Today, we meet a modest giant. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
William Herschel, the
astronomer who discovered Uranus, was 50 when he
married. He was 54 when his only son, John, was
born in 1792. John was raised by a cheerful mother,
a famous father, and a maiden aunt, Caroline.
Caroline was also an astronomer of first rank. It
was she who discovered the nebulae in Cetus and
Andromeda. For 56 years she and John were joined by
a great bond of affection.
The household was more than a home. It was also an
observatory. The grounds housed the largest
reflector telescope in the world. It was 40 feet
long with a 48-inch mirror. You might say John was
born with a silver telescope in his eye.
At first, John studied mathematics at Cambridge.
Babbage, who later invented the programmable
computer, was John's age and a close friend at
Cambridge. Together they founded the movement that
brought Leibniz's calculus into English use.
After Cambridge, William wanted his son John to go
into the Church. John picked up a law degree
instead. But he had no taste for law and went back
to Cambridge to teach math. By then, his aging
father needed help with his work. So the circle
finally closed. John left Cambridge to take up his
third field -- the family trade of astronomy.
As an astronomer, John turned the field toward
issues of mathematical optics. He studied double
stars. He updated his Aunt Caroline's great catalog
Then, in 1833, John packed his family, a 20-foot
telescope, and three reflector lenses off to Cape
Town. Most astronomers had worked in the northern
hemisphere. The southern skies were almost
uncharted. Five years later, he'd filled in the
blanks. He rewrote astronomy under the clear air of
agrarian Africa. It was a remote world, perfectly
suited to his quiet temperament.
Back in England, he picked up an old interest in
chemistry. Then he heard about Daguerre's invention
of photography. With his knowledge of optics and
chemistry, Herschel invented his own camera within
a week. In 1839 he took the first glass-plate
photograph. It was a picture of his father's old
40-foot telescope, now a half-century old. He
didn't make the slightest move to gain credit or
profit from this inventive tour-de-force.
But then John Herschel threw the veil of modesty
over all his dazzling accomplishment. His last feat
was to create an accurate translation of Homer's
Iliad into English hexameter. In the
end, this gentle man went to his death sure that he
was only a pale shadow of his remarkable father and
his aunt. In the end, though, I think that's the
way he wanted things to be.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds