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Herschel, John

Results of Astronomical Observations Made During the Years 1834, 5, 6, 7, 8, at the Cape of Good Hope;

  • A rare, large-paper presentation copy of this “monumental survey of the stars” inscribed in Herschels’ own hand to “The Geological Society of London by the hand of the Author” following the printed line “Presented by Algernon Duke of Northumberland to”, and noted as inscribed on the printed dedication leaf following the title. Inscribed presentation copies of Herschel’s atlas are extremely rare. The most recent to appear at auction was sold as part of the Haskell F. Norman collection in 1998. It was the dedication copy inscribed by Herschel to the Dowager Duchess of Northumberland, the widow of the book’s recently deceased patron. One other is recorded at Sotheby’s in 1980; it was inscribed to the English astronomer and telescope builder William Lassell.

    John Herschel, astronomer, mathematician, and inventor, was one of the most versatile and respected scientists of the 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 in understanding the size and shape of the Milky Way, the nature of nebulae, and how gravitational forces operated on star systems (ODNB).

    John showed 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 skies of the northern hemisphere, but the southern stars, with their enigmatic Magellanic Clouds 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 1837 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).

    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).

    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.

  • Being the Completion of a Telescopic Survey of the Whole Surface of the Visible Heavens, Commenced in 1825. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1847. Large quarto (315 x 240 mm). Early 20th-century red cloth, titles to spine gilt. Frontispiece and 17 plates of which 4 are folding. Geological Society of London library regulations to front pastedown, small ink stamps to backs of each plate and the title, “presented to the Geological Society of London” ticket to verso of dedication leaf. A few light marks to cloth, small shelf number ticket removed from tail of spine, contents lightly toned but overall clean, a couple of unobtrusive short tears to the folding plates in the gutters with small tape repairs. A very good copy. Bibliography: Norman 1056

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