By the late eighteenth century, the development of the telescope had made it possible for many amateur astronomers to search the skies.
Most were content to view what was already known, while some dreamed of great discoveries.
One 41-year-old musician in Bath, England, wanted to systematically catalog the whole sky. This amateur wound up making two discoveries that rocked the astronomical world.
Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1738.
There was little in his first 35 years to indicate that he would become one of the greatest astronomers to ever study the skies.
Herschel came from a musical family and received little education beyond music. When he was 19, Herschel moved to England and changed his name to William Herschel.
For the next 17 years, he led the life of a successful musician, writing, teaching, and playing in local orchestras.
In 1773, Herschel held the important position of organist for the Octagonal Chapel in Bath, but his mind was on other things.
He had developed a passion for astronomy and had read all the books he could find on the subject.
Herschel started renting telescopes, but when they proved unsatisfactory, he built his own. He would see much farther than any man had ever dreamed.
Herschel discovered more than 800 double stars, now called binaries, and correctly theorized that they revolved around a common center of gravity.
Even Herschel was wrong once in a while.
He theorized that sunspots were holes in the Sun’s atmosphere that revealed a cool surface beneath, a surface that might even support life.
On 11 February 1800 Herschel discovered infrared radiation by passing sunlight through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum.