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John Herschel

1792 - 1871

John Herschel

John Herschel is the son of William Herschel, and the nephew of Caroline Herschel, two famous astronomers. He continued his father's work, publishing enhanced catalogues of astronomical objects, but was also prolific in many other fields of science and technology, notably as a pioneer of photography.

  • Nationality
  • English

  • Subject
  • Astronomy

  • Fields
  • Observational techniques, nebulae, binary stars, chemistry, photography, inventions, botany

  • Distinctions
  • Copley Medal, Royal Society, 1821, for his mathematical contributions to the Royal Society Transactions.

    Gold Medals, Royal Astronomical Society, 1826 and 1836.

    Lalande Medal, French Academy of Sciences, 1825.

    Geographic places named after Herschel: village in Saskatchewan, Canada; Mount Herschel, Antarctica; Moon crater J. Herschel. Herschel Island in the Arctic Ocean is named after the Herschel family.

  • Posts
  • President of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1827-29, 1839-41, 1847-49.

  • Publications
  • A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy, 1831. A highly influential work for the widespread adoptation of empirical techniques, and the seeking of single unifying explanations of phenomena, which inspired Charles Darwin.

    General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters, 1864, continuing his father's catalogue (1786 - 1802).

    General Catalogue of 10,300 Multiple and Double Stars, posthumous.

    Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope, 1847.

    Encyclopedia Britannica entries on meteorology, geography and astronomical instruments.

  • Theories
  • Julian day system in astronomy

    Colour blindness

    UV light


    Proposed that natural philosophy should use inductive reasoning to understand the laws of nature as a single unifying explanation. This instruction inspired Charles Darwin in his methodological approach.

    Sodium thiosulfate as a solvent of silver halides, 1819, leading to the invention of a photographic fixer.

    Herschel invented the 'actinometer', 1825, to measure the Sun's radiation, with applications in photochemistry.

  • Experiments/Discoveries
  • Herschel named seven moons of Saturn: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, and Iapetus

    He named four moons of Uranus: Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon.

    Contact lens design, 1823.

    Cyanotype process and variation for photography. 1839 photograph on glass.

    Colour reproduction in photography.

    Herschel coined, or introduced, the English term 'photography' in 1839, and used the terms 'negative' and 'positive' for the first time in relation to photographic reproduction.

John Herschel portrait
John Herschel portrait

A true polymath, Herschel researched and published his whole life on fields as diverse as astronomy, meteorology, botany, chemistry, photography, and inventions.

He was a leading influence on scientific philosophy, and his work inspired a generation of scientists, among which was Charles Darwin and Charles Babbage.

He was a pioneer of chemical processes for photography, including cyanotype, development fixer, colour reproduction and light sensitivity instruments.

John Herschel, cyanotype portrait of lady

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