13 March 1781

William Herschel discovers Uranus.

March 13, 1781. The seventh planet – Uranus – was discovered on this date, completely by accident. British astronomer William Herschel was performing a survey of all stars of at least magnitude 8 – stars slightly too faint to be seen with the eye alone, in other words. That’s when he noticed a very faint object – only barely above the limit for viewing with the eye – that that moved in front of the fixed stars. This movement clearly demonstrated the object was closer to us than the stars. At first he thought he had found a comet. Later, he and others realized it was a new planet in orbit around our sun, the first new planet discovered since ancient times.

Astronomers later learned they had observed Uranus as far back as 1690. They’d just never really noticed it before. It was Herschel who first realized the true nature of this distant light in our sky.

Herschel proposed to name the object Georgium Sidus, after King George III, but those outside of Britain weren’t pleased with the idea. Instead, on the suggestion of astronomer Johann Elert Bode, astronomers decided to follow the convention of naming planets for the ancient gods.

Uranus – an ancient sky god, and one of the earliest gods in Greek mythology – was sometimes called Father Sky and was considered to be the son and husband of Gaia, or Mother Earth.

King George III was pleased, whatever the name. As a result of Herschel’s discovery, the king knighted him and appointed him to the position of court astronomer. The pension attached let Herschel quit his day job as a musician and focus his full attention on observing the heavens. He went on to discover several moons around other gas giant planets. He also compiled a catalog of 2,500 celestial objects that’s still in use today.