Sir John Frederick William Herschel

Sir John Frederick William Herschel


Sir John Frederick William Herschel was the only child of Mary Pitt and the respected, British astronomer, William Herschel who discovered Uranus. He was born in Slough, Buckinghamshire, England in 1792. Music, science and religion were the main household topics and sources of inspiration to the young John Herschel.

His father had an observatory, which housed a 40-foot telescope. Although his intelligence and talents were obvious, John did not fair well in school. Eventually he was tutored privately until he went to St. John’s College in Cambridge in 1809. For many years John Herschel focused his talents on mathematics. He published several papers and soon after his graduation in 1813 he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Although Herschel continued to research and publish papers on mathematics until 1820, he had other interests.

In 1814, a year after graduation, Herschel decided to pursue a career in law. He moved to London to begin his studies. It was only 18 months later when he realized this was not the right decision and he moved back to Cambridge and became a tutor in mathematics. During a visit home in 1816 Herschel realized the frailty of his father and decided to move home to continue his father’s work, he wrote to a friend, “I am going under my father’s directions, to take up the series of his observations where he has left them (for he has now pretty well given over regular observing) and continuing his scrutiny of the heavens with powerful telescopes.” Herschel was one of the founding members of the Astronomical Society in 1820 and was elected vice-president at the second meeting. By 1821, he was recognized with the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London. He continued his mathematical research and father’s work for several years, but he also devoted his time to other scientific studies.

As early as 1819, Herschel had discovered and published his experiments with silver and salts. He discovered that hyposulphite of soda dissolved silver salts. The significance of this early discovery would not be fully realized until the work of Niepce, Talbot and Daguerre. It was Herschel’s downfall. He did not focus his genius on one area of science and therefore, has been overlooked as a significant contributor, when in fact he was. His first major astronomy paper was published in 1824, the same year he was elected Secretary of the Royal Society, after his research on double stars. It received honors from the Royal Society, in addition to the Paris Academy Lalande Prize in 1825 and the Gold Medal from the Astronomical Society in 1826. He published another paper about double stars and attempted to determine the parallax of any star, but was unsuccessful. However, his published work did give Bessel the tools he needed and in 1840 published his successful results.

Also during this time Herschel was working on his Discourse on Natural Philosophy, which was published in 1830. Just a year earlier he married Margaret Brodie Stewart. In 1832, his mother died. Difficulties with the Royal Society elders, his mother’s death and the Royal Observatory’s incomplete research due to lack of accessibility beyond the northern hemisphere led Herschel and his wife to the South African coast in 1833. They reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1834.
The most significant discovery Herschel made on this voyage was the observation of Halley’s comet. He documented other major forces the comet was being subjected to other than gravity and calculated the one of the forces being from the sun, eventually known as solar wind. Another of his observations was that gas was evaporating from the comet. It would be 1847 when the results of this trip would be published. Four years later he returned to London to complete this research, but was distracted once again.

In a letter to his wife on January 22, 1839, a friend briefly commented on Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre’s experiments with the action of light. With a renewed interest, amazingly, Herschel was able to make photographs within a few days of reading the letter. As quickly as February 1, William Henry Fox Talbot visited Herschel. Based on his research in 1819, Herschel solved the problem of fixing that plagued early photographic experimenters. That same year and the following years of 1840 and 1842, Herschel published papers on photography. One of his most important papers, “On the Art of Photography; or the Application of the Chemical Rays of Light to the Purpose of Pictorial Presentation”, was read to the Royal Society on March 14, 1839. In this paper Herschel put to use the word “photography”, “emulsion”, “positive” and “negative”. Although the word “photography” was used as early as 1932 by Professor Stenger, it was Herschel’s paper that finally gave photography a common nomenclature. “Photography” is derived from Greek words that mean “light” and “writing”.

“By freely sharing this information with the early pioneers, Herschel provided the missing link in all their processes, of how to make images permanent. Herschel, with a volatile, soaring imagination, is an ideal of learning: He set aside nationalism; openly shared knowledge; did not patent his findings; and did not commercially exploit his discoveries” writes photo historian Robert Hirsch. In addition to his contribution of “hypo” and nomenclature, Herschel made several other important discoveries and foreshadowed, again, several processes.

Before Bayard published his process, Herschel described a method of achieving direct positive photographs. He successfully experimented with photographs on glass as early as September 9, 1839. On this date he photographed his father’s 40-foot telescope and it is the earliest remaining photograph on glass to date. During this time he also suggested that the glass negative could be used to create positives, or it could be “smoked” or held against a black background to achieve a positive. Herschel also found that silver-bromide was extremely more light sensitive than any other silver salts. Also, Herschel discovered the Cyanotype. In June 1842 he published findings about the use of iron with light sensitive materials. This process was used extensively by his contemporary Anna Atkins, but lay somewhat dormant until 1881. It is widely used today. Also in 1842, Herschel experimented with sensitized plant juices that produced an image by bleaching out unused emulsion. Called the “anthotype” (derived from the Greek word that means “flower”) it did not have a practical exposure or development time. As quickly as he turned his attention to photography, it was turned away.

In 1842, Herschel began working for the Marischal College in Aberdeen and served as president of the British Association until 1845. These were difficult years for Herschel, he was scientist, not a businessman. By 1850 he grew weary of working with staff and the Treasury and retired. John Herschel continued his scientific research until his death on May 11, 1871 in Hawkhurst, Kent, England.


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