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By Alison Boyle on

The Meteor Man

Have you had any luck with the Perseid meteor shower? Some UK skywatchers were foiled by the weather, but many people here and around the world enjoyed stunning views.

1866 was also a good year for the Perseids. Alexander Herschel observed the shower from his family home at Collingwood in Kent. For several years, Herschel had been carrying out a regular programme of meteor observations, using a spectroscope to look for the characteristic signatures of different elements. As well as the Perseids, he observed the Leonids, Orionids and many less well-known showers – once, according to a friend, making use of the good viewing conditions at Ipswich Racecourse.

Alexander Stewart Herschel (Science Museum)

As well as his spectroscopic observations, Herchel helped to identify the radiant points of various meteor showers, and link the appearances of the showers to various comets. His work on the Leonid meteors enabled Giovanni Schiaparelli to pinpoint their source as Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

Alexander was the son of John Herschel, and was born in Feldhausen during his father’s famous observing trip to the Cape of Good Hope. The family returned to England when Alexander was two. 

John Herschel's observing site at Feldhausen, 1834 (Science Museum).

Alexander’s career took in the Royal School of Mines and physics professorships at Glasgow and Newcastle. After retirement, he moved back to his grandfather William‘s old home at Observatory House in Slough. In later years he became reclusive, devoted to his meteor studies and often forgetting meals. He is buried at St Laurence’s Church, Upton, close to his illustrious grandfather. You can find a more detailed account of Alexander in this article by Peter Millman.