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Telescopes from the Ground Up
Portrait of William Herschel

William Herschel began life as a musician, like his father and brothers. When he was 15, he fled from his home of Hanover, Germany to England to avoid serving in the Seven Years War. He made a living as a music teacher, composer and organist, and began studying the importance of math in music. From math, Herschel’s curiosity moved to astronomy, triggering a fascination that would transform his life and make him one of the most famous astronomers of his time.

Herschel began his career by borrowing a telescope. Dissatisfied with its poor quality, he began making his own, devoting all his spare time outside his musical career to perfecting his designs. His sister, Caroline, joined him in his home to help with housekeeping and home affairs, and would eventually accompany him in his work, becoming a famous astronomer in her own right. The two would work together: William would sit at the telescope making observations, and call his results to Caroline, who would record them. Caroline would eventually become an observer as well.

Herschel’s discovery in 1781 of the planet Uranus brought him fame and fortune. He was appointed “The King’s Astronomer,” and given a pension. Herschel promptly gave up his musical career and compositions — few of which are known or played today — to take advantage of this full-time astronomy position. Caroline was also given a pension as “Assistant to the King’s Astronomer.”

Herschel would go on to identify almost a thousand double stars, discover the movement of the solar system through space, find the infrared range of light, and correctly theorize the disk shape of the galaxy. He and his son, John Herschel, would catalog more than 4,600 nebulae. Craters on the Moon and Saturn’s moon, Mimas, are named for him today.

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