How an Amateur Astronomer Discovered Uranus
On this day in 1781, William Herschel looked through his telescope and saw Uranus. It was a monumental discovery for the world of science but that wasn't the only reason it was impressive.
First, the telescopes of the time were extremely limited, and Herschel’s device was more or less a tube-shaped magnifying glass, especially when compared to today’s high-powered sky-scanning technology.
Second, Herschel was a relative newcomer to astronomy. He’d spent most of his earlier life as a successful composer and musician, only developing an interest in the night sky at the age of 34 (which was pretty old in 18th century England). A few years later, Herschel was up one night, staring at the constellation Gemini, when he found a comet—or so he thought. The object in question looked more like a flat disk, and while it moved, it appeared to be too slow to be a comet. Further observations confirmed that Herschel had in fact found a new planet—the first to be discovered with a telescope.
As the discoverer, Herschel figured he had naming rights. He suggested Georgium Sidis—literally “George’s Star”—in honor of the British king, but his contemporaries argued for a more dignified name. They opted for Uranus, following the established protocol of naming planets after ancient gods. (Uranus was a Greek sky god and father of Cronus/Saturn.)
William Herschel would later go on to discover more than 2500 nebulae, coin the word “asteroid,” and invent several new telescopes. His discoveries paved the way for new technology and scientific approaches—and it all started with Uranus.