Today, a quiet lady maps the heavens. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
William and Caroline
Herschel were brother and sister, born in 1738 and
1750 in Hanover. Both were trained as musicians,
and William moved to England when he was 19 to find
work as an organist.
Caroline's father assured her that she was was not
pretty enough to marry, and her mother discouraged
her bookishness. Her brother rescued her from all
that in 1772 and brought her to England, where he'd
become a well-established musician.
William turned her loose to study, and study she
did. She learned English, more music, mathematics
and accounting, and together they studied
astronomy. William also forced her to learn the
artifices of English society. She complained that
English flower shows were:
a subject on which the wondrous female mind ...
for months before and after, is absorbed in
Within a few years Caroline was making
her own way as a professional singer. But she and
William were more and more seriously involved with
astronomy. By 1774 William had built his own
state-of-the-art telescope, and together the two of
them set out to map the heavens. By 1781 he'd
discovered the planet Uranus. The next year he was
made King George's court astronomer.
Five years later, Caroline, then 36 years old, was
added to the payroll. At first she was his backup
mathematician, but she soon was functioning as an
equal partner. Long before she received any salary,
she'd discovered 14 new nebulae, including
Andromeda and Cetus. She was the first woman to
discover a comet, and before she was done she'd
identified eight of them.
But the full sweep of Caroline Herschel's work is
even grander than that. William died when she was
72, and she went right on ordering a vast
accumulation of astronomical data. No error has
ever been reported in her computerlike
calculations. When she was 75, the Royal
Astronomical Society voted her a gold medal for her
catalog of 1500 nebulae. Her last honor was the
King of Prussia's gold medal for science, awarded
on her 96th birthday. She died shortly before her
98th birthday in 1848.
All her life, Caroline took elaborate care to
deflect credit toward William. He was, beyond any
doubt, one of the great geniuses of the 18th
century and by all accounts a thoroughly decent
man. His sister's self-effacing brilliance takes
nothing from that. But he was quick to acknowledge
what the world was slow to see -- that Caroline
Herschel, this selfless lady whom we hardly know
today, was also a giant in the field of astronomy.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds