Papers of Sir William Herschel (1738-1822) and his son Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The papers are composed of : a holograph translation of  The night encampment of the Trojans round their watchfires  from Homer, signed by John Frederick William Herschel; a letter from J. F. W. Herschel to (possibly) Matthew Arnold with excerpts from his translation of the  Iliad for his inspection, 1866; part of a treatise on the theory of music by Sir William Herschel along with works of organ music consisting of fugues, voluntaries, and full organ pieces; and, letter to John Phillips about terrestrial magnetism, 1856.

Administrative / Biographical History

The astronomer Sir William Herschel - Frederick William Herschel - was born in Hanover, Germany, on 15 November 1738. Brought up to be a musician he entered the band of the Hanoverian Guards as an oboist at the age of fourteen. As a youth too, an interest in philosophy began to show. He came to England in 1757 and in 1760 was playing in the band of the Durham militia. In 1765 he was an organist in Halifax and in 1766 he was an organist in Bath. The study of harmony led him into mathematics which he studied along with optics, astronomy, and Latin, Italian, French, English and Greek. In 1773, Herschel began constructing his own astronomical instruments. He ground his own mirrors and year by year he built bigger and better telescopes. In 1781 he discovered Uranus and in 1787 he discovered two of the planet's moons, Oberon and Titania. In 1789 he discovered the Saturnian moons Encladus and Mimas. In 1782, Herschel was appointed Court Astronomer to King George III. Sir William Herschel died on 25 August 1822.

Herschel's astronomer son Sir John Frederick William Herschel was born in Slough on 7 March 1792. He was educated privately and at Eton and at home before entering St. John's College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1813 and then proceeded with his studies, graduating with the degree of MA in 1816. During this period, Herschel, George Peacock (1791-1858) and Charles Babbage (1792-1871) restored mathematical science to a place of importance in England through their transactions of the  Analytical Society of Cambridge, a translation of  Elementary treatise on the differential calculus, and  Examples. In 1812, Herschel submitted to the Royal Society  On a remarkable application of Cotes's theorem. Although he chose law as a profession and entered Lincoln's Inn as a student in June 1814, he was diverted towards science. Failing to win the Chair of Chemistry at Cambridge he experimented in chemistry and physical optics at home in Slough and submitted to the Royal Society of Edinburgh  On the optical phenomena exhibited by mother-of-pearl and  On the absorption of light by coloured media. He also researched the action of crystals on polarised light. By 1816, Herschel had become actively involved in astronomy and began re-examining his father's work.

Herschel took an active part in the setting up of the Royal Astronomical Society and he travelled abroad meeting other astronomers. In 1824 he determined the height of Etna, Sicily, and in 1826 he experimented on solar radiation from the summit of Puy de Dome in the Auvergne, France. Through observations conducted from Slough over 1825 to 1833, he catalogued over two thousand nebulae visible in the northern hemisphere, over five hundred of which were discovered by himself. In addition to being Secretary of the Royal Society in 1824 and President of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1827, Herschel was working on a means of detecting annual parallax in 1826, was discovering double stars, and was describing stellar orbits and thus contributing to gravitational astronomy. In 1833, he travelled to the Cape of Good Hope - to Capetown - with the intention of surveying the night skies of the southern hemisphere. He discovered and measured double stars, and listed nebulae and clusters. In 1836 he made the first satisfactory measurements of direct solar radiation. He returned to England in 1838.

In 1839 Herschel submitted to the Royal Society a  Note on the art of photography in which he explained his independent invention of the photographic use of sensitised paper. Another paper read in 1840 saw the origins of the terms 'positive' and 'negative' applied to photographic prints. In 1843, he produced the first example of a photograph on glass, reproducing an engraving of the forty-foot reflector telescope at Slough. 1847 saw the publication of  Results of astronomical observations made during the years 1834-8 at the Cape of Good Hope which catalogued nebulae and double stars, discussed various astronomical topics, and put forward the theory that there was a connection between sun spots and the sun's rotation. Prior to his retiral, Herschel accepted the post of Master of the Mint in 1850, and was one of the jury for scientific instruments at the Great Exhibition. He was also a member of the Commission looking in to the course of study at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Sir John Frederick William Herschel died at Collingwood on 11 May 1871 and was buried in Westminster Abbey close to Sir Isaac Newton.

Conditions Governing Access

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Stephen, Leslie. and Lee, Sidney (eds.).  Dictionary of national biography. Vol. 9. Harris-Hovenden. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1908.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The local Indexes show various references to Herschel related material (check the Indexes for more details) in the documents of the Laing Collection, the Halliwell-Phillipps Collection, the Murchison collection, and the Lyell Collection, and there is also material simply mentioning the Herschels: letter giving results of observations by Sir J. F. W. Herschel on the height of Etna, and letters 1865, in Lyell material at Gen. 108 onwards; letter to Prof. Buckland, 1829, at La.II.643/25; letter to J. Henderson, 1833, at La.II.425/24; portrait of Sir J. F. W. Herschel at La.II.643/25; letters to Sir R. I. Impey at Gen. 523/4 and 6, and Gen. 1425/392-393, and Gen. 1999/1/9, and mention in a note of Murchison at MS. 2216/144; letters to J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, at L.O.A. 28/17 and L.O.A. 160/25; mention in a letter 1838, at Dk.6.20/236; mention 1845, at Gen. 1996/7/28; mention 1853, in Lyell material, Gen. 108 onwards; letter of Sir W. Herschel, 1788, at La.II.647/204; letter to Sir W. Herschel from John Robison, at La.II.233; discovery of Uranus mentioned in a letter, 1782, at Gen. 1429/16/2; letter in Joseph Black material at Gen. 873/111/243-4; and, mention of Sir W. Herschel in a letter from Dr. Lind to Black, 1785, at Gen. 874/IV/11-12.

In addition, the UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes for Sir William Herschel: correspondence and papers, 1773-1821, Royal Astronomical Society Library, Ref. MSS Herschel; papers, 1780-1818, Royal Society; journal and papers, 1778-1790, Oxford University, Museum of the History of Science, Ref. MSS 117, 180; correspondence and papers, University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Library, NRA 19861 Univ of Texas papers; symphonies, British Library, Music Collections, Ref. Add MSS 49624-32, and music manuscripts, Ref. MSS Mus 88-91; musical compositions, University of California Library, Berkeley; papers, 1780-1805, Harvard University, Houghton Library, NRA 19360 Herschel; household accounts, 1795-1825, National Maritime Museum, Manuscripts Section, Ref. HER/1-3 NRA 30121, and visitors book, Ref. MS80/031 NRA 20623 Nat Maritime Mus; and, letters (25) to Sir Joseph Banks, 1781-1802, for the location of these papers see W. R. Dawson, The Banks letters, 1958.

The UK NRA notes for Sir John Frederick William Herschel the following in Scotland: letters (39) to James Forbes, 1832-1859, St. Andrews University Library, NRA 13132 Forbes.

Geographical Names