Regency England Had No Planet Uranus

Which is not to say that the celestial body we know today as Uranus had not been discovered by 1811. In point of fact it had, thirty years before the Prince of Wales became Regent, by a German-born composer working as the director of the orchestra of Bath, England. But this new planet was not called Uranus in Regency England, though that name, among others, was used on the Continent.

The seventh planet, its name(s) and its discoverer …

Until 13 March 1781, Saturn was believed to be the outermost planet of the solar system. But that night, in the spa town of Bath, England, William Herschel, composer, musician and amateur astronomer, looked through a telescope he had built himself and noted a large non-stellar object in the constellation of Gemini. He initially thought it was a comet and wrote about it to the Royal Society. However, other astronomers had difficulty in confirming this discovery, since none of them had a telescope equal to the quality of that which Herschel had built himself, in the garden of his home in Bath. But with perseverance, a few other astronomers were able to see and track this object. By that summer, it was agreed among them all, including Herschel, that it was indeed a planet. This was a truly momentous occasion since this was the first planet, beyond those visible with the naked eye, which had been discovered in recorded history. This discovery also nearly doubled the known size of the solar system. (Neptune would not be discovered until 1846, Pluto not until 1930, only to be demoted in 2006).

As the discoverer of this new planet, Herschel had the right to name it. The other known planets, with the exception of Earth, were named for Roman gods, i.e., Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. However, Herschel did not follow that pattern. Instead, he named the new planet for the Elector of his birthplace, Hanover, who was also the king of England, George III. Thus, in England the new planet was called Georgium Sidus, (George’s Star). Herschel wrote to Sir Joseph Banks that he felt this was the correct choice, as it would clearly date its discovery, " … in the reign of King George the Third." He felt that the other planets had been named by the Ancients for those they venerated and it was appropriate that this first planet discovered in the modern age should be named for someone who was venerated in the age of its discovery. Another factor in this decision may have been that in recognition of his discovery, George III had granted Herschel an annual stipend.

This name for the new planet was not well-received beyond British shores, since it was seen as yet further evidence of English imperialism. The French astronomer, Joseph Jérôme Lalande, suggested that it should be called Herschel to honor the man who discovered it. The German astronomer, Johann Elert Bode, urged that the pattern of naming planets after ancient gods should be continued. Bode contended that as Saturn was the father of Jupiter, this new planet should be called Uranus, who was the Greek god of the sky, and the father of Saturn. Bode’s recommendation became the most commonly accepted in the countries outside the British Isles. But in England, the new planet continued to be called Georgium Sidus. It was not until 1850, when HM Nautical Almanac Office officially converted to the use of the name Uranus in their publications, that the name became widely used in Britain.

As a composer and musician in Bath, Herschel made a modest living. He lived with his sister, Caroline, also a musician and singer, in a small house on New King Street. Though music was the focus of his professional life, he devoted his free time to his true love, astronomy. He also spent much of his limited income on the materials and tools he needed to build telescopes to his own design, as he was not satisfied with those instruments available at the time. The discovery of Georgium Sidus brought Herschel’s superior telescopes to the attention of professional and amateur astronomers through England and across the Continent. He continued to enhance and improve his telescope designs throughout his life. He sold some of his instruments to other astronomers, both professional and amateur. His customers included the King of Spain and Lucien Bonaparte, younger brother of the Emperor.

In 1782, the stipend which Herschel received from George III came with his appointment as the Royal Astronomer. This new position and income enabled him to abandon music and devote himself completely to astronomy. Over the course of his astronomical career he discovered two of the moons of Uranus, and described one of the rings of the seventh planet, through they were not seen through a telescope until 1977, and not photographed until 1986, when Voyager 2 recorded the complete system of rings around Uranus. He also discovered the existence of infrared radiation, among his many important discoveries.

Herschel and his sister lived for a time in Berkshire, before they were offered a home near Windsor. Several members of the Royal Family would visit Herschel in his new home so that they could view the heavens through his powerful telescopes. His home became known as Observatory House and he lived there for the remainder of his life. His stipend and the income from the sale of his telescopes enabled him to afford to marry and support a family. His son, John, followed in his footsteps as an astronomer. Both his sister, Caroline, and his wife, Mary, often served as his assistants.

Herschel traveled on the Continent and met many heads of state, including Napoleon Bonaparte. He also received many honors throughout his life. During the Regency, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1813. In 1816, he was knighted by the Prince Regent and became Sir William Herschel. He was also a founding member of the Astronomical Society of London, in 1820. He died at home at Observatory House in August of 1822.

Though the seventh planet was discovered thirty years before the beginning of the Regency, its impact was still felt during that decade. In England, the plant was known as Georgium Sidus, while outside of the British Isles it was known as Herschel or more commonly, Uranus. Though the planet was named for George III, the Prince Regent shared that same first name, and one wonders if that is why he made no push to encourage the use of the mythological name in England. One can imagine that Prinny enjoyed the knowledge that "George’s Star" shone in the Regency heavens.

Though William Herschel was three-and-seventy when the Prince of Wales became Regent, he was still actively involved in astronomy, searching the heavens for new discoveries as well as designing and building telescopes for an exclusive clientele. He routinely published his astronomical discoveries, discussed his work with fellow scientists and occasionally lectured to the learned societies of which he was a member. His son, John, took up the study of astronomy during the later half of the Regency, and also built telescopes, like his father. When the elder Herschel married, his sister moved to her own home nearby, and continued her own astronomical studies. After her brother’s death, she returned to Hanover, but she lived in England throughout the Regency.

Should the author of a Regency novel you are reading refer to the seventh planet as Georgium Sidus, or "George’s Star," you will know they have done their research. The discrepancy in the names used for this new planet might make for some heated discussion between characters from England and those from abroad. In addition, any member of the Herschel family would make an interesting supporting historical character in a Regency novel. Perhaps a character in a novel set during that decade might purchase a telescope from Herschel or his son, or attend a lecture given by the famous astronomer. Who knows what other intriguing plots points might center around this great astronomer and his family.

Herschel lived at his Windsor residence, Observatory House, throughout the decade of the Regency. It was demolished in 1963, and a high-rise office building was built on the site. However, Herschel’s former home on New King Street, in Bath, is now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy and is open to the public. There one can see the telescope with which he first viewed the seventh planet, in the house in which he made his momentous discovery. If you are interested in the history of astronomy, you might want to pay this museum a visit, should you happen to be in Bath, and in need of a break from the Pump Room, the Royal Crescent or the Jane Austen Centre.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Regency England Had No Planet Uranus

  1. I have an illustration of the Solar System from an 1849 Boston astronomy text. It shows the planet Herschel with six moons, and the planet Leverrier (Neptune) with one.

    It also shows separate orbits for the five major asteroids Vesta, Juno, Ceres, Pallas, and Astraea, rather than a generically labelled “Asteroid Belt”, between Mars and Jupiter. It does describe them as “asteroids” however in the “Comparative Magnitude” sketch at the bottom of the diagram.

  2. dwwilkin says:

    Reblogged this on The Things That Catch My Eye and commented:
    This is great background material on George’s Star.

  3. Sia says:

    Frankly, I like the name Georgium Sidus better. Or Herschel. I’ve heard the non-funny “Uranaus/your anus” joke one too many times for my liking.

  4. Pingback: The Orrery — The Regency Solar System in Miniature | The Beau Monde

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