Thousands of letters by astronomer Sir John Herschel digitised for first time on Royal Society online archive

07 June 2024

Over 10,000 letters of the astronomer and photographic pioneer Sir John Frederick William Herschel FRS (1792-1871) have been digitised for the first time on the Royal Society’s Science in the Making archives portal.

Digital audiences can now travel through time to read about Herschel’s work in his own words and those of his correspondents. They can delve into first-hand accounts of Herschel’s mapping of the southern hemisphere skies and his contribution to the development of photography, including inventing the blueprint. They will also find his early mathematical work, and even his contested translation of Homer's epic poem, The Iliad.

Royal Society historian Louisiane Ferlier says: “Sir John Herschel’s dedication to correspondence is remarkable. From fascinating discussions of some of the most important discoveries and scientific theories of the 19th century, next to mundane and often touching personal chitter chatter, this treasure trove of letters provides a window into the inner workings of Victorian science. It’s like having your ear at the door of scientists at work, hearing whispers of science quite literally in the making.”

John Herschel was the son of William Herschel – the discoverer of Uranus – and nephew of comet-watcher Caroline Herschel. One of the most significant figures of Victorian science, he was at the centre of a global network of correspondence, exchanging letters on a variety of subjects with the foremost practitioners in each field, acting as a science diplomat and administrator. He served as Secretary of the Royal Society from 1824 to 1827.

The newly digitised collection contains stories and musings behind much of Herschel’s work as well as those of his fellow scientists and literary acquaintances. Among more than 1,300 star-studded correspondents are: Mary Somerville (with whom he shared a love of poetry); Julia Margaret Cameron (who recounts in detail her very first failed photographic experiments); Charles Darwin (whose visit to Herschel in South Africa provided part of the inspiration for On the Origin of Species); and Charles Dickens (his neighbour with whom he settled a friendly feud). Other well-known names include scientist Michael Faraday, inventor and engineer Charles Babbage, writer and philosopher John Ruskin and naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt.

Louisiane says: “What is also unique about the Royal Society’s collection is that Herschel kept many draft and copy versions of his own letters. His careful record-keeping was inherited and built upon by his children: after his death, his son Colonel John Herschel FRS wrote to his father's correspondents individually to send his letters. Enlisting the help of his siblings and his wife, he diligently copied all the outgoing letters before returning the originals so the material would be preserved for a possible biography. The biography was never written, but thanks to the unparalleled attention the Herschel family paid to the letters over generations, we now have this extraordinary archive to share with everyone.”

Louisiane picks out some of her favourite exchanges from the collection:

Margaret Brodie Herschel
Previous academic work on the correspondence had routinely neglected John Herschel’s wife, Margaret Brodie Herschel. But her letters, often to the wives and daughters of illustrious men of science, show the crucial role played by women in the administration of science in the 19th century. For instance, she responded on John’s behalf when ill-health struck him and fielded queries sent by other female correspondents.

Our mutual neighbour – Herschel’s almost feud with Charles Dickens
John Herschel wrote to ask his neighbour, Charles Dickens, if he could cut the trees encroaching on his property in Kent. Dickens, responding in the third person, said that these are not in fact Charles Dickens’ trees, but those of another neighbour, by the name of Powell. Herschel immediately apologised profusely for bothering the great author. Not much to it but the Dickens letter is pretty funny!

A new machine age – Charles Babbage’s calculating engines
The lifelong (and occasionally crochety) friendship between Herschel and Babbage was sparked by a mutual interest in shaking up British mathematics as students at Cambridge University. Their letters commence at this period, leading towards Babbage’s attempts to build a ‘Difference Engine’ from 1822, and later an ‘Analytical Engine’; the mechanical forebears of today’s computers. 

A poem for your thoughts
As part of the project, we have recorded many manuscripts which had never been catalogued before. This includes a strange hexameter verse sent to Scottish scientist Mary Somerville in 1851 on the glory of creation entitled ‘Intelligence’ which opens:

“Say! When the world was new, and fresh from the hand of its maker
Ere the first modelled frame thrilled with the tremor of life,
Glowed not primeval suns as bright in your canopied azure?”

Let’s say that, despite his best efforts, Herschel will always be best remembered as a man of science rather than poetry.

It’s all Greek to Herschel
Among his various literary pursuits, Herschel translated The Iliad “into English Accentuated Hexameter”. This received criticism at the time, and we can see in the correspondence that some of his friends tried to warn him, in vain, of the cold reception he would receive. There are letters in French, German, Italian and even Latin, and in one letter, Herschel happily includes Greek puns and French quips.

Herschel’s hemisphere – mapping the southern sky at Feldhausen
Unsurprisingly, the vast correspondence has highlighted the constant dialogue that connected Herschel to women and men of science in Britain and Europe, but Herschel’s exchanges were truly global, following the colonial routes of Victorian science from the Cape Colony (South Africa) to India, by way of Singapore and Sierra Leone.

Letters from Herschel’s time at Feldhausen, South Africa, illuminate his work as the first person to map the Southern hemisphere sky properly, continuing the nebulae-mapping activities of his father and aunt. His involvement in Cape society during the Xhosa war makes his exchange with Governor John Fairbairn a unique source to understand the political situation at the time.

Begrudging baronet
On his return from South Africa, the Duke of Sussex – against whom Sir John Herschel had unsuccessfully run for the Presidency of the Royal Society – offered him a baronetcy. We have many letters to the Duke of Sussex and to Charles Babbage in which Herschel gives his reasons for declining the offer.

Herschel was discomforted at the hereditary nature of the honour, which he felt would advantage one of his 12 children above the others, as well as feeling he could not sustain the standard of living required. Eventually he bowed to Royal pressure and accepted. One of his draft letters, marked “Most Confidential” and re-written many times, is a poignant testimony of his attempt to shy away from the title and his overall modesty.  

The Newton of his generation, Master of the Royal Mint
In a letter to Mary Somerville, Herschel described his surprise at his appointment as Master of the Royal Mint. His London residence meant proximity to many scientific friends, while the role allowed him to appreciate what Sir Isaac Newton had achieved in the same position a century before. Despite such advantages, most Royal Mint letters described his position as too burdensome, taking him away from his scientific passions, his family, and ultimately costing him his health. Herschel was one of the last Masters of the Royal Mint, before the role became part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s portfolio.

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