The Inter-Disciplinary Science of Sir John Herschel


Sir John Herschel, landed on Cape Town shores in early 1834 to map out the stars of the Southern Hemisphere.

His father, Sir Frederick William Herschel, also an astronomer, had discovered the planet Uranus in 1781.

Sir John would continue his father’s work in Cape Town by building a 21 ft telescope through which he observed the return of Halley’s Comet.

He was helped in this endeavor by another well-known astronomer, Sir Thomas Maclear.

Maclear would later became a good friend of the famous British Explorer, David Livingstone, and instruct him celestial navigation and the finer points of mapping out new territory in his explorations of Africa.

South Africa offered Herschel a chance to escape the pressures of his growing fame as a scientist in Britain, where his work was constantly under the microscope. In fact, he financed the trip to South Africa himself refusing any assistance from the government to ensure he was left alone to his own devices.

He selected as his home (and observatory) a Cape Dutch estate called Feldhausen, just six miles from Table Mountain, which he described as one of the most magnificent sites he had ever seen.

Chris de Coning, ASSA Historical Section Director in Cape Town told that the estate was formerly called the “The Grove” and remained “Feldhausen” for the four years that Herschel spent in the Cape.

“To my knowledge it was called Feldhausen only whilst he owned it and the next owners reverted back to the Grove,” he said.

According to the Astronomical Society of South Africa the homestead itself was demolished as recently as 1958, but from modern pictures and descriptions, an excellent idea of it may be conjured up.

Built in Cape Dutch style with a thatched roof, a central gable, and a wide stoep (a.k.a veranda) with seats at either end. Entrance to the house was gained by a flight of broad steps, flanked by enormous oaks. The walls, built of cut river-stone and sun-baked brick, were two feet thick, providing warmth in winter and coolness in summer.

Heavy stink wood joists supported the floors, and yellow wood doors with hand wrought iron hinges added to the general charm. The floor of the spacious entrance hall was of grey Batavian flagstones.

From this breathtaking vantage point he scanned the heavens and extended his pursuits into botany with his wife Margaret.

The 21-foot telescope had been John’s father William’s favorite telescope while he was still alive, and had been the one restored by William and John together between 1816 and 1820 in part as an exercise in teaching John William’s skills as an instrument maker. John however never took up instrument making.

The diverse natural scenery of Cape Town sparked a life-long interest in the hidden forces shaping the geological landscapes of the Earth, and, new life and species in general.

It was this speculation that would one-day fuel the ideas contained in Charles Darwin groundbreaking book called “The Origins of Species.”

In fact, Darwin would visit Cape Town on the Beagle and ended up visiting Hershel at Feldhuasen where Hershel’s thoughts on Cape geology would trigger many of the ideas found in the Origin of Species.

Hershel would go on to make many more scientific discoveries, including discovering four new moons circling Uranus.

He eventually returned to England in `838 but always maintained his fours years in South Africa were amongst the happiest in his life.

Flashforward: An 11 Minute African Exclipse

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