Friday, January 10, 2014

Astronomer Caroline Herschel

by Linda Banche

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 immigrated 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 is 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, producing a catalog of nebulae.

In 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her their Gold Medal for this work. No other woman would receive this honor until 1996. The Royal Astronomical Society also elected her to honorary membership, and the Royal Irish Academy granted her membership. Prussia also lauded her achievements with the Gold Medal for Science in 1846. She died at the age of 98, one of the world's eminent astronomers then as now.

Caroline Herschel is an off-stage character in two of my Regency romances, A Gift from the Stars and Lady of the Stars.

In A Gift from the Stars, Miss Herschel is a friend of the heroine, Elizabeth. In the book, astronomy enthusiast Elizabeth observes the stars one cold winter’s night when a space ship lands next to her house. Miss Herschel also saw the space ship, albeit from such a large distance that the vehicle appeared only as a great white light. Elizabeth plans to give a copy of Miss Herschel’s Catalogue of Stars to the hero, Jon, who is also an astronomy buff. In Lady of the Stars, my Regency time travel, I named the twenty-first century astronomer heroine “Caroline” after Caroline Herschel.

Thank you all,
Linda Banche


  1. Good on ya, Linda! I wrote about her in my children's non fiction book, Potions To Pulsars: Women doing science and found her fascinating to research. She also hurled to build the telescopes and one of the ingredients used was horse droppings - definitely not something you'd want to handle, but she did, patiently. She was talked into the astronomy - she'd been keen to pursue her career as a singer when William persuaded her to drop it and do astronomy instead. Luckily for us she did!

    Your novels sound like good fun.

  2. Hi, Sue. Horse droppings? The things we do for our work! Thanks for coming over.

  3. Lovely piece, Linda. I have Frank Brown's monograph ' Caroline Herschel as a musician' beside me as I type. She was evidently one of the principal soloists in a performance of 'Messiah' on 15 April, 1778. Incidentally, the William Herschel Museum - 19 New King Street, Bath - celebrates both the Herschels' many achievements. It's well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area!

    Sorry if I've commented twice- have just made a fool of myself with google.

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  5. Sorry, I hit "publish" instead of "preview." That's a fascinating bit of trivia, Victoria. And I believe she was a soprano, so now whenever I hear the soprano solos in Messiah, I will think of her. I must see if I can chase up that book you mention. And visit that museum next time I visit England. You tend to do the Regency stuff in Bath - I visited the costume museum, which was amazing enough, but a whole place dedicated to the Herschels! Wow!

  6. Thanks, Victoria. Fascinating info. I didn't know there was a William Herschel Museum. I'll have to look it up.

    Sue, thanks for coming over.


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