Alexander Stewart Herschel, F.R.S.

Professor of Physics 1871-1886

Alexander Stewart Herschel - grandson of Sir William Herschel (the discoverer of Uranus) and son of Sir John Herschel (who extended his father’s surveys of the southern part of the sky) was born in Feldhausen (near Cape Town) in 1836 while Halley’s Comet was in the ascent and where his father had set up a temporary observatory. He was educated at Clapham Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge.

Herschel began his scientific career in 1861 when he went to the Royal School of Mines (he stayed for four years) and began what was to be his life’s work; the study of meteors. Herschel’s first major achievement was the observation of a meteor spectrum using a binocular direct vision spectroscope which was fitted with prisms of his own design. This instrument enabled him to observe 17 spectra of meteors in 1866. He saw that most meteors showed continuous spectra, but some also showed the sodium D lines.

In 1865 Herschel became Professor of Mechanical and Experimental Physics at Anderson’s College in Glasgow (now Strathclyde University), moving to become Professor of Physics at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1871. His first impression of his new work place was that

"He was provided with probably the worst physical Laboratory that any Professor of Physics has ever been asked to work in."

However, he quickly remedied this, fitting out the laboratory with apparatus of many kinds, much of it made by himself.

Besides his interest in meteors, Herschel also investigated the colours and distribution of the belts on Jupiter, fluorescence, the heat conductivity of rocks, electrical storage and filaments for incandescent lamps. His interests extended to meteorology and photography. He was an Honorary Member of the North of England Institute of Mining Engineers and helped in their scientific work. It was said of him by G.A. Labour, that

"If Herschel had patented one-hundredth of the inventions or improvements he was constantly making or contriving for others, he would have been a rich man indeed. But no man ever cared less to make money than he."

Herschel resigned in 1885, but remained Honorary Professor of Physics and Experimental Philosophy from 1885 to 1907. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1884, was made an honorary D.C.L. of Durham in 1886, and the Physics laboratories were named after him when the College moved to its new home at Barras Bridge. Herschel was described at "tall, lean, wiry, and tremendously strong . . . with a complexion which could only be described as leathery." He was a brilliant scientist, but was not very good at imparting his knowledge to others. Always in a hurry, nothing in his preparation room ever seemed to be in its proper place, and there were many anecdotes and legends about his eccentricities. But, he was a gentleman in the highest sense, he had a great influence over his pupils, and they ‘learned much from him indirectly, and perhaps unconsciously, that they would not willingly be without’. He was most generous in his gifts of apparatus and appliances during the time he held the chair.[1]

At the retirement of Alexander Herschel in 1886 the Physical Laboratory was named after him and to this day the present Physics Department is housed in the Herschel Building. From his retirement until his death in 1907, Herschel lived in his boyhood home, Observatory House in Slough, where he continued to make astronomical observations.

[a1] C.E. Whiting, The University of Durham, 1832-1932, Sheldon Press, London, 1932, p.192


Alexander Herschel, The "Meteor Man", Patrick Moore, Ralph Allen Press, Bath. (available from the William Herschel Museum, 19 New King Street, Bath BA1 2BL, UK)