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Alexander Stewart Herschel 
 

Third-Generation Member of
an English Astronomical Dynasty!

The letter shown here lists Herschel's view of who were the leading colleagues of his day, the "Literary and Scientific persons distinguished for their labours in promoting Meteoric Astronomy in America and the Continent" who received copies of Herschel's paper on "the Detonating Meteor." A two-page letter, 4to, dated Hawkhurst, 22 December 1864. 

 
Astronomer Alexander S. Herschel (1836-1907) made considerable advances in meteoric astronomy as a member of a British astronomical dynasty that spanned more than a century. Among other things, he —
  • Discovered the southern meteor shower Alpha Pisces Australids (1865). 
  • Discovered which comets were most likely to produce meteor showers after conducting a mathematical survey (1876), something that generated greater interest in the Eta Aquarids meteor shower.
  • Provided one of the two earliest observations of the still-controversial Upsilon Pegasids, whose “official” discovery was reportedly attributed to a Florida astronomer (Povenmire) in 1975. Herschel recorded observations from 1860-81, according to recent research.
  • Provided the first precise observation of the Orionids meteor shower (1864). Thereafter, interest in this stream increased very rapidly — with the Orionids becoming one of best observed annual showers.
  • Recorded one very probable radiant of the newly noted Geminids meteor shower (1863), as well as three fireballs from near the same radiant (1863 and 1864). Observations of the Geminids (first noted by R.P. Greg of England) increased as astronomers realized a new annual shower had been discovered.
  • Revived study of the Lyrids meteor shower after observing 16 meteors from it in 1864. This observation preceded a new wave of interest in meteor showers in general. (At one point this shower is said to have reached 700 meteors per hour, visible in the northeast U.S.)
  • Stimulated other astronomers' interest in the Quadrantids meteors (1864) after reporting an unusually high rate of 60 meteors per hour for this shower, observed at an unusual time.
These achievements show that Alexander Herschel was unique in his family — and therefore appealing, at least to my mind — for he served as much or more as a catalyst in his field than someone who toiled in search of the Grand Discovery.  Unlike Thomas Henry Huxley, he was not gifted orator frequently in the public eye on controversial subjects. Yet he remains very well known to modern meteoric astronomers. 
 
Herschel letter Grayscale scan of first page. 
A Family Legacy 

Alexander's discoveries in meteoric astronomy added to an already lengthy family legacy.  

  • His grandfather, Sir William Herschel — "the father of stellar astronomy" — discovered (among other things) the planet Uranus, made a famous catalogue of double stars, and as private astronomer to King George III designed and built a 48-inch diameter, 40-foot telescope deemed "one of the wonders of the world" in his time. 
  • Sir John Frederick Herschel, Alexander's father, pioneered celestial photography, discovered 525 nebulae, and is especially remembered for his studies and cataloguing of the southern skies. He was also reputed to be a better-than-decent chemist, and applied this skill to photography — a word he coined, along with snap-shot and a related term or two.
  • Sir William's younger sister, Caroline Lucretia Herschel, discovered several new nebulae and no fewer than eight comets, earning a reputation as an astronomer in her own right. 
  •  
    • — Charles Bosdet
      Sources: Dictionary of Scientific Biography [VI: 322-336], Chambers [(1984) 665]
     
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