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A curious specimen from Tradescant’s Ark
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Is it a star? Is it a comet?
Just a pile of cogs, or a proto-computer?

Herschel’s Telescope

Is it a star? Is it a comet?
c. AD 1795
England

William Herschel came from Germany to England in 1757, seeking a living as a musician. He was drawn into astronomy in a manner typical of the amateur in the eighteenth century: he read notable works on astronomy and optics, learned how to make mirrors, joined the Bath Philosophical Society and began to make and use his own telescopes. Herschel used a telescope similar to this one when he discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, which he originally thought was a comet.

Herschel became the King’s Astronomer, a Fellow of the Royal Society and was awarded a pension by King George III. He gave up music to focus on astronomy full-time, and began making telescopes for sale. Reflecting telescopes such as this one use metal mirrors which had to be polished for hours without interruption to be smooth enough. Herschel’s sister Caroline, also an astronomer, recorded that if her brother was working on a mirror, she was obliged to feed him by hand, so that the work could continue without a pause.