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MichaelMeckler.com: This Week in History: 13 March

13 March 1781

On this date, the astronomer William Herschel, using a telescope, first observed what would later be identified as the planet Uranus.

The ancients were able to see five planets of the solar system with the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Astronomers were not looking for other planets, and Herschel initially thought he had discovered a new comet. Computations of the orbit by other astronomers suggested the object was traveling in planetary orbit around the sun and so must be another planet.

Herschel, who was also a musician serving as organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath, England, and director of the town's musical concerts, made his astronomical observations from his home in the city, now the site of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. To gain the favor of King George III, he initially proposed naming the new planet after the king, but astronomers elsewhere insisted that the pattern of using the names of Roman deities continue, and Uranus, proposed by Johann Elert Bode, gained acceptance instead.

The king did, however, appreciate the attempt, and Herschel gained royal patronage for his further astronomical investigations, eventually settling in the town of Slough in 1786, where he built an observatory.

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