Eclecticism, Opportunism, and the Evolution
of a New Research Agenda:

William and Margaret Huggins and the
Origins of Astrophysics


Barbara J. Becker

A Dissertation submitted to The Johns Hopkins University
in conformity with the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Baltimore, Maryland

Copyright ©1993 by Barbara J. Becker
All rights reserved




Achieving "A mark of approval and confidence"

In November 1866, Huggins had been awarded the Royal Society's Royal Medal for his work on the spectra of both terrestrial chemicals and celestial bodies. While much of this work had been done with William Allen Miller, the fact that Miller held an office in the Society prevented him, by virtue of the Society's own "self-denying ordinance," from being named co-recipient according to Society regulations governing the award.121

In February 1867, following a vote by the Council of the RAS to waive the usual prohibition against awarding a shared medal, Huggins and Miller were jointly named to receive the Society's Gold Medal for their researches into nebular spectra.122  The ramifications of these investigations were recognized by the RAS as having laid the foundation for the eventual resolution of the decades-old problem of the nature of nebulae.  In his presidential address on the occasion of the Medal's award, Pritchard nested his tribute to Huggins' and Miller's nebular spectra work in the midst of his congratulatory remarks concerning Huggins' innovative use of the air spectrum as a standard against which to compare celestial spectra and his observations with Miller on T Coronae.  These, Pritchard argued, marked yet "another instance of that good fortune and success which so commonly attends, not so much the bold, as the well prepared."123

Pritchard concluded his lengthy address by noting the "vast amount of scientific resource" required for the successful prosecution of astronomical physics:

The most delicate appliances of optical science, the most refined in chemistry, the most profound arrangements of the electric force, have been called into requisition....  For to-day ... we may perhaps be pardoned the vanity, or it may be even permitted to indulge the loyalty, of regarding the science which we cultivate here, as a Queen, to whom and for whose use her sisters present the tribute of the fruits which they have gathered in the varied fields of human knowledge. Of herself and of her sister sciences no less may be affirmed than this:  the lowliest of them finds a generous home in the ample threshold of her palace, while even the noblest is honoured by sharing a seat upon her throne.124

In early April 1868, at about the same time Huggins was completing the draft of his paper on the determination of motion in the line of sight for submission to the Royal Society, Howard Grubb, who was just then assuming the responsibilities of his father's telescope making business, and Albert LeSueur, who would be assisting in the operation of the Melbourne observatory, paid a visit to Huggins' Tulse Hill observatory.125  This visit may have crystallized in Huggins' mind a growing dissatisfaction with his current observational apparatus.  It certainly would have heightened Huggins' awareness of the fact that once the Melbourne telescope became fully operational, it would soon surpass his own spectroscopic capabilities.

Two weeks after meeting with Grubb and LeSueur, Huggins sought the advice of Thomas Romney Robinson.  He wrote Robinson that he was considering the purchase of a new telescope "for the purpose of carrying on more successfully my spectrum observations."  Huggins confided that he had already been in contact with Thomas Cooke, the developer of the first telescope factory in England and that country's premier contemporary telescope maker.  Cooke was, in Huggins' words, "anxious" to make him a new and bigger telescope.126  Nevertheless, there were many factors to consider in selecting a new telescope and Huggins was unsure how to proceed.

As Huggins explained to Robinson, he had special physical requirements for his future telescope.  He wished to be able to collect more light in order to improve his ability to observe faint objects.  He therefore longed for a large aperture telescope, perhaps one measuring 12 inches in diameter.  Unfortunately, such a large refractor would not fit in his existing observatory building if it was built to the same aperture-to-focal length ratio of 1:15 as his 8-inch Alvan Clark.  Huggins feared he was limited to a telescope with a maximum focal length of 10 feet.  If he wanted a larger aperture under these restrictions, he would have to accept the risks inherent in a highly curved lens, which, unless ground to perfection, could cause troublesome distortion in the images it produced.

We do not have Robinson's reply to this letter, but from Huggins' next letter, dated 6 May, we can infer that Robinson tried to persuade Huggins to consider a reflector over a refractor.  Huggins resisted this move because, as he explained to Robinson, he was aware that while increases in aperture improve a telescope's light gathering potential, speculum metal reflectors suffered a greater loss of light in transmitting the image to the observer than refractors of comparable size. In addition, the greater light-gathering potential of a larger telescope is countered by a proportional loss of image clarity due to atmospheric disturbance.  Weighing these two factors did not argue, in Huggins' mind, in favor of a reflecting telescope.

An advertisement for the sale of his 8-inch Alvan Clark instrument appeared in the May number of the Monthly Notices.127  Clearly his mind was set on upgrading his telescopic apparatus even though he had not decided what new instrument would best suit his needs.  Huggins told Robinson that he had obtained an estimate from Howard Grubb of £800.  He did not say what this estimate was for, but Huggins made it clear to Robinson that it was out of his price range, even taking into consideration the £560 he hoped to get from the sale of his Alvan Clark.128

Instead, Huggins said, he had obtained an agreement from Cooke to make what he called a "dumpy":  a refractor with an 11-inch aperture and only 10-foot focal length.  Huggins did not reveal to Robinson the price Cooke had asked for this instrument, although he did indicate that Cooke would make the telescope for him "as a great favour."  It is unclear what Huggins meant by this.  It could mean that Cooke did not usually make telescopes of this proportion, but would do so specially for Huggins.  It could mean that Cooke was giving Huggins a special price on the instrument, an interpretation which is bolstered by the fact that Cooke was, according to Huggins, charging £750 for an 8-inch refractor at that time. Robinson and Grubb were very close.  Perhaps Huggins hoped that Robinson would convey this information to Grubb and encourage him to lower his asking price.129

All this became moot, however, following the sudden and unexpected death of Thomas Cooke in the fall of 1868.130  This news came to Huggins just a few weeks after the death of his own mother, a loss which understandably hit him very hard.131  As he wrote to Robinson, "We had been all in all to each other for years."132  The death of his mother left Huggins temporarily paralyzed with grief and overwhelmed by indecision.  He took a brief trip with a friend to Brighton in October, which helped him recover somewhat from his loss, but the "prolonged anxiety" caused by the disarray into which his fledgling plans for a new telescope had fallen soon took its toll.133

On 6 November 1868, Huggins informed Robinson of the status of his plans to acquire a new telescope.134  It is in this letter that we first hear of the possibility that the Royal Society might purchase an instrument to his specifications especially for his use.  As the correspondence on this subject unfolds, it becomes clear that Robinson had initiated this move and was likely taking the necessary behind-the-scenes steps to set the stage for Huggins to be awarded the loan of a telescope made to his specifications using money from a recent bequest.  However, even this good news became a source of intense concern for Huggins.  He told Robinson:

I am suffering from my nervous system having been shaken so that I am rather nervous about having a large instrument.  I fear I shall not be able to do all that the Society might reasonably expect.135

Huggins' anxieties aside, one week earlier, on 31 October, Robinson had sent to George Stokes a detailed proposal suggesting that the Royal Society commission a telescope to be built by an experienced instrument maker specifically to advance the cause of nebular and stellar spectroscopic research.  He recommended William Huggins to the Council as the one individual who could most effectively carry out such a research program:

Mr. Huggins has done wonders with the means at his disposal; but any one who is familiar with this kind of work must know that his eight-inch object-glass cannot go much beyond what it has already revealed to him, and must regret that one so highly gifted for these investigations should not be enabled to pursue them to the greatest possible extent....  I think [the new telescope] should be intrusted to Mr. Huggins, who, in addition to his devotion to a pursuit where he has already obtained such grand results, would be doubly stimulated to exertion by such a mark of approval and confidence from the Heads of British Science.136

On 17 December 1868, a Committee was appointed by the Royal Society to consider Robinson's proposal.  Robinson provided a detailed list of the apparatus that would be needed to undertake successfully the kind of research he envisioned. He estimated the cost to the Society at around £2000, a considerable sum, but a worthy investment.  Besides, he reminded his Fellows, concern over cost was, in his words:

not the way in which persons who represent the Intellect and Knowledge of a Nation like ours, look at such matters.  The power of the Royal Society over men's minds does not rest on the amount of its annual income or its balance in the bank.  Its real wealth is whatever its animating influence or its helping hand has added to the treasures of science; its real power consists in the conviction of our countrymen that it is a mighty instrument of the highest and brightest progress, that its motives are as generous as its acts are beneficent and noble.137

£2000 was indeed an extraordinary amount of money for the Royal Society to invest in a single research project.  The Society annually dispensed small grants to individuals from a £1000 apportionment from Parliament called the Government Grant.  But a survey of the list of recipients from 1855-1870 shows that while they ranged from as much as £300 for experiments on steamboiler explosions to as little as £7 7s 9d to help defray the expense of determining the depression of the Dead Sea, the grants were distributed widely and averaged well under £100 each, and in a number of years, the full £1000 went undistributed.  To apportion £2000 would require special measures.  Fortunately, just at the time Robinson was submitting his proposal, the Society was negotiating the receipt of a large bequest from the estate of one Benjamin Oliveira, F. R. S.

Benjamin Oliveira had been elected to Fellowship in the Royal Society in June 1835.  He never contributed any papers to the Society's journals, but he did present a gift of £50 for the general promotion of science in 1854.138  Upon his death in 1865, which was unmarked by a Society obituary notice, Oliveira left the munificent sum of £4000 to the Royal Society.  The Society's Record notes that this was reduced to £1506 17s 1d following a chancery suit.139  Further claims on the money left £1350 at the Society's disposal.140

By January 1869, Huggins was still unsure which instrument maker to employ -- Howard Grubb or Thomas Cooke's sons -- but at least he had become convinced of the need to enlarge his observatory to accommodate a larger telescope. This decision presented him with additional worries which he confided to Robinson:

I feel deeply the great interest you take in the matter of the large telescope.  It appeared to me that a dome of 18 feet diam., was the largest that I could hope to move without assistance.  It would cripple me much to need an assistant.  I should lose so many opportunities of making observations....

Mr. Cooke had agreed to construct a very light dome for me, with arrangements so that I could work it alone without great fatigue.  I am not strong, & it would not do for me to be fatigued before observing.

I fear another foot added to the dome would almost put it beyond my powers.

Could Grubb suggest some very easy way of working the dome? Would his form of equatorial be such that 16 feet could be used in a dome of 18 or 19 feet?...

P.S.  There is also Alvan Clark.141

Five days later, Huggins, sounding more anxious than ever, wrote again to Robinson:

I am not quite decided (if the telescope should be granted by the R.S.) whether to remain here or to move to a greater distance from town.

I have purchased the lease of my present house, so I would have secure possession.  (for 50 years & more!!)

It is conveniently near for the scientific societies in London.  As I am south of London, I have not to observe over London, & the country round being well-drained I think the air is probably as still as it would be anywhere.  Besides this, I find I can, without difficulty, enlarge my present observatory to the required size, with, of course, an entirely new dome.  You saw how very convenient it is, as I go from the house into it through a passage.  I have an uninterrupted view except for a small space due south which is of little importance. Another inducement is the proximity of my friend Dr. Miller.142

After a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of various types of telescope tube designs and aperture-to-focal length ratios, Huggins concluded the letter:

I ought not to trouble you with these details....  I am very anxious however to have the telescope as perfect as possible, as I should hope to make other observations, as well [as] those with the spectroscope.143

Following his signature, he added, in clear reference to Robinson's role as instigator:  "We are discussing the size & plumage of the chicken, but it is not hatched yet!  The Council is still sitting on the egg you laid."

Huggins sold his telescope, some micrometers and his observing chair to an architect and amateur astronomer named Charles Joseph Corbett in August 1869.144 Huggins hoped that the new telescope would soon be completed.  He wrote to Herschel and Airy with the humorous request that, as he was "now without a large telescope ... will you have the kindness to keep all large comets away until I am equiped [sic] with the necessary apparatus to attack them."145

By early November, Huggins was able to inform Robinson:  "I believe now the 'chicken' is alive, & just ready to come out of its shell.  I should think there is little doubt but that 'Grubb' will get the order."146  Huggins' prediction was correct. On 30 November, at the Royal Society's Anniversary Meeting, Society President, Edward Sabine, announced in his address:

Celestial spectroscopy has indeed attained such importance, that it requires for its successful prosecution the undivided attention of the astronomer who devotes himself to it, as well as an observatory specially designed for it.  Our great national observatories cannot supply this want, for they have their own specific destination; and the high optical power which is required, if we wish to make further progress, is scarcely within the reach of amateurs.

These considerations have induced your Council to believe that an attempt to encourage and aid this most interesting class of researches is an object in full unison with the highest purpose of the Royal Society's existence; and they have therefore, after most careful deliberation, resolved to act on this conviction by providing a telescope of the highest power that is conveniently available for spectroscopy and its kindred inquiries.  The instrument will, of course, be the property of the Society, and will be intrusted to such persons as, in their opinion, are the most likely to use it to the best advantage for the extension of this branch of science; and, in the first instance, there can be but one opinion that the person so selected should be Mr. Huggins.

The execution of this project was much facilitated by the receipt of £1350 from a bequest made to the Society by the late Mr. Oliveira; and in the beginning of the year proposals were received from the chief opticians of the time, of which that of Mr. Grubb was accepted last April.147

The heady optimism which Huggins had felt in the summer of 1869 concerning the completion of the new telescope soon faded as the alterations to his observatory which he had ordered were slowed by bad weather.148  Consequently, the building was not finished until February 1870.149  In addition, the scope of Grubb's task seems to have expanded as the construction of the instrument commissioned by the Royal Society progressed.  In Huggins' report on the work in his observatory which appeared in the February 1870 number of the Monthly Notices, he referred only to the anticipated completion of the 15-inch refractor.  One year later, however, he announced, without explanation, the receipt of a far more complex instrument constructed by Grubb consisting of both the aforementioned 15-inch refractor and a separate 18-inch reflector which could be mounted interchangeably.  In addition, "spectroscopes specially adapted for the instrument and suitable for the observation of the stars, nebulae, and Sun" were mentioned as having been constructed.150  What Huggins called the Great Grubb Equatorial arrived in November 1870, nearly one year later than originally planned.  He made some preliminary observations to determine any positional error in its axes.  He turned it on the Ring Nebula in Lyra (M57), Neptune, Jupiter and g Andromedae, but was hindered in his observations by atmospheric turbulence.151  On Monday, 14 November, Edward Sabine and Warren De La Rue visited the observatory.  Huggins gave them a celestial tour with his new instrument on what he declared to be a "fine night."152  Huggins himself returned alone for another look through the telescope on 15 November.  Further observations would have to await his return from an expedition to observe the upcoming solar eclipse in Oran.153  Following some additional adjustments by Howard Grubb between 9 and 20 February 1871, the telescope was finally ready for use although the spectroscopes were not yet complete.154

The arrival of the new instruments marked the beginning of a new phase in Huggins' observing career.  Previously, his observational agenda had been independent of institutional expectations or constraints.  His desire to have the opportunity to work with first-class instruments costing more than his personal means would allow had led him to accept a degree of obligation to the donor institution, the Royal Society.  Upon accepting the loan of the instruments, Huggins became directly answerable to criticisms of his choice of observational problems, his methods, even his diligence in the application of these coveted instruments.  As we shall see in chapter 5, serious questions were soon raised over the efficacy and even the propriety of placing such costly instruments in the hands of a single individual not beholden to an existing institution.155

But the Council of the Royal Society had awarded Huggins this privilege based on their assessment of his skill as an observer and instrumental technician. Many agreed with Sabine that "there can be but one opinion that the person so selected should be Mr. Huggins."156  He had forged valuable local alliances with influential members of the astronomical community like De La Rue, Robinson, Airy and Herschel among others.  In addition, Huggins wrote his papers in such a way that the research difficulties encountered became an active element in the explication of the problem at hand.  Rather than minimize them, he used a vivid narrative style eloquently to convey to the reader the extreme limitations of instrument and human eye which he had overcome, thus bolstering his image as a patient, deliberate and cautious investigator.  In many minds, William Huggins became identified as the British authority on astronomical spectroscopy.

Contrary to what might be expected given the acclaim he received following his spectroscopic analysis of nebulae, William Huggins pursued an independent and often eclectic observing program from the time he was elected into Fellowship in the Royal Society in June 1865 until he was officially awarded responsibility for the Grubb telescope paid for by the Royal Society in November 1869.  At times, as we have seen in the case of the nova in Corona Borealis or the lunar crater, Linné, the objects of his study were opportunistic responses to reports of others' findings.  In other instances, as in the case of his thermometric studies, he was completely original, albeit unsuccessful, in developing a new method of acquiring useful information about the physical nature of celestial bodies.  In such efforts, as with his now-classic work on the motion in the line of sight, Huggins betrayed his skill, energy, ambition and enterprise as he sought yet another way to make a notable contribution to astronomy and at the same time win the recognition and prestige generally accorded such contributions.

Huggins' growing need for an assistant combined with his frugal approach to outfitting his observatory with the necessary tools and expertise to prosecute a successful observing program, may have encouraged him to commit himself to an even greater change in his personal life than ever before.  As we shall see in the next chapter, in 1875 he abandoned over a half-century of bachelorhood to marry a woman with sufficient astronomical interest and background to help him keep up with the demands of an increasingly complex and instrument-bound research agenda.

[click on footnote number to return to text]

121. Edward Sabine, "President's Address," Proceedings of the Royal Society 15 (1866):  270-85; 280-2.  While Miller was excluded from receiving the medal, Sabine referred to his contributions several times during his conferral speech.  In fact, as he actually bestowed the medal upon Huggins, he declared, "It gives me the greatest pleasure to present you with this Medal:  a testimonial of the very high estimation in which your successful labours (conjointly with Dr. Miller) are held by the Society, which has the satisfaction of regarding you as one of its most distinguished Members."

122. Charles Pritchard, "President's Address on Presenting the Gold Medal to Mr. Huggins and Prof. Miller," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 27 (1867):  146-65; 164.  Pritchard closed this address by saying, "It was on ... the grounds of justice and of sympathy of Science at large, that your Council felt themselves justified in submitting to the Society a proposition for relaxing, on the present occasion, some of those restrictions with which the award of the Medal has hitherto been very wisely surrounded.

"The very large majority of the Society who have testified their assent to the course proposed is gratifying to the executive body, while at the same time due honour has been paid to the Laws, by the observance of the formalities required to procure their temporary suspension in a particular case in which was not in the contemplation of those who originally enacted them."

123. Ibid., 160.

124. Ibid., 164-5.

125. "Visitors to the Observatory, 1868," Notebook 2.

126. Henry C. King, The History of the Telescope (Charles Griffin & Co.: London, 1955):  251-2.  William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 20 April 1868, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR69, University of Cambridge Library.

127. "Instruments for Sale," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 28 (1868):  224.

128. William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 6 May 1868, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR70, University of Cambridge Library.

129. In a letter written 6 November 1868, Huggins again referred to his special arrangement with Cooke:  "I had been before on treaty for a smaller instrument (abt. 11 inches) which they [Cooke & Sons] agreed to make under the usual price for me...."  William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 6 November 1868, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR72, University of Cambridge Library.

130. William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 26 October 1868, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR71, University of Cambridge Library.

131. William Huggins, 30 September 1868, 7h 30, Notebook 2.  "My intensely beloved mother died.  From the above date to Nov 5 I was quite unable to observe."

132. William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 26 October 1868, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR71, University of Cambridge Library.

133. William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 12 November 1868, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR73, University of Cambridge Library.  As if these tragedies were not enough, Huggins' life was further complicated by Lockyer's and Janssen's near-simultaneous discoveries of a practical and effective method of viewing the solar prominences out of eclipse, a project, it will be recalled, Huggins himself had been working on for some time but without success.  This will be discussed in more detail in chapter 6.

134. William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 6 November 1868, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR72, University of Cambridge Library.

135. Huggins to Robinson, 6 November 1868, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR72, University of Cambridge Library.

136. "Minutes of Council," 21 January 1869, Royal Society Library.  I should like to thank Mr. Alan J. Clark of the Royal Society Library for locating this item and making it available to me.

137. Ibid.

138. For the notice of Oliveira's election, see Proceedings of the Royal Society 3 (1835):  338.  For notice of his 1854 gift to the Society, see Royal Society, The Record of the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, 4th ed. (Morrison & Gibb Ltd.:  Edinburgh, 1940);  142.

139. Royal Society, Record of the Royal Society of London, 4th ed., 142.

140. Initially, there was hope the Oliveira Bequest would bring the Society as much as £1800, but claims on the money by other scientific societies reduced this to £1350.  See, Minutes of the Meeting of the Council of the Royal Society, 21 January 1869.  The letters between Huggins and Robinson show that the decision to expend this money on the proposed telescope took several months.

141. William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 18 January 1869, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR74, University of Cambridge Library.

142. William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 23 January 1869, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR75, University of Cambridge Library.

143. William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 23 January 1869, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR75, University of Cambridge Library.

144. "Numerous observations on the sun with the spectroscope, and also with coloured solutions made up to August 1869 on which day the telescope, some micrometers & observing chair were removed by Mr. Corbett, to whom they had been sold..."  William Huggins, undated entry, sometime between February and November 1870, Notebook 2.  According to Corbett's obituary, he became interested in astronomy about the time he purchased Huggins' instruments.  See "Charles Joseph Corbett," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 44 (1884):  131.

145. William Huggins to George Airy, 6 November 1869, RGO 6.271/7/2/304-8. See also William Huggins to John Herschel, 22 September 1869, Herschel papers, HS.10.55, Royal Society Library.

146. William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 10 November 1869, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR82, University of Cambridge Library.

147. Edward Sabine, "President's Address," Proceedings of the Royal Society 18 (1869):  102-12; 105-6.

148. William Huggins to Thomas Romney Robinson, 13 December 1869, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.TR83, University of Cambridge Library.

149. Ibid.

150. William Huggins, "Mr. Huggins' Observatory," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 30 (1870):  100, and 31 (1871):  110-1.

151. William Huggins, 12 November 1870, Notebook 2.  In the notebook entries which have survived from this period, Huggins does not mention whether he was using the refractor or the reflector, although he preferred refractors for visual observation.

152. William Huggins, 14 November 1870, Notebook 2.

153. The eclipse took place on 22 December 1870.  Huggins and his observing party left England on 5 December and returned on 5 January 1871.  Details of this eclipse expedition will be presented in chapter 6.

154. William Huggins, Undated entry following that for 15 November 1870, Notebook 2.

155. In chapter 5 we shall examine some of the questions raised by individuals like Alexander Strange and Balfour Stewart in their testimony before the Devonshire Commission in 1872.

156. Sabine "President's Address," 105.


William Huggins' Early Astronomical Career

  • Chapter 2—

Unlocking the "Unknown Mystery of the True Nature of the Heavenly Bodies"

The Astronomical Agenda:  1830-1870

"A sudden impulse..."

Reception of Spectrum Analysis Applied to the Stars

  • Chapter 3—

Moving in the Inner Circle

Cultivating Advantageous Alliances; Opportunism and Eclecticism

Opportunism and Eclecticism (continued)

    • Part 3—

Achieving "A mark of approval and confidence"

  • Chapter 4—

Margaret Huggins: The myth of the "Able Assistant"

The Solitary Observer

Celestial Photography

Diversity and Controversy: Defining the Boundaries of Acceptable Research

  • Chapter 6—

Solar Observations at Tulse Hill

The Red Flames

The Eclipse Expedition to Oran

Photographing the Corona Without an Eclipse

The Bakerian Lecture