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Herschel, Sir John Frederick William (1792-1871)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0117 JFWH
Held at: Royal Society
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Full title: Herschel, Sir John Frederick William (1792-1871)
Date(s): 1812-1865
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: c10,600 letters (25 volumes and 5 boxes)
Name of creator(s): Herschel | Sir | John Frederick William | 1792-1871 | 1st Baronet | astronomer


Administrative/Biographical history:

John Frederick William Herschel was born on 7 March 1792, only child of William Herschel and Mary Baldwin Pitt, widow of a prosperous merchant. After Eton and Dr Gretton's private school at Hitcham and private tutoring in mathematics, Herschel entered St. John's College, University of Cambridge, in 1809, where his exceptional abilities were revealed. He became founding member and first president of the Analytical Society to promote study of continental mathematics at Cambridge. Other members were Charles Babbage (1792-1871), George Peacock (1791-1858) and William Whewell (1791-1866). In 1813 he became Senior Wrangler and First Smith's Prizeman, was elected to the Royal Society, and became a Fellow of St John's College. He planned for a career in law, entering Lincoln's Inn in 1814, but in 1815 returned to Cambridge as sub-lector, though he found instructing undergraduates not to his liking. In 1816 he began to study astronomy, and left Cambridge to continue his father's observations. By 1820 astronomy had become his chief concern in science. He founded the Astronomical Society in that year, which in 1831 became the Royal Astronomical Society, becoming its President in 1827, 1839 and 1847. He took up the observation of double stars in collaboration with James South, their first catalogue being awarded the Lalande Prize of the French Academy and a gold medal from the Astronomical Society. His most important contribution to physics in the 1820's was his article 'Light' in 1827. From 1824 to 1827 he was Secretary of the Royal Society, an ideal choice both because of his effectiveness as a correspondent and because he knew personally many leading continental scientists through trips made during the 1820's. His contribution to the philosophy of science was in the publication of his much translated Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, which deeply influenced Charles Darwin and Willliam Whewell, and his Treatise on Astronomy in 1833, a highly successful presentation for the educated public. From 1834 to 1838 he was at the Cape of Good Hope with his family, involved in the detailed survey of the southern celestial hemisphere. In 1839 he made contributions to the development of photographic techniques, for which he was awarded the Royal Medal in 1840. He continued to make contributions to the philosophy of science, with his reviews of Whewell's publications, his role in John Stuart Mill's famous System of Logic of 1842 and his review of Adolphe Quetelet's Theory of Probabilities. Herschel also became involved in the discovery and arbitration of the controversy over the discovery of Neptune in 1846. In 1849 he published his authoritative Outlines of Astronomy, which like his earlier writings had concentrated on the two questions central to his father's researches - what is the structure of the Milky Way and what is the nature of nebulae. The great esteem in which he was held was shown by the honours and positions offered to him, including the Royal Society's Copley Medal for his Cape Results in 1847 and an obelisk erected on the site in South Africa where his telescope had stood. He was Master of the Mint from 1850 to 1854, then returned to writing, publishing Meteorology, Physical Geography and Telescope, originally as articles and then by 1861 as substantial books. During the last 6 years of his life he compiled a catalogue of all known double and multiple star systems, which appeared posthumously in 1874 with final editing by Charles Pritchard and Robert Main. Herschel died on 11 May 1871, being buried in Westminster Abbey next to the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton. He had 12 children by Margaret Brodie Stewart, whom he married in 1829. His achievements were recognised with a knighthood in 1831, raised to a baronetcy in 1838.


Scope and content/abstract:

The correspondence of Sir John Frederick William Herschel, comprising three main groups of documents:
The first series comprises 19 volumes of manuscript letters sent to Herschel, with drafts of his replies (Ref: HS 1-19).
The second series comprises 16 volumes of copy letters from Herschel (Ref: HS 20-25). These are arranged in chronological order and are apparently constructed from Herschel's original letters brought together by a son, Col. John Herschel R.E., for a proposed biography and then returned to their original owners. The biography was never produced. There is some duplication between these versions of finished letters and the rough versions of the same in HS 1-19.
The third series comprises five boxes of unbound manuscript letters, copy books and listings (Ref: HS 25-28) in which there appears information on the copying project, and groups of original letters on particular topics, such as Herschel's involvement in W H F Talbot's photography patent disputes.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Vols 1-19 contain letters to Herschel, with some of his replies, arranged alphabetically. Vols 20-25 are arranged chronologically. Vols 25-28 include information on the copying project, and letters on particular topics.

Conditions governing access:

Only those parts of the collection which have been listed are open.

Conditions governing reproduction:

No publication without written permission. Apply to Archivist in the first instance.

Finding aids:

Unpublished calendar by R.K. Bluhm made in 1958. Detailed catalogue available at

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Presented to the Royal Society in 1944 by Rev. Sir John C. W. Herschel from a larger collection of papers at Observatory House, Slough.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Library, University of Texas at Austin, correspondence and papers 1809-1853; Royal Astronomical Society Library, correspondence and papers 1816-1871; Houghton Library, University of Harvard, correspondence, notebooks and papers 1810-1866; St John's College Library, University of Cambridge, manuscripts of published articles; Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, University of Cambridge, poems and papers, correspondence with Sir George Airy 1835-1870, letters to Sir George Stokes 1828-1870; Trinity College Library, University of Cambridge, 137 letters to William Whewell 1817-1871; Science Museum Library, notebook, letters to Fox Talbot 1839-1868; Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford, correspondence and papers relating to photography 1840-1842; Special Collections and Western Manuscripts, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, correspondence with Mary Somerville 1826-1871; Royal Institution, 50 letters to John Tyndall; Public Record Office, letters to Sir Edward Sabine 1838-1852; Geological Society of London, letters to Sir Richard Murchison 1829-1864; Library and Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, letters to Sir William Hooker 18430-1848; British Geological Survey Library, geological notebook relating to the Isle of Wight; Manuscripts section, National Maritime Museum, visitors book, and correspondence, accounts and papers 1832-1866; Manuscript Collections, British Library, notes on chemistry and acoustics, letters from Caroline Herschel 1822-1848, correspondence with Charles Babbage 1819-1870; St Andrews University Library, 39 letters to James Forbes 1832-1859; Trinity College Dublin, 41 letters to Sir William Rowan, 1833-1865; Special Collections, Edinburgh University Library, 19 letters to Sir R Murchison 1838-1852; American Philosophical Society Library, letters to Sir Charles Lyell 1836-1868, 17 letters to Admiral WH Smyth 1827-1838; University of Cape Town Libraries, correspondence and papers relating to education in Cape Colony 1830-1838.

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Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Description produced by the Royal Society and revised by Rachel Kemsley as part of the RSLP AIM25 project.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Created 26/02/2002, modified 17/05/2002, revised Sep 2002

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