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Definition: Herschel, Sir John Frederick William from Philip's Encyclopedia

English astronomer, son of Sir William Herschel. He extended his father's work on double stars and nebulae. In 1834, at the Cape of Good Hope, Herschel undertook a systematic survey of the southern sky, discovering more than 1,200 doubles and 1,700 nebulae and clusters. He combined these and his father's observations into a General Catalog of Nebulae and Clusters (1864).

Summary Article: HERSCHEL, SIR JOHN FREDERICK WILLIAM, BARONET (1792-1871) from Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography

J. F. W. Herschel was born on 7 March 1792 at Observatory House in Slough, the only child of the musician and Royal Astronomer Sir William Herschel and Mary Pitt, née Baldwin. Herschel's father, who was born in Germany as Friedrich Wilhelm, had carved himself a niche in the history of astronomy for his discovery of the planet Uranus and for his construction of unprecedentedly large telescopes. As a result, Observatory House was a scientific landmark and it was visited throughout John Herschel's childhood by royalty, gentry and scientists from all parts of the world. Growing up in such a household and under the influence of his renowned father and aunt, the astronomer Caroline Lucretia Herschel, it is hardly surprising that John Herschel acquired his own fame in astronomical and mathematical subjects. But, as he wrote to his wife Margaret in 1841, “Light was my first love!,” and it was through this lifelong interest in the properties and vagaries of light that he came to photography.

Herschel's university years at St John's College, Cambridge (1809-1813), were devoted primarily to mathematics. Not only did he carry away the top academic prizes during this time, he was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and co-founded the Analytical Society with Charles Babbage and George Peacock. The Analytical Society succeeded in revolutionizing the teaching of calculus in British universities, adopting Continental notation in place of Sir Isaac Newton's fluxions. Even at this early stage of his career, Herschel's zeal to “leave the world wiser than [he] found it,” was already fully formed, and this clearly motivated his approach to photography when that too appeared on his horizon. His brief forays into legal studies and then into an academic career at Cambridge, ended abruptly at the close of 1816 when he settled finally on learning the trade of astronomer as his father's assistant. Herschel's life as a scientist of independent means, in a time when such a profession hardly existed, allowed him the freedom to pursue his personal interests, among them the study of light.

In 1819 and 1820, Herschel published several articles on the action of hyposulphurous acids. His observations would later form the basis of the ‘hypo’ used commonly to fix silver-based photographs. At the time, he recorded that among the novelties of these compounds was the singular characteristic of the hyposulphites to dissolve “muriate of silver,” that is, silver chloride. This ability would allow a photographer to wash the unexposed silver from the emulsion of the photograph, rendering it insensible to further exposure. When it became clear early in 1839 that this “washing out” method differed from Talbot's “stabilizing,” he tested both, finding Talbot's simpler, but his own more dependable.

Like many active scientists of the early 19th century, Herschel was intent on discovering what light really was, and whether it moved in waves or in particles. Although noone of his generation, or indeed the following generation, would formulate an answer this question, Herschel believed light travelled in waves, that is, he believed in undulatory theory and not particle theory. He also believed, and would use photography to prove, that the visible part of the spectrum was a small portion of the actual spectrum. In 1819 Herschel began an exhaustive study of the nature of polarized light. Not only did he intend to correctly categorize the various phenomena, he also intended to clarify the terminology used by British scientists who studied light. He was joined in this endeavor by Sir David Brewster. Herschel's contributions to the language of photography, which are discussed below, can be seen as a part of this much larger endeavor.

The late 1820s were a busy time for Herschel, who was rapidly attaining a level of fame that would surpass his father's. In 1827 he wrote his essay on Light for the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana. The essay, which was published along with one on Chemistry in 1830, quickly attained the status of a classic and set out many of the principles on which he would conduct his photographic investigations. In 1828 he married Margaret Brodie Stewart, beginning a long and happy domestic, artistic and intellectual partnership that was, by all accounts, one of the great joys of his life. And finally, to complete the decade, he published his A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, in which he prescribed methods for the successful prosecution of experimental science. In this treatise, which influenced Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill among many others, Herschel put forward a system for organizing scientific enquiry, in this way furthering it. The organizing principles he formulated would govern his behavior towards photography, which he viewed as a most fascinating branch of science. One of the most striking peculiarities of the book is the prominent place given to scientific nomenclature as a crucial componant for molding a particular field of study into an organized science. Herschel applied these standards to photography as well.

A series of chemical experiments in the Spring of 1831 on the light sensitivity of certain salts of platinum had Herschel most of the way to inventing a photographic process. Like Johann Heinrich Shulze, Herschel cut masks and allowed the action of light to pattern the platina solution through the masks. He shared these pretty experiments with his friends David Brewster, Charles Babbage, and William Henry Fox Talbot. Although nothing in the way of photography came directly from this demonstration, Herschel recalled it immediately in 1839.

Photography was announced to the public at the very height of Herschel's career. He had just returned from four years in South Africa, having completed an examination of the skies of the Southern Hemisphere, and had been reluctantly raised to a baronetcy. Herschel learned of the announcement of the Daguerreotype on 22 January, and of Talbot's competing process within the space of a few days. By the 30th, needing no help from either inventor, he had made and fixed his own photographs on paper, envisioning even the necessary steps to reverse the tones of the original, converting the negative image into a positive.

Herschel did not coin the name ‘photography’ for the new art. Both Charles Wheatstone (in a letter to Talbot, 2 February 1839) and Johann von Mädler (25 February, Vossische Zeitung) had already suggested its use. It is possible that several early experimenters also thought the term appropriate. There is some evidence that Hercules Florence, in Brazil had called his own experiments of the 1830s by name Photographie. What Herschel did was to endorse this name, and encourage its adoption within the scientific community. Herschel employed ‘photography’ in a paper titled ‘Note on the Art of Photography’ presented before the Royal Society on 14 March 1839, but he withdrew the paper from publication. In 1979, Larry J. Schaaf rediscovered this paper, enabling us to understand that Herschel's motives were not only to define the realm of what ‘photography’ would be, but to exhibit a photograph produced in experiment. This use of photography as a piece of demonstrative scientific evidence encouraged his scientific audience to do the same. He went on in 1840 to introduce the titles “positive” and “negative,”’ without which we would still speak of “originals” and “transfers,” or “impressions” and “re-reversals.” In 1860 he also appropriated ‘snap-shot’ from its hunting roots, to designate an “instant” picture.

It has often been noted that Herschel appeared quite indifferent to making photographs in camera. Many reasons could be given for this tendency, but the two principal ones are his facility with the camera lucida in taking sketches, and also his concentration on making photochemical experiments, many of which required more exposure than a camera of the time could conveniently supply. Nonetheless he did success in making a camera image of his father's 40-foot reflecting telescope. This was no ordinary camera image, either. It was circular glass negative 10 centimeters in diameter, made by percipitating muriate of silver directly onto the glass, and then washing it with a further wash of silver nitrate. Herschel marvelled at the clarity and sharpness of the image, calling the result a “glass daguerreotype.” The image could be blackened or varnished to enable it to be viewed as a positive, or “if the varnish be omitted there seems to be no reason why impressions should not be taken from it ad infinitum.”

Although Herschel's time was increasingly monopolized by the completion of his astronomical catalogues, he continued to follow up his photochemical experiments for the next three years. A great part of these experiments were made with organic compounds, usually the juice distilled from the petals of flowers. This particular vein of research was motivated by his firm belief that the complete spectrum, color for color, could be reproduced photochemically. Although Herschel ultimately failed to achieve a workable full- or even multi-colored process, he saw that photography's future quite clearly lay in this direction. In the midst of these color trials, however, he began a much more fruitful line of enquiry.

Early in 1842, the electro-chemist Alfred Smee sent Herschel a quantity of the bright red compound now called potassium ferricyanide. While testing the sensitivity of this substance under the light of the spectrum, Herschel noted that it acted with much the same sensitivity as guaiacum, and when thrown into water, it became a deep prussian blue. Smee suggested two further compounds, Ammonio Citrate and Ammonio Tartrate of Iron, and by June of 1842, Herschel had developed both the Chrysotype, named for its use of gold “to bring about the dormant picture…,” and the Cyanotype, his most practical and enduring process. (“On the Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Vegetable Colours, and on Some New Photographic Processes” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. 132, 1842, 181-214.)

Herschel's 16 June 1842 paper presented his experiments not as independant inventions of processes, but as a series of observations on the basic principles of photographic chemical action. Although he describes his many experiments, both organic and metallic, he refrains from naming them or presenting wholly functional working processes. It would only be in November of 1842 that he would systematically describe the working details of his processes. (“On Certain Improvements on Photographic Processes Described in a Former Communication, and on the Parathermic Rays of the Solar Spectrum” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. 133, 1843, 1-6.)

Having contributed, thus, in tens of small ways to the progress of photography, Herschel's experiments on photographic subjects came to a halt in 1843, victims of his astronomical writing and public duties. But his interest in photography never ceased. Anna Atkins, a close friend of the Herschel family, immediately took up the cyanotype in her self-publishing effort in Botony. Julia Margaret Cameron declared that Sir John was ‘her first teacher,’ and immortalized him in a series of portraits. In 1845 Herschel published his final contribution to photographic research, an observation of what he called ‘epipolic dispersion.’ George Gabrielle Stokes would later rename this phenomenon ‘flourescence,’ the study of which led directly to radiation photography of all types. When Sir John Herschel died in 1871, he was mourned by a nation, who buried him near Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey.


John Frederick William Herschel was born 7 March 1792 at Observatory House in Slough, near London. At the age of 24, having already been elected Member of the Royal Society (1813), he became assistant to his father, the astronomer Sir William Herschel, and dedicated his life to finishing the monumental Herschel star catalogues. Not only was he respected as an astonomer and mathematician, he contributed papers on geology, meterology, chemistry, botony, photography, and educational reform. He was a talented musician, linguist and draughtsman, leaving hundreds of camera lucida drawings. Herschel married Margaret Brodie née Stewart in 1828, and they had twelve children. In 1821 and 1847 he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society (RS). Herschel was a founding member, and served as President of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was, from 1824-1827 Secretary of the RS, and from 1827-1829; 1838-1840; 1847-1848; 1851-1852 Vice President of the RS. In 1831 he was knighted, and in 1838 made a baronet. He served as Master of the Mint (1850-1855), as Sir Isaac Newton had before him. Herschel was the first to publicly utilize photography's potential as a scientific tool in the study of light, and he invented numerous photographic processes, among them the cyanotype and chrysotype in 1842. Herschel died on 11 May 1871 at his house Collingwood, in the village of Hawkhurst, Kent, where he had moved in 1840.

See also: Atkins, Anna; Cameron, Julia Margaret; Daguerre, Louis-Jacques-Mandé; Hunt, Robert; Talbot, William Henry Fox; and Cyanotype.

Further Reading
  • Buttmann, Günther In the Shadow of the Telescope, (Bernard Pagel trans.), New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.
  • Herschel, John Frederick William “On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds” in Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, vol. 1, 1819, 8-29.
  • Herschel, John Frederick William “Some additional facts relating to the habitudes of the Hyposulphurous Acid, and its union with Metallic Oxides” in Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, vol. 2, no. 3, January 1820, 154-156.
  • Herschel, John Frederick William “Light” in Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, 2nd div., Mixed Sciences, volume 2, 1830, 341-586.
  • Herschel, John Frederick William “On the Action of Light in Determining the Precipitation of Muriate of Platinum by Lime-water, being an Extract from a Letter of Sir John F. W. Herschel,… to Dr. Daubeny” in The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, vol. 1, no. 1, July 1832, 58-60.
  • Herschel, John Frederick William “Note on the Art of Photography,” dated 13 March 1839, manuscript, St. John's College, Cambridge: James 510.
  • Herschel, John Frederick William “On the Chemical Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Preparations of Silver and other Substances, both metallic and non-metallic, and on some Photographic Processes” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1840, 1-59.
  • Schaaf, Larry J. Out of the Shadows Herschel, Talbot & the Invention of Photography, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Schaaf, Larry J “The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot” at
  • Schaaf, Larry J “Sir John Herschel's 1839 Royal Society Paper on Photography” in History of Photography, vol. 3 no. 1, January 1979, 47-60.
  • Ware, Mike Cyanotype: The History, Science and Art of Photographic Printing in Prussian Blue, London: Science Museum, 1999.
  • Kelley Wilder
    © 2008 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

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