Herschel’s telescope

Working in museums you spend a lot of time thinking, ‘why might that be interesting to other people?’. So when it comes to the Herschels I am dimly aware that broadly speaking astronomers love William, politically aware educators love Caroline, John has a handful of fans on the fringes of various disciplines (astronomy, photography, history of various things scientific and intellectual), and no one but me has even heard of the rest. Which is why the BBC stargazing Live’s piece on the Herschel 20ft took me a bit by surprise.

Here is a telescope that William Herschel built (cue all sorts of interesting asides on what it means to be the named maker of a telescope in the 18th c and the teams of uncredited individuals involved in the process). A telescope he used in partnership with his sister Caroline (women in science stories aside) and was effectively the culmination of his project to build ever bigger telescopes (aside on why this wasn’t the 40ft). It was the telescope he trained his son John to use, who in turn then took it to South Africa, to use to complete his father’s work for the southern hemisphere and to show visitors the sky when they dropped round for ‘tea and stars’. It was the telescope John’s children grew up with and grew old with until in the 1950s it was finally sold to the National Maritime Museum who have since displayed it, stored it and, loaned it to museums around the world.

There was so much potential for historians of science in this piece, but what did it actually deliver? Well, it looked fun. All those people who got together to build the telescope looked like they had a really fun time. Herschel was mentioned a lot, I can’t deny I was delighted with that. But then ‘the history bit’ was just a 30 second interview with Allan Chapman, who was marvellous but cut short, tacked onto the end. It was as though they though they should have some history since they were rebuilding a historic telescope, but just couldn’t quite see the point.

How could it have been better? I’ve complained before about people criticising popularisers of science for their shaky grasp of history without attempting to say how the story might be changed but still remain entertaining, so I feel I should at least try to offer a solution. Assuming the piece had to remain the same length, they could still have talked as they built about what they were doing and in what way it was similar or different to the past. In particular, they showed very clearly that the telescope could neither have been built nor operated by one person; they could have mentioned there that in William Herschel’s time, those people would have been servants or workmen or women and so discounted from the record. They could have talked about the materials they were using and why they were chosen. They could have talked about the experience of transporting this contraption and using it in different climates and what it must have felt like growing up with such a thing in your back garden with all the visitors it inevitably attracted. In other words, they could have made the history an integrated part of the piece instead of a tack on half-heartedly at the end.

A long time ago, I assumed that history of science more naturally lent itself to the kind of edu-tainment I enjoy watching than science alone because it offered stories where science offered facts. At the time, my general impression of science programming – rightly or wrongly – was that it consisted mainly of ‘look at these lions we’ve cleverly filmed’, ‘here are some facts about galaxies’ or ‘see our massive telescopes’ awe and wonder type spectacles. Since then however, it seems to me, scientists have got a lot better at telling stories. Like good science fiction, they can leave us pondering the nature of existence, and what it means to be human although so can history of science. All of which raises the question, what can historians offer now? Well, we still can offer good stories. Jim Al-Khalili knows this – there are historians of science involved in many of his programmes – but do the others know? And what about TV historians, it always seems harder to identify how and where they might include more science, but I think it might still be worth thinking all the time about where our subject fits in. Whether that might eventually lead to a few programmes of our own, well, who knows?


4 thoughts on “Herschel’s telescope

  1. On the whole a truly excellent article Emily but I do have a couple of quibbles.

    You are quite right on the respective public awareness of the various Herschels but I think William is actually touted to a much wider public because of the discovery of Uranus. He often turns up, because of this discovery, in popular history of science and/or astronomy narratives. Caroline certainly deserves to be better know both because of her immense contributions to William’s work and even more importantly because of her own independent work.

    John should be much better known than he is, as one of the leading 19th century British figures in a mind boggling range of disciplines. Alone his contribution to the history of photography is enormous and that was one of his minor activities.

    My major quibble concerns telescope makers and their anonymous technicians. In principle you are of course completely right and it is becoming a more and more important theme in the history of science. Recently read an interesting article on Hooke and Boyle, which emphasized that Boyle never mentioned his technicians at all whereas Hooke does so quite extensively. However William Herschel is a poor example with which to illustrate this theme.

    William was one of the leading producers of Newtonian reflecting telescopes in the latter part of the 18th century but what makes him so extraordinary is that he was a totally self taught telescope maker who did all of the work himself only aided by his sister, the redoubtable Caroline. He cast, ground and polished his own mirrors and designed and constructed his tubes and support stands. No other technicians were involved.

    This of course does not apply to the twenty foot or the later forty foot telescopes, although here the main element the mirrors were all his own work. I assume he employed local carpenters to construct the tubes and support scaffolding in these cases. Contract work of no great technical or scientific significance.

    Operation of these leviathans is of course another story and I can remember reading accounts of the operation of the twenty footer but can’t remember where. If I recall correctly it required two labourers to operate the pulley system by which it was steered. William did the observing and the long suffering Caroline the recording.

    On the more general point of the inclusion of the historical account in the general narrative I’m with you all the way. Did the programme include any detail of the historical significance of William’s observation with the twenty footer? He basically founded deep space object astronomy with his observation programme.

    Jim Al-Khalili is my personal bête noire. I haven’t seen any of his more recent stuff but his history of Islamic/Arabic science on which he established his reputations as an all purpose science guru is to put it mildly piss poor.

    • Thanks for this. Of course the Herschels are more widely known than I was flippantly suggesting – unsuccessfully it would seem – for comic effect. On the telescopes, yes he did have helpers! Caroline & their brother Alexander helped with casting. Alexander made all the eyepieces & accessories, like the clock Caroline used to time observations. Caroline acted as interpreter between the brothers ensuring what Alexander made did what William wanted it to do. Cabinet makers were employed for a lot of the woodwork. And you obviously know about all the helpers involved in the 20ft & 40ft. May I refer you to my Phd thesis – ‘The Herschel family: a scientific family in training’, Imperial College, May 2011. If you’re interested, and send me an email at my Leeds Uni address, I’ll send you a copy. On Jim Al -Khalili, I never saw any of the Islamic stuff, though I gather that was his first attempt at historical & so perhaps he was finding his feet. I recommend the more recent ones.

  2. Pingback: The Giants’ Shoulders #56 | The Dispersal of Darwin
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