(b. 1750, Hannover, Germany; d. 1848, Hannover, Germany)
Caroline Herschel was a pioneering female astronomer, and the first woman to discover a comet. Her achievements enabled generations of women to develop a career in the sciences, a field that was once exclusively reserved for men.
Herschel grew up in Hannover, Germany, with ten siblings. Her father valued education so highly that he educated Herschel against her mother’s wishes, and she proved to be an apt pupil. At age ten, she contracted typhus, a disease that would permanently stunt her growth at four-foot-three. When she was twenty-two, she moved to Bath, England, to live with her brother William and become his housekeeper. While there, she continued the studies in music and mathematics that she began as a child, and developed a keen interest in her brother’s hobby, astronomy.
She began as her brother’s apprentice, grinding and polishing mirrors for his burgeoning telescope business. Her new-found passion developed into a career and she soon became an astronomer in her own right. William gave Herschel her first Newtonian telescope, which she used to discover three new nebulae in 1783. She went on to identify eight new comets between the years of 1786 and 1797, her first being Comet Herschel (C/1786 P1). She was the first woman to discover a comet and until the 1980s, she held the record for the most comets discovered by a women.
When Herschel was 32, King George III appointed her brother William as his personal astronomer, with an annual pension of two hundred pounds. Herschel received fifty pounds annually to be her brother’s assistant, making her the first woman in science to receive recognition for her academic work and research. It is thought that Herschel quite possibly did more work than her brother. In addition to her work as William’s assistant, she also performed the exhaustive calculations that accompanied their research and documented each of their trials and results.
Herschel mapped out the exact placement of both her and William’s discoveries, including the planet Uranus as well as numerous clusters, comets, and nebulae, and published them after William’s death in 1822. Upon receiving the catalogue, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Irish Academy made her the first female honorary member in 1835. In 1846, Herschel was recognized for a lifetime of devotion and achievement in the field of astronomy with the King of Prussia’s Gold Medal of Science. She died two years later, at the age of ninety-eight, well-received in society and highly recognized for her talents.
Caroline Herschel at The Dinner Party
Caroline Herschel’s place setting and runner reference astronomy and her monumental achievements in the field. The eye in the center of the plate reminds the viewer of Herschel’s search through the telescope to discover the components of the universe. The illuminated capital letter “C” cradles a telescope similar to the Newtonian model Herschel’s brother gave her that launched her career. The shape that surrounds her name is derived from Herschel’s own rendering of the Milky Way (Chicago, The Dinner Party,114).
The runner is intricately designed and embroidered with images of the cosmos, including clouds, stars, and representations of the eight comets Herschel discovered over an eleven-year span. The main body of the runner illustrates a brightly shining star or sun whose rays intersect with concentric rings that are suggestive of charting or mapping. Astronomical notations as well as references to the trajectories of comets are also embroidered on the back of the runner (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 209). Gold and silver threads embellish a deep navy and jet black sky, referencing the brilliance of stars seeming to shine in celebration of Herschel’s invaluable contributions to the field of astronomy.
Herschel, Mary Cornwallis. Memoirs and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel. Appleton, N.Y.: independently published, 1876.
Lubbock, Constance. The Herschel Chronicle: The Life Story of Sir William Herschel and His Sister Caroline Herschel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1933.
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Alic, Margaret. Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
Clerke, Agnes M. The Herschels and Modern Astronomy. New York: Macmillian, 1895.
Herschel, Mary Cornwallis. Memoirs of Caroline Herschel. Bath: The William Herschel Society, 2000.
Hoskin, Michael. The Herschel Partnership, As Viewed by Caroline. Cambridge, UK: Science History Publications, 2003.
——. William Herschel. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963.
——, ed. Caroline Herschel’s Autobiographies. Cambridge, UK: Science History Publications, 2003.
Lubbock, Constance. The Herschel Chronicle. Bath: The William Herschel Society, [n.d.].
Place Setting Images
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The William Herschel Society, Bath, UK
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