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Autograph Letter from the English Polymath, Astronomer and Photography Pioneer, Mentioning Digital Computer Pioneer Charles Babbage

Item: 10353
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HERSCHEL, SIR JOHN FREDERICK WILLIAM. (1792-1871). English polymath, astronomer and photography pioneer; son of the astronomer Frederick William Herschel. ALS. (“JFW Herschel”). 2pp. 4to. N.p., N.d. [1822 or later]. To GEORGE BURGESS WILDIG (1784-1853)].

“I have delayed a long while answering your letter, but the whole matter appearing to be likely to take an unsatisfactory turn, I did not know exactly how to proceed. The fact is that the present  Astronomer Royal is exceedingly averse to the new appointments – so much so that it is very doubtful whether the change proposed in the system of the observatory will ever be made – or at least ever be acted on with any confidence. Under the circumstances all that I could do was to throw in a caveat in your favor should the alterations ever take place, and be of a satisfactory nature – by mentioning your wishes to the President of the R[oyal] S[ociety] in confidence and should I hear more about the matter will not fail to give you intelligence, and if you then desire it, make your wishes on the subject publicly known, as the nomination to the officer will I presume rest with the Pres[iden]t. & Council of the R.S. I think you underrate your claims graciously when you say ‘you know nothing of astronomy.’ I am happy meanwhile to hear of your being so comfortably situated and that you still retain a penchant for x and y. Jones you know is married and leads an exemplary & sober life – his wife has been very ill. I do not hear that there are signs of the principles of population being brought into action in his family yet. Babbage desires to be k[in]dly remembered & I am, dear Wildig, yours sincerely…”

Photo of J.F.W. Herschel

J.F.W. Herschel

The son of astronomer William Herschel and nephew of pioneering female astronomer Caroline Herschel, J.F.W. Herschel developed friendships with mathematician George Peacock and mathematician, mechanical engineer and pioneer of the digital computer Charles Babbage (1791-1871) while studying at Cambridge. Soon after, he joined his father as an astronomer and founded the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820, of which he served as president three times. He received numerous honors for his work in the field of astronomy but he also wrote and lectured on the subjects of natural history, the scientific method, meteorology, geography, geology, the modern calendar, and even published a translation of Homer’s Iliad. His 1831 A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy influenced Charles Darwin while he was a student at Cambridge. In fact, Darwin visited Herschel in South Africa in 1836 and mentioned the scientist in the opening lines of The Origin of Species. In addition to his many other contributions to science, Herschel was the first to use “hypo” as a fixing agent in photography and introduced the terms “Positive image” and “Negative image” into the lexicon.

Wildig studied mathematics at Cambridge from 1811-1815, around the same time that Herschel was a student, and it was likely there that they developed a friendship. After graduating, Wildig briefly held a mathematics professorship in Liverpool before undertaking a career with the church in Staffordshire. He did, however, continue to pursue mathematics in his spare time. He was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820. His obituary published in the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society reports: “Though he has left much matter in manuscript, he rarely gave anything to the world through the press. A short geometrical treatise on the conic sections, which he printed in 1822 for the use of the Liverpool Institution, is marked by elegance, geometrical purity, and comprehensiveness… Many friends of similar pursuits, and many grateful pupils, remain sensible of the advantages they have had from his luminous conversation and instructive guidance. His scientific strength lay on deep foundations. He was conversant with the Greek geometers, and with the discoverers, promoters, and perfecters of modern mathematical investigations from the middle ages to the present day. His remarkable talents and learning, though so little displayed to the world were well known to many friends; among whom it is needless to mention those Cambridge men of his day, who were among the first founders, and are yet distinguished members of the Astronomical Society, and leading names in British science.”

Written on a sheet of paper with an 1822 watermark. A small, blank portion of the integral sheet remains attached. Folded and in fine condition.

Autograph Letter from the English Polymath, Astronomer and Photography Pioneer, Mentioning Digital Computer Pioneer Charles Babbage

$650 • item #10353

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