Do you have a brother or sister? Younger or older, you probably know that siblings can be complicated. They can be annoying at times, but they can also be a lot of fun. They’re around when your friends can’t be. They can team up with you to lobby your parents for extra dessert. If they’re older, they can comfort you when you’re scared, help you with your homework, and teach you how to do things that your parents can’t help with. And the younger ones make you laugh, come to you for help, and learn from you.
Sometimes, siblings end up leading very different lives. And sometimes, they end up needing each other more than they realize, even when they’re grown up.
Birth of William and Caroline Herschel
William and Caroline Herschel were born into the same family, but their opportunities in life were very different. Born in Hanover, Germany in the early eighteenth century, William was 12 years older than Caroline. At the time, as you might guess, girls were expected to learn how to run households and get married. But it wasn’t just the fact that Caroline was a girl that limited her opportunities. She was also sick a lot as a child. A bout of smallpox at age four left her face scarred. At 10, she suffered a typhus infection, which stunted her growth: she only grew to a height of 4 foot 3.
All this misfortune left Caroline’s mother, Anna, sure that her youngest daughter would never be able to marry. Anna didn’t approve of girls being educated either. That left housework. She decided Caroline would become a servant, and promptly began treating her like one.
While Caroline learned to cook and mend stockings, her brothers went to school and learned to play musical instruments. Their father, Isaac Herschel was a member of a military band. Though he was often away from home, he didn’t share his wife’s views on education for girls. When he did come home, he would always find time to teach Caroline alongside her brothers. He even took her out one chilly evening to show her the stars and a comet. So she did end up with a basic education.
With her ability to read and write, Caroline helped her mother, who couldn’t do either, write letters to her father when he was away. Other military wives in their neighborhood also took advantage of her skills. Whenever she found a spare moment without any chores, she made the most of it by reading or playing the violin.
Still, Caroline felt lost and forgotten in her large family. But William always seemed to notice her and stand up for her. After their father died, he suggested that Caroline come and live with him and their brother Alexander in England. He was working as a musician in the city of Bath, and thought he might be able to train Caroline to sing in his performances. William played several instruments – violin, harpsichord, oboe- and also wrote songs and symphonies.
Caroline had looked around for years, trying to find something other than the dull drudgery of housework she could do to support herself. She had learned how to knit and make frilly dresses and fancy hats, but her mother insisted she only do these things for family members. She had hoped to learn French so she could become a governess, caring for a wealthy family’s children. Her mother forbade it. Singing for her brother sounded like the perfect escape! William made a deal with his mother: He would pay for a servant to replace Caroline, and she would come to England to train as a singer.
Astronomy: A New Hobby
So Caroline finally left her dreary life as the family servant behind at the age of 22. On their journey to England, she and William rode on top of their carriage at night, and he re-introduced her to the hobby their father had shared all those years ago: astronomy. William pointed out stars and constellations and told her about the telescopes he used to view them at home. They stopped at optician’s shops in London where William scoured the supply of mirrors and lenses for ones he might use to build new telescopes.
When they arrived in Bath, things didn’t go as Caroline hoped, at least not immediately. She was frustrated to learn that she would still have to do most of the housework for her brothers. But in addition to the housework, she was learning and improving herself every day. William began tutoring her in math, bookkeeping, English, and, of course, singing.
Caroline took two or three singing lessons each day and soon began to perform in public. After a few years, she had become famous in Bath! She got offers to sing in festivals, but she insisted on only performing when William was conducting.
In the meantime, William was becoming more and more obsessed with his astronomy hobby. He’d stay up late, observing stars, and tell Caroline what he’d seen in the morning. Soon, Caroline became William’s astronomy assistant as well. He built a tall platform to observe from. He would yell down the positions of stars and nebulae and other celestial objects, and Caroline would record them carefully in her notebooks. Even on the coldest nights, they bundled up so they could keep watching the sky.
Soon, Caroline was learning more advanced geometry and algebra so she could measure the distances and angles between celestial objects. She began making her own observations of the night sky. The siblings recorded every object they saw as they gazed up into the cold, dark heavens.
Building a New Telescope
But William wasn’t satisfied with the tools he had at hand. Telescopes at the time didn’t magnify as much as he would have liked. They used small concave mirrors–think of a shallow bowl–to gather light from far off in space, then that image reflected onto another small, flat mirror that the observer looked at. But these mirrors were only a few inches across, and bigger mirrors would mean more magnification. But no one knew how to make a larger mirror that was still clear and smooth enough to create a sharp image.
William bought his own equipment and began experimenting with creating his own mirrors. At first, Caroline was mostly responsible for making sure William had food to eat while he labored long hours on his mirrors. But soon, she began to help grind and polish the mirrors as well. It was smelly, messy work– they created molds for their mirrors out of horse poo– but after some practice, William created a better mirror: 6 inches across, polished to a perfect, smooth, uniform surface. He mounted it in a 5-foot-long telescope tube. Later, he created an even bigger mirror and built a 20-foot telescope!
New Discoveries for William and Caroline Herschel
With their new instruments, the pair racked up thousands of discoveries. William realized that many bright stars were actually two stars that were so close together that they appeared to be one unless you looked at them through a powerful telescope. Likewise, some fuzzy objects that people once thought were nebulae turned out to be clusters of stars. Caroline discovered eight comets and thousands of new nebulae and star clusters using the better telescopes.
In 1781, William made his most exciting discovery yet. He noticed a fuzzy object in the sky that looked a bit like a comet. But it didn’t behave like a comet. After watching it for weeks and calculating its orbit, he realized it was a planet! No one had discovered a new planet since ancient times. William decided to name the planet Georgium Sidus, or George’s Star, after the current king of England, King George the Third.
The Royal Astronomer
The name didn’t stick–eventually another scientist renamed it Uranus, after a Greek god. But King George didn’t let the compliment go unrewarded. He asked William to become the royal astronomer! William accepted, and he and Caroline moved closer to the palace.
William even requested that Caroline be paid a salary, and King George agreed. Not only could Caroline now support herself–something she’d longed for her entire life–she also became the first woman to be paid for doing science!
Working for the king allowed the Herschels to take on even bigger, more ambitious projects. King George gave William the money to build what would be the largest telescope ever constructed. It would have a 4-foot, one-thousand-pound mirror and be over forty feet long! That’s about the length of ten Caroline Hershcels! The telescope would have to sit on a specially designed rotating platform and would be supported by an elaborate system of scaffolding. It took 5 years to build. When it was done, they threw a party, with guests dancing in and out of the tube before it was put in place.
William married in 1786, but unfortunately, Caroline didn’t get along with his new wife at first. After spending her entire adult life by her brother’s side, Caroline had to move out on her own as William’s wife took over running his household. But eventually, the two women seem to have mended their relations, and Caroline wrote about her in friendly terms in later journals. She became a role model and educator for their son, John, shaping him into a first-rate astronomer in his own right.
Caroline kept herself busy with her own astronomical projects as well. She created a catalog of all known stars. An astronomer named John Flamsteed had created a catalog years earlier, but Caroline’s would correct many errors and add more than 500 new stars. The Royal Astronomical Society in London published her work in 1798.
Royal Astronomical Society
William passed away in 1822. Caroline was devastated by the loss of her brother, but kept on studying the night sky, carefully recording every detail. She and William’s son, John, worked together to catalog their observations. Eventually, she moved back to Germany. She was famous and respected for her work. The Royal Astronomical Society in London and the King of Prussia–now part of Germany–presented her with gold medals. She lived until the age of 97, and died peacefully in her sleep in her hometown of Hanover.
Together, William and Caroline discovered over 2,000 objects in space – asteroids, comets, nebulae, and star clusters. William’s gravestone has the Latin words Coelorum perrupit claustra engraved on it–”He broke through the barriers of the heavens.” Not only did he break through the barriers of the heavens, he made sure his sister was able to break through with him. Caroline saw that knowledge could help her leave behind a life of drudgery and housework if only someone would share it with her. William saw that his sister was smart and capable, and refused to let her talents go to waste.
Together, William and Caroline changed how people viewed the universe, and opened many eyes to its wonders. And together, these siblings did more than either one could do alone!
Krull, Kathleen (2013) Lives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and what the Neighbors Thought). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.