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We have not been able to find the dates of his knighthood, or of his
receiving the degree of Doctor of Civil Law from the University of
Oxford. He married (we cannot find the date) Mrs. Mary Pitt, a widow;
and his only son, Sir John Herschel, has selected from the many tasks to
which he is competent, that of developing and adding to his father’s

In the space which we can devote to the astronomical and optical labours
of Herschel, we cannot attempt to furnish even the smallest detail of
their end and objects, since the catalogue of titles alone would occupy
more room than we have to give. We can do no more than address ourselves
to the impression which generally exists upon the subject, and which
supposes the inventor and the philosopher to be no more than an
industrious man with good eyes, clever at grinding mirrors for
reflecting telescopes, and lucky enough to point one at a new planet.
Such being the common notion, it is not possible to make any mere
description of Herschel’s papers an index of his merits. Nor have we
here understated the scientific knowledge of the public in general. When
Sir John Herschel lately set out for the Cape of Good Hope, the
newspapers announced his approaching departure, accompanied by the
information that “six waggon loads of telescopes” were on their way to
the ship, which was all that was said, except in publications expressly
scientific. That one principal object of the son’s voyage was to
complete a great branch of astronomy, by doing in the southern
hemisphere what the father had done in the northern, was not stated for
a very simple reason—that this portion of the father’s labours is hardly
known by name to any but astronomers. And it is to astronomers only that
Herschel is truly known. The notion entertained of him by others often
reminds us of the farmer, who came to him to know the proper time to cut
his hay. The philosopher replied by pointing to his own crop, which
happened to be rotting on the ground under a heavy rain.

The planet which Herschel called after George III. (but which now goes
under the more appropriate name of Uranus) was discovered by him March
13, 1781; not accidentally, but as one of the fruits of a laborious
investigation, with a distinct and useful object. He was examining every
star with one telescope, that he might obtain a definite idea of
relative phenomena, which should enable him to distinguish changes
actually taking place, from differences of appearance caused by the use
of different telescopes: the whole being in furtherance of the design of
“throwing some new light upon the organization of the celestial bodies.”
The last words, which are part of the title of one of his subsequent
papers, aptly express the line of astronomy to which Herschel devoted
his life; and the discovery of the planet Uranus was not the chance work
of a moment, but the consequence of sagacity strengthened by habit, the
latter being formed with a perfect knowledge of what was wanted, as well
as of what would be useful in supplying it. Had he been merely
registering the places of the stars, he would probably (as others did
before him) have passed the planet, perhaps with some remark upon its
apparent _diskiness_: for though the stars have no well-defined discs,
yet some have so much more of the appearance of discs than others, that
a faint planet, viewed with a low power, might easily be taken for a
star. But being engaged upon the stars, expressly with a view to trying
how much of such a circumstance would be telescopic, and how much real,
he was thereby led to try higher powers, and, eventually, other
telescopes. The existence of the _planet_ was soon ascertained, and
forms one of the two great features of Herschel’s reputation in the eyes
of the world at large.

The celebrated forty-foot telescope, first described to the Royal
Society by Herschel, June 2, 1795, was the result of a long series of
experiments on the construction of mirrors, begun at Bath, on telescopes
from two to twenty feet in length. And we may here remark, that “the
bulk of his fortune arose from the sale of telescopes of his own
construction, many of which were purchased for the chief observatories
of Europe,” and not from the salary of £400 a year which he received as
private astronomer to George III. See ‘Statement of Circumstances,’ &c.,
a pamphlet printed on the occasion of the last election of a President
by the Royal Society. In 1785, George III. furnished Herschel with the
means of undertaking an instrument larger than any he had yet made. The
greatest difficulty (independent of the stand) was the obtaining a
mirror of sufficient size, which should not crack in cooling, and should
be strong enough not to bend under its own weight. This instrument has
been so frequently described that we shall say no more of it, except
that Herschel dates the completion of it from August 28, 1789, when he
discovered the sixth satellite of Saturn, and obtained his best view of
the spots on that planet. A month later, the seventh satellite was
discovered by Herschel. This telescope is now never used. Sir J.
Herschel prefers a twenty-foot reflector for his own observations.

The first discovery of the satellites of Uranus was also in a minor
degree the work of thought. Such bodies were repeatedly looked for by
Herschel, but none were seen. A small change in the instrument, by which
the light was increased, suggested one more trial; and the result was
the establishment of the existence of the two first satellites, in
January, 1787. Two more were discovered by Herschel, in 1790, and two
more in 1794. These satellites cannot be seen but with an instrument of
first-rate power, and in a favourable position of the planet. No one has
observed the four last satellites except Herschel himself, or the two
first, except himself and Sir J. Herschel, who has confirmed his
father’s determination of their periods. See _Mem. Royal Astron. Soc._
vol. viii. He found that their orbits were nearly perpendicular to the
plane of the ecliptic, and ascertained their retrograde motion, and some
remarkable relations between their mean distances. It has a brilliant
sound, but it is literally true as to the number of _known_ bodies
composing the solar system, that Herschel left it exactly half as large
again as he found it. To the Sun, Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Moon,
Mars, Jupiter and four satellites, Saturn and five satellites, and
Halley’s Comet, eighteen in all, he added nine, namely, two satellites
to Saturn, Uranus and six satellites.

But not content with augmenting our own, it is to Herschel we owe the
discovery of other systems. That the fixed stars were each the centre of
a number of planets was suspected, perhaps rather prematurely, before
his observations were made known. But the first positive addition to our
knowledge of _systems_, that is of bodies which move in any degree of
connexion with each other, is to be found in his paper read to the Royal
Society, June 9, 1803, announcing that Castor, γ Leonis, ε Bootis, ζ
Herculis, δ Serpentis, γ Virginis, were most probably _binary_[4] stars.
The existence of such systems has been confirmed by Sir J. Herschel and
Professor Struve, and the duration of the periods given by Herschel has
been sufficiently confirmed to make the exactness of his observations
remarkable. But to new planets, and new systems, Herschel added new
universes; or, more properly speaking, showed that the universe
consisted of portions, each conveying as large an idea of extent and
number, as the whole of what was previously called _the universe_. His
great telescope furnished sufficient facts, and his mind was not slow to
draw a conjectural inference, which must be classed among the happiest
efforts of reasoning speculation. The resolution of the milky way into
stars proved that we are situated in a stratum of such bodies much
thicker in some directions than others: this led to the inference that
some or all of the nebulæ with which the sky is crowded might be similar
enormous groups of stars; and the resolution of some of the nebulæ into
detached portions was a first step towards the demonstration of the

Footnote 4:

_Double_ stars, those which are so near to each other as to appear one
to the naked eye: _binary_ systems, double stars which revolve round
each other.

There is enough yet unmentioned,—in the discovery of the time of
rotation of Saturn—that of Jupiter’s satellites—that of the
refrangibility of heat—the experiments on colours—the enormous
collection of nebulæ—the experimental determination of the magnitude of
stars—the researches and conjectures on the physical constitution of the
sun—those on the qualities of telescopes, &c. &c.,—to form by itself no
ordinary title to the recollection of posterity. But we must refer to
Sir J. Herschel’s Astronomy, in which will be found such an account of
them as the plan of the work permitted, by one who has shown himself as
indisposed to exaggerate, as interested to explain.

In the labours of his observatory Herschel was assisted by his sister,
Miss Caroline Herschel, with whose help he published, in 1798, his
catalogue of Flamsteed’s stars. This lady, whose exertions, both as an
observer and calculator, are well known to astronomers, is still living,
at a very advanced age, in Hanover.

We do not know of any very trustworthy account of Herschel. ‘The
Obituary for 1822,’ the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine,’ the ‘Annual Register,’
&c., do not state their authorities. We have followed the
first-mentioned work as to facts and dates in most of the particulars
here mentioned.

[Illustration: [View of the great telescope erected at Slough.]]


_Engraved by R. Woodman._


_From an Enamel after a Picture by Sir Thomas Lawrence._

Under the Superintendance of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful

_London, Published by Charles Knight, Ludgate Street._



The grandfather of Sir Samuel Romilly, as we learn from the following
passage of a speech which he made at Bristol, “was born the heir to a
considerable landed estate at Montpellier, in the South of France. His
ancestors had early imbibed and adopted the principles and doctrines of
the Reformed Religion, and he had been educated himself in that
religious faith. He had the misfortune to live soon after the time when
the Edict of Nantes, the great Toleration Act of the Protestants of
France, was revoked by Louis XIV.; and he found himself exposed to all
the vexations and persecutions of a bigoted and tyrannical government
for worshipping God in the manner in which he believed was most
acceptable to Him. He determined to free himself from this bondage; he
abandoned his property, he tore himself from his connexions, and,
quitting the country and its tyrant, sought an asylum in this land of
liberty, where he had to support himself only by his own exertions. He
himself embarked in trade; he educated his sons to useful trades; and he
was contented, at his death, to leave them, instead of his original
patrimony, no other inheritance than the habits of industry he had given
them—the example of his own virtuous life, an hereditary detestation of
tyranny and injustice, and an ardent zeal in the cause of civil and
religious freedom.” One of these sons became eminent as a jeweller, and
married Miss Garnault, by whom he had a numerous family. Of these three
only lived to maturity, Thomas, Catherine, and Samuel. Samuel was the
youngest, and was born March 1, 1757.

His father was a man of extreme benevolence, and strict integrity; warm
in his affections, and cheerful in his disposition. Under the influence
of his precepts and example the moral character of Samuel Romilly was
formed: for his mother, from an habitual state of bad health, was
incapable of superintending the early education of her children, which
was consequently much neglected. Samuel and his brother were sent to a
common day-school, the master of which pretended to teach Latin,
although really ignorant of that language. It was at one time
contemplated to train him to commercial business in the house of the
Fludyers, who were then considerable merchants in the city, and near
relations of his family: but the sudden death of both the partners of
that house put an end to these projects; and in the absence of other
occupation, his father employed him in keeping his accounts, and
sometimes receiving orders from customers. He had thus leisure to
cultivate tastes more congenial to his nature; and at the age of
fourteen he commenced that self-education, to which he owed all his
future success. Every volume of his father’s little collection, and of
the circulating libraries in the neighbourhood, was anxiously and
attentively perused. Ancient and modern history, treatises on science,
works of criticism, travels, and English poetry, were among his
favourite books. But a passion for poetry soon predominated over other
tastes; and from admiring the poetry of others he aspired at becoming a
poet himself. He wrote eclogues, songs, and satires, translated passages
from French poets, and imitated English ones; and resolving to devote
himself steadily to literature he hoped to acquire fame as an author. He
now set about learning Latin in earnest; and was soon able, by dint of
unremitting assiduity, and with some assistance from a private tutor, to
understand the easier Latin authors. In the course of about three years
he had read through Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus three times; he had
studied almost the whole of Cicero, as well as the principal poets; he
had gone through the Latin translations of the Greek historians,
orators, and philosophers; and had made numerous translations from the
Latin classics into English, which he retranslated into Latin. This
double exercise he found to be eminently useful in rendering him, what
he at length became, a very excellent scholar. In addition to these
studies, he attended lectures on natural philosophy, painting,
architecture, and anatomy.

In the meanwhile he felt his father’s business become every day more
irksome; and it was definitively arranged that he should enter into some
branch of the law; a plan which he was enabled to execute by the
accession to the family of a considerable legacy. At the age of sixteen,
he was articled to Mr. Lally for five years, with a view of succeeding
to him as one of the six clerks in Chancery. The society, however, of
Mr. Lally and the pursuit of his literary tastes had greater attractions
for him than the regular occupation of the office; and although he
scrupulously performed the duties required of him, his favourite
classics engrossed a large portion of his time, and his mind was still
intent upon a life of peaceful retirement, and the prospect of literary

At the expiration of the term of his apprenticeship, however, he
determined, much against the opinion of many of his friends, to study at
one of the inns of court, and to be called to the bar. His real motive
in deciding against a clerkship in chancery, which was then only to be
obtained by purchase, was little suspected at the time; it was, that he
might not be obliged to call for his share of the legacy just alluded
to, amounting to 2000_l._; which he knew it would be very inconvenient
to his father to pay. This trait of pious benevolence was, by a just
retribution, the pivot upon which his future fortunes more immediately

It was not till he had attained his twenty-first year that he entered
upon these new studies; and they were pursued with so much persevering
assiduity, that at length he became seriously indisposed, and all
application was for months prohibited by his medical advisers. So
serious an interruption to his pursuits was likely to be most injurious
to him in his profession; when, fortunately, an opportunity occurred of
making an excursion to the continent. The Rev. John Roget, who had
recently married his sister, had been attacked with a pulmonary
complaint, which obliged him to remove with her to a southern climate,
leaving behind them in England their first and then only child. They
were no sooner settled at Lausanne, than they ardently desired to have
this child conveyed to them, and Mr. Romilly, from a deep sense of the
obligations he already owed to his brother-in-law for assisting him in
his studies, and supplying that judicious and well-timed encouragement,
which, on a susceptible and ardent mind, ever acts as the most powerful
incentive to exertion, readily undertook the charge. The change of air
and scene, the lively interest he took in visiting new countries, and
the consciousness of rendering no small service to relatives to whom he
was most affectionately attached, produced a rapid and favourable change
upon his health. Still more important was the effect produced on the
tone of his mind by this renewed intercourse with a friend, who had
early discerned his latent abilities and extraordinary capacity, and
who, on this occasion, placing before his view the wide field on which
those talents might be advantageously exercised, and the important
services he might thus be capable of rendering to his fellow-creatures,
produced impressions which were indelible, and which, as he himself has
often said, had a marked influence upon the subsequent events of his

On his return to England he resumed his studies with renovated strength
and with redoubled ardour. He was called to the bar in 1783. More than
ten years, however, elapsed before any real prospect of success opened
to him in his profession. It is true that he was employed in drawing
pleadings in chancery, and this business gradually increased; but it
never required him to open his lips in court; and although he regularly
attended the Midland circuit, he had no connexions on it, and it was not
until he commenced an attendance on the sessions that the circuit at
length became a source of some profit to him. In 1792 he appeared for
the first time as a leader: in a short time he was employed in almost
every case, and not many years passed before he was at the head of his

But we are anticipating a later period. In 1784 Mr. Romilly became
acquainted with Mirabeau, and through him with Lord Lansdowne. That
nobleman appreciated the knowledge and character of the rising lawyer,
and becoming intimate with him, did all in his power to encourage and
bring forth his talents. About the same time there was published a tract
by the Rev. Dr. Madan, entitled ‘Thoughts on Executive Justice.’ It had
attracted some attention, and was so much admired by Lord Lansdowne,
that he suggested to his friend the task of writing a treatise in the
same spirit. But Mr. Romilly was so much shocked at the principle upon
which it proceeded, namely, that of rigidly executing the criminal code
in all cases, barbarous and sanguinary as it then was, that, instead of
adopting its doctrines, he sat down to refute them. The triumphant reply
which he drew up and published anonymously did not meet with the success
it deserved. Nevertheless he had the satisfaction of hearing it praised
from the bench; and Lord Lansdowne himself had the singular candour to
acknowledge the merit of a production, which, although written at his
own suggestion, was at variance with the opinions he had desired to see

Allusion has been made to Mr. Romilly’s acquaintance with Mirabeau. He
was one of those of whose talents Mirabeau had availed himself on more
than one occasion. It is unnecessary, however, to mention more than the
following instance, which is too characteristic to be omitted. During
one of Mr. Romilly’s visits to Paris, in 1788, curiosity led him to see
the prison of the Bicêtre, and on meeting Mirabeau the next day, he
described to him all the horror and disgust with which the place had
inspired him. Mirabeau, struck with the force of his description, begged
him to express it in writing, and to be allowed to use it. Mirabeau
translated and published this account in a pamphlet, which, in spite of
the title, ‘Lettre d’un Voyageur Anglais sur la Prison de Bicêtre,’ was
everywhere ascribed to him; while the real author, on his return to
England, printed his own MS. in the ‘Repository,’ as the translation,
although it was in fact the original.

It was not till the autumn of 1796, when on a visit to Bowood, the
country-seat of Lord Lansdowne, that Mr. Romilly first met Miss Garbett,
to whom he was afterwards united, and who formed the charm of the
remainder of his existence. With such sacred inducements to renew his
efforts in his profession, his advancement was proportionably rapid. On
November 6, 1800, he was appointed king’s counsel; and it was soon clear
that he might aspire to the highest ranks of his profession. In 1806 he
was made Solicitor-general, under the administration of Mr. Fox and Lord
Grenville. He was, much against his will, knighted on his appointment;
and was brought into Parliament by the Government for Queenborough. Soon
after, he was called upon to sum up the evidence on the trial of Lord
Melville; a duty which he performed with consummate skill, though with a
feebleness of voice which deprived his most able speech of its just
effect in the vast hall where it was delivered.

During the first session of his parliamentary career, Sir Samuel Romilly
confined himself principally to questions of law, and seldom addressed
the House, except in committee; but in the beginning of 1807 he took a
more prominent part, and made his first great speech in favour of the
abolition of the Slave-trade—a speech, which at once placed him on a
level with the most successful orators of the day. In this subject he
had always felt deep interest. From his earliest youth he had expressed
the warmest indignation against this infamous traffic; he had
translated, with a view to publication, Condorcet’s pamphlet against
West Indian slavery, and, at the beginning of the French Revolution, he
had written an eloquent paper against the Slave-trade, and had
transmitted it to his friend Dumont, from whom he trusted it would pass
to Mirabeau, and would remind him of the importance of the question, at
a time when a comparatively slight effort would have settled it in that
country for ever. These previous efforts had produced no effect; but he
had afterwards the satisfaction of belonging to the ministry to whom the
honour was due of abolishing the slave-trade, and of thus preparing the
way for putting an end to slavery itself. This ministry were soon after
dismissed from their offices, for not sacrificing their opinions in
favour of Catholic emancipation to the lamentable and persevering
prejudices entertained by George III. on that question, prejudices
adopted by his son and successor, to the infinite detriment of his

On the dissolution of parliament which followed, Sir Samuel Romilly,
having procured for himself a seat for Wareham, lost no time in
re-introducing a measure, which had been rejected in the former
parliament, to enable a creditor to obtain the payment of his debts from
the landed property of persons dying indebted. With a view to prevent
opposition, he had confined the operation of his measure to freehold
estates only. The bill, however, even in this modified form, met with
the greatest opposition. Its introduction by Sir Samuel was ascribed to
“his hereditary love of democracy;” it was denounced by Canning, “as the
first step of something that might end like the French Revolution, and
as a dangerous attack against the aristocracy, which was thus to be
sacrificed to the commercial interest;” and it was finally rejected by a
considerable majority. Rather than give up his object entirely, he
determined to make another concession to the prejudices of his
opponents; and a few days after the rejection of the measure, on
introducing a second bill on the same subject, he limited its operation
to the landed estates of _traders_. This expedient succeeded; the
aristocracy, caring little what became of traders’ estates, suffered the
bill to pass both houses without the slightest opposition, and it
received the Royal assent in August, 1807. After the lapse of seven
years, he made fresh attempts in favour of his original bill, but in
vain. It was indeed carried by the Commons, in 1814, by a majority of
nearly two to one; and again in the same house, in the two succeeding

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