Historian Says Sir William Herschel May Not Be A 'Sir' At All
April 5, 2013

Historian Says Sir William Herschel May Not Be A ‘Sir’ At All

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

A paper written by the historian Michael Hoskin and published in the Journal for the History of Astronomy claims Sir William Herschel may not be a "Sir" after all.

Hoskin says that William and John Herschel were both made a knight of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order, an event that typically leads to someone earning themselves the title of "Sir." However, the historian said they were in fact not given the "Sir" titles at all.

“The Guelphic Order was in the gift of the King of Hanover (who was also King of the United Kingdom), and William and John were ℠foreign´ members (William because he was a naturalized British subject by Act of Parliament, and John because he was born in Great Britain). The king of another country could make awards to British subjects (then as now) but he obviously could not confer titles on them (then as now). After the award, William and John could put the letters KH after their names but that was all," Hoskin explained in his paper.

He said how William became known as Sir William is a confusing story that begins with a letter written to him by Count Muenster. He wrote to William asking for a favor in a letter sent a few days after William was made KH.

"It seems Muenster did not stop to work out whether to address him as 'Sir William Herschel' or 'Dr. Herschel', so to be on the safe side he used both: 'Sir William Herschel Dr.'! Once this was done, there was no turning back by Muenster; and no-one had the heart to tell the venerable 'Sir William' Herschel that it was all a mistake," Hoskin wrote.

William's son John said that his mother mistakenly referred to herself as "Lady Herschel," and his aunt Caroline revered the memory of "Sir William."

"For the time being John could let sleeping dogs lie, but in 1831 he was offered a KH, along with other scientists," Hoskin said. "John Herschel KH would then be ℠Mr. Herschel KH´, but his mother and aunt would not understand why he was not ℠Sir John´ like (it seemed) his father. So John initially tried to decline the KH. But he was told it was the wish of King William IV (King of Hanover and King of the United Kingdom), and that he had little choice."

He said John agreed with authorities on a semi-secret solution, in which the King made a solution for him to be dubbed a "Knight Bachelor of the United Kingdom," making him "Sir John Herschel."

"John then wrote to Caroline and told her he was KH and 'therefore' Sir John," Hoskin wrote. "This was intentionally misleading, for his ℠Sir´ had nothing whatever to do with the KH and everything to do with his British knighthood which he was careful not to mention. And he has misled historians from that day to this."

William Herschel is known to have discovered infrared radiation and the planet Uranus, along with help from his sister Caroline. The European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory was named after Herschel. This space observatory has helped to advance scientists' understanding of star and galaxy formation. Soon, the Herschel observatory will run out of fuel and its mission will come to an end.