The Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (colloquially known as the Electorate of Hanover) was a principality within the Holy Roman Empire. In the mid eighteenth century, the region was ruled by the Prince Elector, Georg II. A series of religious wars and a strange quirk of fate had made the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg the heirs to the British throne. Prince Elector Georg II was therefore better known to his English subjects and to history as King George II. In 1755, George II ordered his Hanoverian Guards Regiment to England. The Hanover Military band went with the Guards. One of the oboists of the band was named Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel. Friedrich was something of a musical prodigy: he also played the violin, the cello, the harpsichord and the organ. When the guards came to England, he liked the country and he left the band to move there permanently. He accepted the position as first violin and soloist for the Newcastle orchestra and later became the organist of the Octagon Chapel in Bath (a chapel attached to a very fashionable spa). Throughout his career Frederick William Herschel (for he had anglicized his name) composed a great many musical works including 24 symphonies, numerous concertos, and a large canon of church music.
Frederick’s music is forgotten today, but later in his life he found his true calling. As his musical career progressed, he became more and more deeply fascinated by lenses and mathematics. At the age of 35, he met the Reverend Dr. Nevil Maskelyne who was Astronomer Royal and Director of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Herschel began making mirror telescopes for Maskelyne, personally grinding the lenses and mirrors for up to 16 hours a day. He also looked at the universe through the telescopes he had made and reported his discoveries. What he found made him one of the preeminent scientists in history (he also became extremely wealthy and was granted a knighthood).
Herschel is most famous for discovering Uranus, the first planet to be found since the depths of antiquity. His other discoveries and ideas are perhaps even more remarkable. He was first to find out that the solar system is moving through space. He coined the word “asteroid” as a name for such objects. By observing Mars he determined its axial tilt and found that the Martian ice caps fluctuate in size. His attempts to determine if there was a link between solar activity and the terrestrial climate were unsuccessful (because of a lack of data), but formed the basis for successful work concerning both climatology and stellar physics. Astonishingly, Herschel discovered infrared radiation, the first non-visible electromagnetic radiation to be known. He accomplished this by passing sunlight through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. He found two new moons of Saturn and two moons of Uranus. He correctly concluded that the Milky Way is a disk. He debunked the notion that double stars were optical doubles and showed that they are truly binary stars (thus demonstrating that Newton’s laws extend beyond the solar system).
In honor of his amazing career, numerous objects, devices, institutes and features around the solar system and beyond are named after Herschel (including the giant crater on Saturn’s moon Mimas). Few people have contributed so greatly to science or changed the conception of everything as much as this gifted Saxon oboist!