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William Herschel III

November 16, 2013

For modern-day astronomers, time at the telescope is fairly comfortable — a heated control room with Internet access, music, and even a coffee pot. But for their scientific forebears, observing could be not just uncomfortable, but dangerous.

Consider William Herschel, who was born 275 years ago this week. Working from his adopted England, he discovered hundreds of double stars, thousands of deep-space objects, and the planet Uranus, among many other accomplishments.

Herschel made these discoveries with telescopes he built himself. He made the mirrors from a mixture of tin and copper, which had to be melted, then molded to the proper shape. During one casting, the mold broke and hot metal poured onto the floor, causing the stones to explode and chasing Herschel away.

After he discovered Uranus, Herschel was appointed as the King’s Astronomer by King George III. Herschel moved to a house near Windsor Castle to be near his benefactor. At night, he clambered about a giant telescope on open scaffolding and platforms, which led to several near falls.

Winter nights were bitterly cold, yet Herschel remained at his telescope all night, taking only a few breaks to add layers of clothing.

And in summer, he smeared his face with raw onion to keep away the mosquitoes, but to no avail: In 1785, he developed malaria — one of the few events that kept Herschel away from his sometimes-dangerous observations of the universe.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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