeting and later visits him at Collingwood.


1842 August Apparently influenced by conversations with Bessel, writes to Francis Baily to urge a search for a trans-Uranian planet.


1842 Aug. 23 Diary records: "Received from Chevalier von Bunsen the Cross and Patent of the Prussian Order of Merit."


1843 Becomes a member of the Board of Visitors of Greenwich Observatory and is appointed a trustee of the British Museum.


1843 Mar. 7 Observes the great comet of 1843 from Collingwood.


1844 At BAAS meeting at York: paper by JH on a less radical plan for constellation reform and his preliminary report on James Ross's antarctic expedition.


1845 June In his presidential address at the BAAS meeting in Cambridge, JH attacks evolutionary thinking in general and the Laplacian nebular hypothesis in particular. This attack was partly aimed at Vestiges of Creation, which Robert Chambers had published anonymously in 1844 and which championed evolutionary ideas, causing intense controversy.


1845 September Serves as president for the BAAS meeting at Cambridge.


1846 June 29 At a meeting of the board of visitors of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, JH learns from Airy of the agreement between the positions predicted by J. C. Adams and U.J.J.Le Verrier for what turns out to be the planet Neptune.


1846 Sept. 23 Discovery of the planet Neptune by J. G. Galle in Berlin on the basis of Le Verrier's predicted position.


1847 Publishes his Results of Astronomical Observations Made ... at the Cape of Good Hope, the printing costs of which were paid for by the Duke of Northumberland. On July 6, presents a copy of his Results to Queen Victoria at Trinity Lodge (Whewell's residence).


1847 Become president of the Royal Astronomical Society.


1847 July 10 Adams and Le Verrier meet for the first time at JH's house with Wilhelm Struve and Charles Pritchard both present.


1847 Nov. 30 Awarded a Copley Medal by the Royal Society for his Cape results.


1848 Honored, along with others, by a testimonial organized by the Royal Astronomical Society.


1848 Declines offer of presidency of the Royal Society.


1848 January Publishes review of Alexander von Humboldt's Kosmos in the Edinburgh Review.


1848 Jan. 9 Death of Caroline Herschel, JH's aunt.


1849 Edits the Admiralty Manual of Scientific Inquiry, for which JH wrote the article on meteorology.


1849 Publishes his Outlines of Astronomy.


1849 May 9 Finishes and dispatches review of Quetelet on probabilities.


1850 Serves as member of the Royal Commission appointed to make recommendations concerning Oxford and Cambridge.


1850 Sept. 5 JH at Pau; declines J.A. Gordon's request that he stand for Parliament.


1850 Nov. 17 Writes letter accepting Mastership of the Mint.


1850 December By an Act of Parliament, the Mastership of the Mint was removed from being a political office that entailed a seat on the Cabinet and was made a purely administrative office.


1850 December Appointed Master of the Mint. While Master, JH unsuccessfully urged the decimalization of the coinage.


1850-55 Master of the Mint. During this period, takes a house in London in Tavistock Place. His wife and older daughters live there during the winter months but return to Collingwood for the summer.


1851 Jan. 25 Issues memorandum at the Mint abolishing some previous privileges, which causes staff problems.


1852 Apr. 1 Seized with vertigo.


1853 May 17 Meets with Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury, and mentions his desire to resign from the Mint. Trevelyan dissuades him from this.


1854 Recommends the use of photography for the registration of sunspots.


1854 late Suffers a nervous breakdown.


1855 Made a chevalier of the Prussian order 'Pour le Mérite.'


1855 Feb. 5 Diary indicates that by this date, JH had sent in letter of resignation from the Mint.


1855 July 23 Elected one of the eight foreign associates of the French Institute.


1855 September JH and family make a trip to France.


1857 Publishes his Essays from the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews.


1857 Publishes article "Meteorology" in the 8th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.


1857 Nov. 13 Maria Mitchell, a prominent American astronomer, arrives at Collingwood to visit JH.


1858 September At BAAS meeting at Leeds, reports on geomagnetic and meteorological observations at various locations in British Empire; gives address at chemistry section of which he was the president.


1858 Dec. 7 Dispatches last pages of his Physical Geography, which was published in the 8th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and later as a book.


1859 Serves as one of the vice-presidents at the BAAS meeting in Aberdeen.


1859 Publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.


1859 Publishes "Physical Geography" in the 8th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This was published as a book in 1861.


1860 Publishes "Telescope" in the 8th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This was published in 1861 as a book.


1861 May 23 Darwin writes a letter responding to JH's gift of a copy of JH's Physical Geography, which included a footnote critical of Darwin's theory of evolution.


1863 Nov. 19 Presents his catalog of nebulae to the Royal Society.


1864 Publishes a consolidated catalogue of 5,079 nebulae.


1864 Mar. 14 Writes in his diary: "I have been long very deaf in my right ear but heard very well with my left. Today quite suddenly I find the hearing of the left also so much diminished that I can no longer follow a conversation."


1864 Apr. 7 "Received notice of being elected an Honorary Member of the Scottish Meteorological Society." (Diary)


1865 Nov. 8 Finishes his hexameter translation of the Iliad, which was published in October 1866.


1866 Mar. 6 Death of William Whewell, who had visited JH at Collingwood in the summer of 1865.


1867 Publishes his Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects.


1867 Made an honorary fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge.


1867 Publishes a list of 812 double stars observed by his father.


1868 July Publishes in the Cornhill his translation of the first canto of Dante's Divine Comedy.


1870 Jan. 14 Presents to the Royal Astronomical Society his seventh catalog of double stars.


1871 May 11 Death of John Herschel.


1871 May 19 Burial next to Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey.


1884 Aug. 3 Death of Margaret Herschel, JH's wife

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