Five Questions With the Herschel Society’s Charles Draper



On Saturday 8th June 2024 there will be an all-day conference at the BRLSI exploring the life and work of the Victorian polymath, Sir John Herschel.

Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), son of the astronomer William Herschel and nephew to Caroline Herschel, was the most influential natural philosopher of the Victorian period.

His long career encompassed astronomy, mathematics, physics, geology, chemistry, as well as art, literature, politics, and the invention of photography.

Herschel’s 1831 Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy was the first book in English on the philosophy of science and had a formative influence on a generation of scientists, including Charles Darwin.

If being scientific in Victorian England meant to be as much like John Herschel as possible, this conference will explore what it meant to be John Herschel. This unique day of talks promises to explore all aspects of Herschel’s life from philosophy to art.

In this conference, instigated by Charles Draper who is chair of the Herschel Society, a panel of experts will examine the life and learnings of Sir John Herschel (1792 – 1871), the most influential natural philosopher of the Victorian age.  Ahead of this conference, we asked Charles five questions on the subject of John Herschel.

Charles, what were the influences in his education and upbringing that made John Herschel such an important natural philosopher?

There were many! John was born into a privileged and well- connected working household in Slough, where he was exposed to scientific endeavour and distinguished company both there and on holidays with his family from an early age. His Aunt Caroline was a major influence, and was his first teacher in chemistry. His early education was mainly from a mix of local private schools and tutors chosen carefully by his father William, particularly to focus on mathematics. His talents were obvious from an early age.

What connections, if any, did he have with Bath?

The main one was probably through his uncle Alexander, who continued to live and work as a musician in Bath for decades (until 1816) after William and Caroline left, coming up to Slough in the summer months to help with the design and manufacture of William’s telescopes and other instruments.

Of the various branches of Science and Mathematics that he studied, which do you believe was the most important?

I’m looking forward to coming to a view on that after the Conference!

Where are the records or archives of his work to be found?

There are major collections at the Royal Society (which have just been digitised), the Royal Astronomical Society, The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin Texas, and at the Science Museum in London.

How do you see his reputation growing in the future?

Through increased knowledge of his important role in so many fields. I hope this conference will be instrumental in shining a light over many of these and triggering further research and exploration of the life and influence of this amazing but now rather forgotten man.

To book tickets for the conference:


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