A Rare Inscribed Copy of John Herschel's Southern Star Atlas

February 20, 2015

A Rare Inscribed Copy of John Herschel's Southern Star Atlas

Our most recent acquisition is a rare inscribed presentation copy of John Herschel's “monumental survey of the stars”, Results of Astronomical Observations Made During the Years 1834, 5, 6, 7, 8, at the Cape of Good Hope, published in 1847. 

John Herschel, astronomer, mathematician, and inventor, was one of the most versatile and respected scientists of the early and mid-19th century. He was the son of William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, who had “pioneered the observational study of nebulous patches and star clusters” and made important contributions to understanding the size and shape of the Milky Way, the nature of nebulae, and how gravitational forces operate on star systems (ODNB). Below, portraits of John Herschel (circa 1835 by Henry William Pickersgill) and his father William (circa 1785 by Lemuel Francis Abbott).


John proved himself to be a skilled mathematician and scientist at a young age, and in 1816 took up astronomy under his father’s tutelage. Together they constructed a 20 foot focal length, 18.25 inch aperture reflecting telescope similar to the one that the elder Herschel had used, and John spent much of the 1820s continuing his father’s search for double stars. In 1832 he published a method of calculating the orbits of gravitationally linked doubles. “This contribution, which won him a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, was hailed as one of his greatest achievements, a proof of his father's 1803 determination, based on his observations of double stars, that Newton's laws of gravitational attraction rule remote stellar systems as they do our solar system” (ODNB).

By the early 1830s the Herschels had thoroughly investigated the stars of the northern hemisphere, but the southern skies, with their enigmatic Magellanic Clouds (depicted above) and Eta Carinae nebulae, remained to be systematically searched. In 1833 John packed the telescope and moved with his young family to Cape Town, South Africa, where he spent the years between 1834 and 1838 completing and expanding upon the great work begun by his father. “He swept the whole of the southern sky, catalogued 1,707 nebulae and clusters, and listed 2,102 pairs of binary stars. He carried out star counts, on William Herschel's plan, of 68,948 stars in 3,000 sky areas” (DNB).

Among the many noteworthy aspects of Herschel’s efforts in South Africa, his “goal in observing and cataloguing so many thousands of nebulae and double stars systems was, like that of his father, not simply to locate nebulae and double star systems, but also to establish and record their appearance at the time of observation so that future observers could determine the degree to which these massive celestial objects change or evolve. Thus, a major legacy of the Herschels was not only to reveal the richness of the region beyond the solar system, but also to show that its objects should be seen as historical, possibly evolving entities” (ODNB). Below, illustrations from Astronomical Observations Made at the Cape of Good Hope based on Herschel's drawings of astronomical objects including star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies.


Upon his return to England in May 1838 Herschel was feted as a scientific hero, though the results of his work would take a decade to write up and publish. “By the end of 1842 he had performed without assistance the computations necessary for the publication of his Cape observations. In September 1843 the letterpress was ‘fairly begun,’ and after some delays the work appeared in 1847, at the cost of the Duke of Northumberland, in a large quarto volume… Besides the catalogues of nebulæ and double stars, it included profound discussions of various astronomical topics, and was enriched with over sixty exquisite engravings… For these labours he received the Copley Medal in 1847, and a special testimonial from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1848” (DNB).

This copy is one of just a handful that were printed on larger paper and inscribed by Herschel for presentation to important institutions, colleagues and patrons. These presentation copies are very rare and only two have appeared at auction in the last thirty years. The most recent was the dedication copy inscribed by Herschel to the Dowager Duchess of Northumberland, the widow of the book’s recently deceased patron, which was sold in 1998 as part of the important Haskell F. Norman science collection. Another copy, inscribed to the English astronomer and telescope builder William Lassell, was sold at Sotheby's in 1980. Below, the title page and frontispiece of our copy, depicting Herschel's telescope set up outside of Cape Town.

John Herschel also made significant contributions in mathematics, natural history, the philosophy of science, and the early development of photography, and he corresponded widely and generously with colleagues in all fields. He was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and beloved scientific figures of the age. But it was these magnificent astronomical efforts which made his name and pointed the way for future generations of astronomers and cosmologists. An important and highly desirable presentation copy of this key astronomical work.