Like the classical planets, Uranus is visible to the naked eye, but it was never recognised as a planet by ancient observers because of its dimness and slow orbit. Sir William Herschel announced its discovery on 13 March 1781, expanding the known boundaries of the Solar System for the first time in history and making Uranus the first planet discovered with a telescope.
Replica of the telescope used by Herschel to discover Uranus
Uranus had been observed on many occasions before its recognition as a planet, but it was generally mistaken for a star. Possibly the earliest known observation was by Hipparchos, who in 128 BC might have recorded it as a star for his star catalogue that was later incorporated into Ptolemy's Almagest. The earliest definite sighting was in 1690, when John Flamsteed observed it at least six times, cataloguing it as 34 Tauri. The French astronomer Pierre Charles Le Monnier observed Uranus at least twelve times between 1750 and 1769, including on four consecutive nights.
Sir William Herschel observed Uranus on 13 March 1781 from the garden of his house at 19 New King Street in Bath, Somerset, England (now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy), and initially reported it (on 26 April 1781) as a comet. Herschel "engaged in a series of observations on the parallax of the fixed stars", using a telescope of his own design.
Herschel recorded in his journal: "In the quartile near ζ Tauri ... either [a] Nebulous star or perhaps a comet." On 17 March he noted: "I looked for the Comet or Nebulous Star and found that it is a Comet, for it has changed its place." When he presented his discovery to the Royal Society, he continued to assert that he had found a comet, but also implicitly compared it to a planet:
The power I had on when I first saw the comet was 227. From experience I know that the diameters of the fixed stars are not proportionally magnified with higher powers, as planets are; therefore I now put the powers at 460 and 932, and found that the diameter of the comet increased in proportion to the power, as it ought to be, on the supposition of its not being a fixed star, while the diameters of the stars to which I compared it were not increased in the same ratio. Moreover, the comet being magnified much beyond what its light would admit of, appeared hazy and ill-defined with these great powers, while the stars preserved that lustre and distinctness which from many thousand observations I knew they would retain. The sequel has shown that my surmises were well-founded, this proving to be the Comet we have lately observed.
Herschel notified the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne of his discovery and received this flummoxed reply from him on 23 April 1781: "I don't know what to call it. It is as likely to be a regular planet moving in an orbit nearly circular to the sun as a Comet moving in a very eccentric ellipsis. I have not yet seen any coma or tail to it."
Although Herschel continued to describe his new object as a comet, other astronomers had already begun to suspect otherwise. Finnish-Swedish astronomer Anders Johan Lexell, working in Russia, was the first to compute the orbit of the new object. Its nearly circular orbit led him to a conclusion that it was a planet rather than a comet. Berlin astronomer Johann Elert Bode described Herschel's discovery as "a moving star that can be deemed a hitherto unknown planet-like object circulating beyond the orbit of Saturn". Bode concluded that its near-circular orbit was more like a planet than a comet.
The object was soon universally accepted as a new planet. By 1783, Herschel acknowledged this to Royal Society president Joseph Banks: "By the observation of the most eminent Astronomers in Europe it appears that the new star, which I had the honour of pointing out to them in March 1781, is a Primary Planet of our Solar System." In recognition of his achievement, King George III gave Herschel an annual stipend of £200 on condition that he move to Windsor so that the Royal Family could look through his telescopes.
The name of Uranus references the ancient Greek deity of the sky Uranus (Ancient Greek: Οὐρανός), the father of Cronus (Saturn) and grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter), which in Latin became "Ūranus" (Latin pronunciation: [ˈuːranʊs]). It is the only planet whose name is derived directly from a figure of Greek mythology. The adjectival form of Uranus is "Uranian". The pronunciation of the name Uranus preferred among astronomers is /, with stress on the first syllable as in Latin Ūranus, in contrast to /, with stress on the second syllable and a long a, though both are considered acceptable.[f]
Consensus on the name was not reached until almost 70 years after the planet's discovery. During the original discussions following discovery, Maskelyne asked Herschel to "do the astronomical world the faver [sic] to give a name to your planet, which is entirely your own, [and] which we are so much obliged to you for the discovery of". In response to Maskelyne's request, Herschel decided to name the object Georgium Sidus (George's Star), or the "Georgian Planet" in honour of his new patron, King George III. He explained this decision in a letter to Joseph Banks:
In the fabulous ages of ancient times the appellations of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were given to the Planets, as being the names of their principal heroes and divinities. In the present more philosophical era it would hardly be allowable to have recourse to the same method and call it Juno, Pallas, Apollo or Minerva, for a name to our new heavenly body. The first consideration of any particular event, or remarkable incident, seems to be its chronology: if in any future age it should be asked, when this last-found Planet was discovered? It would be a very satisfactory answer to say, 'In the reign of King George the Third'.
Herschel's proposed name was not popular outside Britain, and alternatives were soon proposed. Astronomer Jérôme Lalande proposed that it be named Herschel in honour of its discoverer. Swedish astronomer Erik Prosperin proposed the name Neptune, which was supported by other astronomers who liked the idea to commemorate the victories of the British Royal Naval fleet in the course of the American Revolutionary War by calling the new planet even Neptune George III or Neptune Great Britain.
In a March 1782 treatise, Bode proposed Uranus, the Latinised version of the Greek god of the sky, Ouranos. Bode argued that the name should follow the mythology so as not to stand out as different from the other planets, and that Uranus was an appropriate name as the father of the first generation of the Titans. He also noted that elegance of the name in that just as Saturn was the father of Jupiter, the new planet should be named after the father of Saturn. In 1789, Bode's Royal Academy colleague Martin Klaproth named his newly discovered element uranium in support of Bode's choice. Ultimately, Bode's suggestion became the most widely used, and became universal in 1850 when HM Nautical Almanac Office, the final holdout, switched from using Georgium Sidus to Uranus.
Uranus has two astronomical symbols. The first to be proposed, ♅,[g] was suggested by Lalande in 1784. In a letter to Herschel, Lalande described it as "un globe surmonté par la première lettre de votre nom" ("a globe surmounted by the first letter of your surname"). A later proposal, ⛢,[h] is a hybrid of the symbols for Mars and the Sun because Uranus was the Sky in Greek mythology, which was thought to be dominated by the combined powers of the Sun and Mars.
Uranus is called by a variety of translations in other languages. In Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, its name is literally translated as the "sky king star" (天王星). In Thai, its official name is Dao Yurenat (ดาวยูเรนัส), as in English. Its other name in Thai is Dao Maritayu (ดาวมฤตยู, Star of Mṛtyu), after the Sanskrit word for "death", Mrtyu (मृत्यु). In Mongolian, its name is Tengeriin Van (Тэнгэрийн ван), translated as "King of the Sky", reflecting its namesake god's role as the ruler of the heavens. In Hawaiian, its name is Hele‘ekala. In Māori, its name is Whērangi.