Happy Birthday, John Herschel!

John Frederick William Herschel was born on this day in 1792.  He was the son of Mary Baldwin and the astronomer William Herschel, who had discovered Uranus, the first planet not seen by the naked eye.  John Herschel would go on to do important work in astronomy as well: he studied double-stars, mapped the skies of the Southern Hemisphere, and named moons of Saturn and Uranus.  He was one of the co-inventors of photography, being the one to discover the chemical process by which the action of light on silver-nitrate paper could be stopped, thus “fixing” the images.  He developed the cyanotype method of photography, the precursor to the blueprint, and the method used by Anna Atkins in her groundbreaking work, Photographs of British Algae, the first book illustrated with photographs.  Herschel also studied ultraviolet rays, color blindness, and many other areas.

Of course, Herschel’s impact on the science of his day is due to more than just his individual accomplishments, impressive as they are.  It is due as well to the role he played as a member of the philosophical breakfast club, and the way that this group of men helped transform science, and scientists.

In honor of today’s birthday, a discussion of Herschel and his place in the philosophical breakfast club is featured in today’s edition of the Barnes & Noble Review, which can be read here.  I especially like how the writer quotes the final paragraph of my prologue, which I think gives a sense of the brilliance of Herschel and his friends  Charles Babbage, Richard Jones, and William Whewell, as well the irony of the revolution they wrought–one which, in a sense, left no room for men such as themselves:

“They were widely and classically trained, readers of Latin and Greek, French and German, whose interests ranged over all the natural and social sciences and most of the arts as well, who wrote poetry and broke codes and translated Plato and studied architecture, who pursued optics simply because, as Herschel said, “Light was my first love,” who conducted the experiments that struck their fancy, based on the chemicals and equipment they happened to have on hand, who measured mountains and barometric pressure while on holiday in the Alps and observed the economic situation of the poor wherever their peripatetic wanderings took them. Babbage, Herschel, Jones and Whewell are a strange breed: the last of the natural philosophers, who engendered, as it were with their dying breath, a new species, the scientist.”

Happy Birthday, John Herschel (b. March 7, 1792)!!

In honor of John Herschel’s birthday, I would like to share this brief excerpt from the beginning of chapter 9, “Sciences of Shadow and Light.”

Thirty-three years after the fact, Margaret Herschel still recalled with photographic clarity the visit a friend of her husband’s had paid to Slough. On February 1, 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot took the new railway from London to visit John, bringing with him specimens of an ingenious method he had devised to capture images on paper. Margaret recalled that Talbot had shown the two of them “his beautiful little pictures of ferns and Laces taken by his new process.” He had produced them by placing leaves and pieces of lace on top of specially treated paper inside a wooden box covered with a glass lens, and setting the whole apparatus outside on the lawn of his estate, Lacock Abbey. The action of the sun on the light-sensitive silver chloride coating on the paper turned the areas around the objects a warm, dark brown, while the parts covered up by the leaves and lace were left a bright white–not unlike the effect of the potter Josiah Wedgwood’s jasperware, with its creamy white designs against darker backgrounds.

The problem, Talbot complained to the Herschels, was that over time the continued exposure to light would cause the images of the leaves and laces to turn a dark brown, just like the background, and the picture would be lost.  He had no way to “fix” the images.  Margaret remembered that her husband had said, “Let me have this one for a few minutes.”  After a short time he returned, and handed the picture to Talbot, saying, “I believe you will find that to be fixed”—and thus, Margaret proudly boasted, the problem of rendering photographs permanent was solved by her husband.

Herschel had, on this telling of the story, realized with a flash that experiments he had conducted in 1819 could provide the solution. . . .