John Herschel (1792–1871) was the leading British natural philosopher of the nineteenth century, widely known and regarded for his work in philosophy, optics and chemistry as well as his important research and popular publications on astronomy. To date, however, there exists no extended treatment of his astronomical career. This paper, part of a larger study exploring Herschel's contributions to astronomy, examines his work in the context of positional astronomy, the dominant form of astronomical practice throughout his lifetime.
Herschel, who did not himself practice positional astronomy and who was known for his non-meridional observations of specific stellar objects, was nonetheless a strong advocate for positional astronomy—but for very different reasons than the terrestrial applications to which it was most often put. For Herschel, the star catalogues of positional astronomy were the necessary observational foundation upon which information about the stars as physical objects could be constructed. Positional astronomy practiced in the great national observatories was not about navigation or timekeeping; it was a way to standardize stellar observations and make them useful data for constructing theories of the stars themselves. For Herschel, the seeds of the new astronomy emerged from the practices of the old.