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
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
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
Henry Huxley, he was not gifted orator frequently in the public eye
on controversial subjects. Yet he remains very well known to modern meteoric
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.