history of ‘Georgium Sidus’ (Uranus)



Sir John Herschel
The announcement last Friday of the death, at the age of 81, of the Rev. Sir John Herschel, Bart., which occurred at Observatory House, Slough, revives a host of memories of 18th century Bath. Sir John Herschel was the great-grandson of Sir William Herschel, the famous astronomer, who discovered from his scientific observations at Bath the existence of the planet Uranus. A tablet on the house in New King Street—N° 19—records the residence of Herschel in the city.
Rewarded by King
Herschel made this discovery on March 13, 1781. In honour of George III., he named the planet Georgium Sidus. His discovery was rewarded by the King with the appointment of Astronomer Royal.
In 1782 he left Bath to take charge of the Royal Astronomical establishment at Datchet. He died 20 years later, and was buried at Slough.
Octagon organist
Born at Hanover in 1738, Herschel came to England at the age of 21 to earn his livelihood as a musician. His appointment as organist of the Octagen [sic] Chapel, Milsom Street, and the self-sacrificing devotion of his sister, Caroline, who helped him in the construction of his telescopes, have become part of Bath’s 18th century history.

from the Bath Weekly Chronicle and Herald (Bath, Somerset, England) of 24th June 1950



In 1781, Sir William Herschel (1738-1822), a British astronomer and composer of German origin, discovered a planet, which he named Georgium Sidus [cf. note], literally the Georgian star, in honour of King George III (who, as a result of this discovery, appointed him Court Astronomer). The following is from A New Review; with Literary Curiosities, and Literary Intelligence (London, England) of November 1782:

The observations of all the first astronomers of Europe concurring to prove the new star discovered by Mr. Herschel to be a primary planet, he, who, as the discoverer, has the best right to give it a name, wishes it to be called the Georgium Sidus, in honour of the Prince under whose reign it was discovered, and as a debt due to that Prince by Astronomy, for taking the discoverer from a mechanical employment, and enabling him to continue to enrich science. Upon these principles, it is supposed, the other Astronomers of Europe will readily concur in accepting the name.—It is very pleasing to reflect, that this discovery has been made by a very material improvement in the construction of Telescopes, so that we have a great deal more to expect from the same diligent hands.

A xenophobic point of view appeared in The Stamford Mercury (Stamford, Lincolnshire, England) of 21st November 1782—it’s worth noting that this article does not even mention Herschel by name:

The astronomical world have of late been busily employed in the contemplation of a new planet, which has lately been found out; the discoverer is a German, who was till very lately a common fifer in one of the Hessian corps, where he much distinguished himself by his great musical and mathematical talents. He invented and ground the glasses himself, with which he made the important discovery, and through them has brought to light more than double the number of stars that had hitherto been known.—The various astronomical professors have viewed, and acknowledged the existence of this new planet; and the King has ordered the German a pension of 150l. per annum out his privy-purse; in return for which, the German has, with the consent of the Royal Society, christened his new-discovered constellation the Georgium Sidus.

In any case, Herschel’s suggestion of the name Georgium Sidus met with opposition from many other astronomers. In April 1783, A New Review; with Literary Curiosities, and Literary Intelligence (London, England) published Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences, année 1779. Paris, which contains the following:

The History of what has hitherto been done in Europe towards investigating the Elements of the famous planet of the bigness of a star of the seventh magnitude, discovered by Mr. Herschel, 13 March, 1781, with a telescope of 7 feet of his own construction.
Notwithstanding Mr. Herschel’s having named his planet the Georgium Sidus, Mr. Lalande persists in calling it the Herschel, Mr. Bode proposes Uranus, Mr. Sivry Cybele, and Mr. Prosperin, Neptune; but what reason, says Mr. Lalande, ought to weigh more with us than the gratitude due to the author and the interests of science, which require an encouragement of emulation?

The name Uranus, first proposed in 1782 by the German astronomer Johann Elert Bode (1747-1826), in conformity with other planetary names from classical mythology, was ultimately accepted. As late as 1845, the Encyclopædia Metropolitana; or, Universal Dictionary of Knowledge (London, England) had the following:

In 1781, Sir W. Herschel had observed a small star, which after a little attention, he found changed its place; having well ascertained this fact, he communicated a knowledge of the circumstance to M. Laxel, a celebrated astronomer of the academy of St. Petersburgh, who was then in London; the same information was also transmitted to other eminent astronomers, who observed it with great care, and soon afterwards it was announced as a new planet, the most remote in our system, circulating about the sun at the astonishing distance of nearly eighteen hundred million miles, and performing its orbicular revolution in about 80 of our years. This new planet was first named by foreign astronomers after its observer, the Herschel; but Herschel himself, in imitation of Galileo, dedicated it to his late Majesty, under the name of the Georgium Sidus; both these appellations are, however, now nearly become extinct, that of Uranus being almost universally adopted.

The Latin Uranus was the name of the father of Saturn. It is from ancient Greek Οὐρανός (= Ouranos), the name of the husband of Gaia (Earth) and father of Cronos (Saturn) and the Titans, from οὐρανός (= ouranos), the vault or firmament of heaventhe sky, hence also the roof of the mouththe palate.

In English, urano- has been used to form rare terms relating to the heavens or to celestial objects, such as uranolatry, an obsolete noun meaning the worship or veneration of celestial objects; it has also been used to form terms relating to surgical procedures performed on, or medical conditions affecting, the palate, such as uranoplastyplastic surgery of the palate.



Note: From the Latin noun sidus/sider-, heavenly body, star, constellation, the verb siderari meant to be blasted or palsied by a constellation, to be planet-struck, to be sun-struck; the past participial stem of this verb, siderat-, is the origin of the English verb siderate. From siderat-, the Latin noun sideratio/sideration- (origin of English sideration) meant aspect or configuration of stars, and action of causing plants to wither, or of affecting humans and animals with paralysis, attributed to the influence of the stars and planets.

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