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




Not long after Huggins assumed responsibility for the care and use of the Royal Society's Grubb instruments, he fell victim to public criticism from colleagues who questioned the wisdom of placing such unencumbered resources in the hands of an independent individual.  This criticism, coupled with his own strong desire to be recognized by his fellows as a worthy custodian of the Royal Society's telescope caused Huggins much personal anxiety.  Before turning to this important issue in the next chapter, I shall focus on another problem Huggins encountered during the decade following his election to Fellowship in the Royal Society, namely, his increased involvement in observations which required assistance.  We have seen in chapters 2 and 3 that Huggins relied on his neighbor, the chemist William Allen Miller, to confirm important telescopic observations and assist in spectroscopic comparisons until Miller's untimely death in 1870.  Occasionally other friends who lived nearby provided temporary assistance.1  But Huggins could not long continue as a solitary observer if he wished to maintain his position on the cutting edge of research in astronomical physics.

Huggins faced a growing field of able competitors in London and abroad, who vied with him for the same prize discoveries:  to decipher the spectral code of the nebulae, to reduce the varieties of stellar spectra to a seemly and sensible order, to bring the full potential of the spectroscope's analytic power to bear on the solar surface and its immediate environs, and/or to be the first to observe some new as yet unimagined celestial phenomenon.  We saw in the last chapter, for example, that Huggins had already experienced a loss of priority to Lockyer's and Janssen's independent claims to have found a spectroscopic method for viewing solar prominences out of eclipse.  He would have to work hard to ensure that he did not lose such an opportunity again.

Another difficulty gradually arose as astronomical photography became an accepted part of the serious amateur's toolkit.  As we saw in chapter 3, Huggins resumed his spectral research in earnest following his acquisition of the new 15-inch Grubb refractor on loan from the Royal Society in February 1871.  He extended his work on stellar motion in the line of sight, and observed the spectra of planets, comets and the sun.  But all of these observations, like those he had made earlier, were strictly visual.  To remain a leader in astronomical spectroscopy, Huggins would need to overcome his apparent disinclination to incorporate photography in his research agenda and adapt his methods and instruments to the idiosyncracies and special needs of photographic celestial spectroscopy.

It is in the context of these critical career challenges that I shall introduce Margaret Lindsay Murray, a woman nearly a quarter century younger than William Huggins, and in whom he found both a lifelong and devoted companion as well as an interested and capable collaborator.  In this chapter, I present a novel interpretation of the collaborative work of William and Margaret Huggins.  I argue that Margaret Huggins was more than an able assistant, amanuensis and illustrator, whose work conformed to her husband's research interests:  her very presence and expertise not only strengthened but also shaped the research agenda of the Tulse Hill observatory.  This new view has emerged as a result of an examination both of their notebooks and their extensive correspondence.  These documents provide a vivid description of on-going daily activity in the Hugginses' laboratory and observatory, and make possible, for the first time, a more definitive assessment of Margaret Huggins' role in the work at Tulse Hill.  An analysis of these documents has revealed the complexity of Margaret Huggins and the influence of her observational, interpretive, and supportive contributions.

The Solitary Observer

After the sale of his 8-inch Alvan Clark refractor to Charles Corbett in 1869, Huggins was without a large telescope for almost one-and-a-half years.2  Huggins had a small portable telescope with a 2-inch aperture, but there is no evidence that he used it to make any observations during this hiatus.  Meanwhile, Huggins kept in touch with Howard Grubb about the instruments he was building for Huggins' Observatory:  a 15-inch achromatic refracting telescope, an 18-inch Cassegrain reflecting telescope of speculum metal constructed to be mounted interchangeably with the refractor, and "specially adapted" spectroscopes of prodigious dispersive power.  Huggins had other short-term projects to occupy his time while he waited for the instruments to arrive including helping Jane and Caroline Lassell, daughters of the amateur astronomer, William Lassell, to edit a translation of Heinrich Schellen's book on spectrum analysis,3 and heading a solar eclipse expedition to Algeria in December 1870.4  But these distractions did not prevent him from worrying a great deal about the personal responsibility he had assumed in accepting custody of the Royal Society's instruments.

Huggins may well have worried about increased competition, too, as the circle of astronomical observers trying their hand at celestial spectroscopy widened to include novices seeking guidance, but lacking the necessary personal connections to obtain it informally.  In March 1870, for example, "W. P." wrote to the editor of the Astronomical Register to request an article be written on "Spectroscope Construction" to "enable an amateur like myself, by the purchase of suitable prisms, and the exercise of a little ingenuity, to construct a simple spectroscope suitable for a telescope of, say, from two to three inches aperture."5  About the same time, William Ladd began selling colored representations of the solar spectrum showing as many as 500 absorption lines visible with the aid of a magnifying glass for just 7s 6d.6

Huggins knew from his own experience that it was possible for novices like W. P. to make noteworthy contributions to this fledgling scientific enterprise. Maintaining his advantage would become less problematic once the Grubb telescope was in place.  With his 8-inch telescope, Huggins had found that the feeble light of a nebula faded to invisibility when dispersed by the power of a highly refractive prism.  He anticipated that the 15-inch, with nearly four times the light-gathering power of his old telescope, would free him to use prisms of greater dispersive power for observing such faint objects (see Figure 25).7  Amateurs with 2- or 3-inch aperture telescopes -- even those with 8-inch instruments -- would be no match for Huggins with his new larger telescopes by Howard Grubb.

Figure 25.  Schematic drawing of Howard Grubb's automatic spectroscope design for William Huggins, featuring 4 compound prisms and 2 semi-compound prisms with a total disperson of about 90° [from Mon. Not. Roy. Astr. Soc. 31 (1870):  37].

But Huggins' enthusiasm for receiving these fine instruments was tempered by the recognition that assuming possession of them meant increased responsibility and challenge to stay in the forefront of research in the new astronomy.  He could have used an assistant.  No doubt he hoped to continue to rely on the skilled and convenient assistance which his neighbor, William Allen Miller had provided in the past whenever something new was being observed, instrumentation required an extra hand, or an observation needed confirmation.8  Unfortunately, on 30 September 1870, Miller died unexpectedly at the age of 52 after collapsing while on his way to the BAAS meeting in Liverpool.9  Thus Huggins lost the trusted hands and eyes of his principal collaborator just months before Grubb installed the new instruments.10  Because the public record provides no clues to the degree of Huggins' continued reliance on Miller's assistance after 1864, no explanation has been sought heretofore, or even thought necessary to account for the fact that when Huggins resumed his astronomical researches in February 1871, he did so virtually alone with only occasional visits from others.

Huggins may simply have preferred his ad hoc system of intermittent invitational assistance over engaging someone to help him on a regular basis.  But it is more likely that it was the best he could do given his personal circumstances. Recall for a moment Huggins' concern, confided in a letter to Robinson cited in chapter 3, that hiring an assistant would "cripple" him and limit his observational opportunities.  Such concern reflected both his financial constraints and his wish to maintain his independence.11  Around 1870, Robinson, Director of the Armagh Observatory, was paying his assistant an annual salary of £100.12  This was comparable to the salary paid the lowest echelon assistants at Greenwich.13

There is no direct information on Huggins' source of income following the sale of the family silk business, although there are occasional references in his correspondence to a reliance on rents.  He did not consider himself rich.  While Huggins' income cannot be known with precision, we may estimate that he took in approximately £500 per annum given the home he lived in and the fact that he employed two live-in servants.14  A paid assistant may have been a sizeable expense, and one he felt he could not afford.  In time, however, Huggins would have to balance his reluctance to engage an assistant against the growing pressures inherent in assuming custody of the Royal Society's telescopes.

One pressure Huggins soon felt was a sense of accountability to the Royal Society.  Where Huggins' notebook entries had become somewhat more detailed following his election to Fellowship in the Royal Society in 1865, in 1871 they became a little more frequent.15  In fact, the impression given by the notebook entries after his acquisition of the Grubb telescope is one of nearly continuous and complete record keeping.  Huggins now began to include excuses for gaps in the observatory record.  Thus we find that in early March 1871, a wind storm severely damaged the roof of his observatory and the repairs necessary made it impossible to observe until 20 March.16  Then, on 25 March he was obligated to send the "eye-end" of his new telescope back to Grubb in Dublin for adjustment, thus preventing observations until 12 April.17  In addition to these mishaps and delays, weather frequently interfered with observation, as did lengthy trips abroad. 18

Huggins, still in his prime, found this new work pace exhausting.  His notebook entries after 1871 contain frequent references to fatigue.  On 22 April 1871, for example, he spent the early, lighter hours of the evening measuring some eyepieces and then turned to spectroscopic observations of Uranus and Jupiter.  He concluded, "The sky became a little overcast & with three hours work I found my eye becoming fatigued."19  On 1 May, after spectroscopic observations of Venus, Jupiter and Mars, he turned to examine the spectral lines of Uranus.  He wrote, "very difficult to see with sufficient distinction the lines in the red....  [One particular] line was very difficult to manage.  After great trouble I repeated attempts, I am not certain -- It appeared very near indeed to air-line -- If anything probably less refrangible.  By this time, my eyes weary, & I felt it prudent to give over."20  Comments like these appear with some regularity throughout his 1871-1874 notebook entries, occurring most often after 4- or 5-hour stints in the observatory, or when the observations proved repetitive and strenuous.21

Two unfortunate incidents during the next few years may have heightened Huggins' sense of need for a regular and knowledgeable assistant in the observatory. In early 1873, while in the midst of examining the spark spectrum of a gas-filled tube loaned him by the young German-born physicist, Arthur Schuster, Huggins left the room briefly to consult a book in his library.  Upon his return to the laboratory, Huggins "found that the black cloth covering the spectroscope was on fire from a small lamp on the table."22  Less than a year later, Huggins sprained his ankle during a fall on the ice outside Burlington House.  This injury prevented him from observing for a period of time.23

For Huggins, the trust which custody of the Royal Society's telescope represented carried with it a sometimes overwhelming obligation to use it.  When problems arose and Huggins found he was unable to meet this obligation to the Society, he questioned his worthiness to keep the telescope.  In December 1874, exhaustion, exacerbated by technical problems with the new telescope's clock drive, prompted him to contemplate giving up the Grubb telescope:

I feel I ought not to retain the telescope unless I can work with it. In consequence of overwork my eyes really needed rest & during the last year, with the exception of the comet, I have not been working. My eyes are certainly stronger, & I may shortly find myself able to commence work again.24

The Royal Society's prompt response offering to pay the cost of any repairs necessary to correct the problem in the clock drive demonstrated that he was still viewed as the one individual in whom the Society wished to entrust the care of their new investment.25

An Able Assistant

Accounts of the work of William Huggins always mention that he was assisted in his research by his wife.26  In Mills and Brooke's Sketch of the Life of Sir William Huggins, for example, we are told that "William Huggins did not allow his marriage to interfere with his work," rather that he "derived great benefit from his wife's able assistance."27  They cite Margaret's own enumeration of her contributions to the work of the Tulse Hill observatory which, in addition to observation, included such things as arranging instruments, working batteries, mixing chemicals, dusting and washing up the laboratory, doing "small things," and being "generally handy."28  From the description given, the reader is led to understand that while these tasks provided essential support to the work at hand, they were nonetheless subordinate to the research agenda designed and directed by William Huggins.

This has often been the way the contributions of astronomers wives have been portrayed in the published accounts.  For example, two of Margaret's contemporaries, Angeline Stickney Hall, the wife of American astronomer Asaph Hall and Isobel Gill, wife of David Gill, the Director of the Capetown Observatory, assisted their husbands, both professional astronomers, in their work.29

Angeline Hall (1830-1892) was so determined to go to college that she contemplated dressing as a man to work in a factory in order to earn the necessary money.  She received her diploma from New York Central College.  It was while teaching a course in geometry at the College that she met her future husband, Asaph Hall, a young man who had come late to serious academic study.  Angeline had studied mathematical astronomy as part of her liberal college program, but she never professed an interest in practical astronomy.  Nevertheless, when her husband was just beginning his career in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Angeline served as his alarm clock to insure his arrival at the observatory, taught him German so he could keep up with professional journals, and encouraged him to continue to work at astronomy when others urged him to take up something more profitable.30  Her son later reported:

She undertook to help her husband in his computations, but, failing to persuade him that her time was worth as much as his, she quit work. He could, indeed, compute much faster than she, but she feelingly demanded a man's wages.31

The Halls' household was structured around a strict division of labor.

The secret of social progress lies in the division of labor.  And the secret of success and great achievement in the Hall household lay in the division of labor.  At an early date Mr. Hall confined his attention to astronomy, and Mrs. Hall confined hers to domestic cares.  The world gained a worthy astronomer.  Did it lose a reformer-poetess?  Possibly.  But it was richer by one more devoted wife and mother.32

We have less information on the personal life of Isobel Gill.  The name by which the public knew her was that of her husband.  As Mrs. David Gill, she wrote her own book giving a non-astronomer's perspective on the expedition headed by her husband to Ascension Island in the summer of 1877 to measure the parallax of Mars.33

It is safe to say that Mrs. Gill can be credited with saving the expedition from total failure.  Not long after the completion of the temporary observatory on Ascension, the skies began to cloud over each evening.  David Gill suggested exploring the island to discover the extent of the cloud cover.  Since it was necessary to be assured that the sky would be clear at night, this foray into the wild would have to be undertaken after dark.

It was a typical night, and we determined to act; but how?  David could not leave his post in Garrison, lest an opportunity for observations should occur, and after the fatigue of a hot day's work, we could not ask any of our neighbours to give up the rest of the cool night for us.  So I offered myself as pioneer, but my offer was at first rejected with some decision.  "Impossible!  You have never been beyond Garrison; there is no road; there may be dangerous gullies; and wild cats infest the plains -- you would find the walking bad enough by day, and at night impossible."  But having a considerable leaven of Luckie Mucklebackit's spirit in me, I mean to try hard for my own way; and after showing how carefully I had been studying the Admiralty chart -- studying it till every crater and every watercourse seemed stamped upon my brain, the "impossibles" grew fainter till finally they disappeared.34

After a considerable journey on foot, Mrs. Gill found what appeared to be the edge of the cloud:

I wonder what [the porters] talked of, and if they thought of me as a mad woman chasing a cloud by moonlight!  Doubtless they did.  But absurd and aimless as my chase appeared, the object I pursued was a glorious one; and, during the hour I sat on the Ascension plain and watched the clouds, I felt as if it were within my grasp.  That is to say, I became convinced that this cloud was partial, that it formed in the east over Green Mountain and took a direction almost due west towards the sea.  I had now succeeded in getting alongside of it, and I was nearly certain that all would yet be well if there was any accessible way farther south.35

The equipment was packed and moved to what they dubbed "Mars Bay" in honor of the impending observations. 36

These sparse and anecdotal accounts leave little for the historian to chew on, and might easily be dismissed as inconsequential.  But in their sparseness, they represent a symptom of the invisibility of vital support personnel in astronomical observation:  neighbors, friends, assistants, instrument makers, relatives, wives --people who are routinely written out of the published accounts of work done in the observatory.37  Women who have made valuable contributions to astronomy have very often found themselves in this category.38

Wives of astronomers represent a special subset of that group.  Their relationships to their husbands' research programs run the gamut from "telescope widow" to one half of a "two-person single career."39  The range and complexity of the possible relationships of husband and wife research teams is such that great care must be taken in interpreting the historical record.  The invisible people in scientific endeavor have in some cases been obscured by those who sought to gain the greater glory for themselves, other times they are not so much invisible as simply forgotten. But there are invisible participants who have cloaked themselves in socially appropriate ways in order to be allowed to play the game -- who not only embrace their supportive, helpmeet role, but fashion and nurture that image in the public record.  To see these invisible people, we must look beyond the public record. Only there will we find the soul of the complementary collaborative couple.

The historical figure of William Huggins, crafted in part by Margaret Huggins herself, has loomed large in retrospectives on the origins of what came to be known as astrophysics.  This image is reflected in the classic photograph which serves as the frontispiece for The Scientific Papers of Sir William Huggins (see Figure 26).40  Here we see the solitary stellar explorer seated alongside his star-spectroscope in his private observatory free of the distracting bureaucratic entanglements as well as the debilitating methodological and theoretical restrictions which, in Huggins' view, encumbered institution-bound observers at Greenwich, South Kensington, and Kew.

Figure 26.  William Huggins in his observatory (from Huggins and Huggins, Scientific Papers, frontispiece).

Biographers have based their discussion of Margaret Huggins' contributions to the work of the Tulse Hill observatory on information gleaned from the Hugginses' published scientific papers and reminiscent accounts.  Unfortunately, there is an alluring internal consistency in these versions of their collaborative work which has enhanced their authority over the years and blinded researchers in the past to the need to delve beyond the public façade.

I would argue that Margaret's collaborative role has become obscured by our own twentieth century predisposition to see in the inkblots of the historical record familiar patterns of scientific organization around which to structure our analysis. Today, collaboration in scientific research is far more common than it was a hundred years ago.  Members of large research teams are ranked hierarchically by their peers and individual contributions are assessed accordingly.  Principal investigators are rewarded for their originality and insight into the theoretical and practical problems encountered in on-going research; support personnel's success is measured on the basis of how well they tend instruments, follow instructions and work cooperatively as part of a team.41

Reliance upon such standards for historical analysis, however, unnaturally constrains discussion of complementary collaborative efforts in the nineteenth century.  Such a scheme makes little sense when describing the work of Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff, for example, or that of George Liveing and James Dewar -- pairs of men with comparable levels of professional training and technical skill.  However, when investigative partners are also husband and wife, there is a risk that a hierarchical evaluative structure may appear applicable to their joint scientific work.

This risk is enhanced when the body of published papers contains what appear to be clear signatures of something like today's hierarchical teamwork structure:  husband as observer, wife as instrument tender, husband as principal interpreter of data, wife as recorder, husband as analyzer of measurement error, wife as corroborator, and so on.  Thus, it may seem fitting to evaluate the husband's work in terms of its originality and theoretical insight, and the wife's contributions in terms of the peripheral support it supplies the research effort.

Recently, Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie has compared the collaborative dynamics of three scientific couples, including William and Margaret Huggins.42  Ogilvie has pointed out that because the Hugginses' joint published papers are written principally in William's voice, reliance on these documents alone to determine how the work, particularly that done in the midst of active observation, was divided between them, yields a limited picture of Margaret's contributions.  Because of this, Ogilvie has suggested that a more accurate assessment of the scientific merit of Margaret Huggins' contributions to the work done at Tulse Hill will require an examination of relevant primary material.  Ogilvie hoped that such an examination would make it possible to contrast Margaret's scientific "originality" against her abilities as data collector and supportive team member.

Ogilvie is right to suggest an historical analysis of the primary sources which underlie the Hugginses' published papers.  But examination of the notebooks reveals that Margaret and William did not work together as principal and secondary researchers; rather, they worked as complementary collaborative investigative partners.  The constant give-and-take on which such a work relationship is based blurs the usual markers which distinguish an idea or plan's originator from its implementor.  Thus, I would argue that "originality" fails, in this case, to function as a useful indicator of either William or Margaret's worth as a scientific investigator.

I would propose an alternative dimension of the Hugginses' collaborative efforts, namely "individual initiative," to assess the value of Margaret's contributions.  Reading the Huggins' observatory notebooks, I have uncovered evidence of Margaret's initiative in such diverse activities as problem selection, instrument design, methodological approach and data interpretation thus providing a clearer sense of the nature, extent and value of Margaret Huggins' scientific contributions to the work done at Tulse Hill.

Margaret Lindsay Murray

Margaret Lindsay Murray was born near Dublin in 1848 (see Figure 27).43 She was the second child and elder daughter of one John Murray, a solicitor, and his wife, the former Helen Lindsay.44  Margaret lived with her family in a Georgian townhouse overlooking the sea at 23 Longford Terrace in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), Ireland.45  Though her parents made their home in Ireland, they were of Scottish ancestry and her father was educated at the Edinburgh Academy.46

Figure 27.  Margaret Lindsay Huggins (1848-1915) [from the Huggins Collection, Whitin Observatory, Wellesley College].

Margaret was very young when her mother died in 1857.47  Information in obituaries and memorial essays written by her friends can be assembled to construct a plausible, but apocryphal, story of her childhood.  These sources suggest that Margaret spent a good deal of time with her paternal grandfather, Robert Murray, a wealthy bank officer, and that she attended private school in Brighton for some unspecified period of time.  Few girls in Britain attended school in the 1850s.  The majority were educated at home:  wealthier families hired tutors while mothers provided the educational needs of their daughters in middle-class and poorer homes. Margaret may not have received any formal education until after her mother's death.48

I have been unable to locate the school in Brighton Margaret may have attended.  In fact, it may no longer exist.  One girl's boarding school in Brighton which was founded in 1836 and still survives is St. Mary's Hall.  During Margaret's childhood, St. Mary's Hall was a school for daughters of clergymen of the Church of England, so Margaret would have been ineligible to attend. Nevertheless, from its records we can derive some idea of the variety of subjects to which a young woman may have been exposed during the period when Margaret would have received her schooling.

Early records at St. Mary's Hall are incomplete, but by June 1879, the four upper classes were examined by a Cambridge Examiner in such things as Religious Knowledge, English Grammar and History, Geography, Arithmetic, and German and French Composition.  Latin, Greek, Art, Music and Needlework were also taught. The absence of scientific instruction was rectified by 1884, with botany probably being introduced at some earlier, unspecified time.49

Margaret, like other young girls and women in mid-nineteenth century Britain, may have benefited from the spirit of educational reform which encouraged the establishment of the Public Schools Commission in 1861, chaired by Lord Clarendon and charged to investigate the growing swell of outrage against the public schools.50  While the hearings held by this commission brought to light the prevailing deficiencies of a limited school system founded on classical studies rather than the practical needs of contemporary society, they also raised the issue of the lack of educational opportunities for girls.  The Commission sought to reverse the prevailing view which argued that girls were "less capable of mental cultivation, and in less need of it than boys."   These changes were not enacted until 1869 with the passage of the Endowed Schools Act.  Even then, it took a long time for the impact to be felt in the schools.  The increased emphasis on modern languages, history and science in the curriculum at a school like St. Mary's Hall during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, for example, reflects, in part, the Clarendon Commission's recommendations for both constituting and improving educational opportunities available for girls.

Interest in Astronomy

In her adulthood, Margaret's enthusiasm for astronomical research marvelled those acquainted with her.  After her death, her friends' reminiscent memorial essays drew on childhood anecdotes, many no doubt related to them personally by Margaret herself, to speculate on the extraordinary circumstances which may have predisposed her to engage in this unique vocation.  Some attributed her early astronomical training to her grandfather, others to her reading an article on spectroscopy in a young people's magazine.  A number even suggested that the author of this magazine article was none other than William Huggins himself.  A typical example is the obituary written for Science by Sarah Frances Whiting:

Before [Margaret Huggins] reached her teens she worked with a little telescope making drawings of the constellations and sunspots.  Later, inspired by anonymous articles in the magazine, Good Words [see Figure 28], she became interested in the spectrum, and made a little spectroscope for herself by which she detected the F[r]aunhofer lines. It was the romance of her life that she afterwards became the wife of the astronomer who wrote the papers, and with him made many discoveries with the magic instrument. 52

Figure 28.  Title page from the first volume of Good Words.

Some version of this story is repeated with authority in a variety of widely read sources.  However, a search through the volumes of Good Words published between 1860, the year the magazine was first published and 1875, the year of Margaret's marriage, has uncovered only one series of anonymous articles on astronomy. Given the style and content of the articles and William Huggins' own eclectic research interests at the time, it is unlikely that he was their author.53

Articles on a variety of astronomical subjects written by such prominent astronomers of the day as John Herschel, Richard Proctor, and Charles Pritchard appeared in the magazine during Margaret's youth.  The first description of the basic principles of spectrum analysis to be found in Good Words was presented by John Herschel as part of a short series of articles to acquaint the reader with the properties and behavior of light.  Herschel wrote:

The analysis into its prismatic elements of the colour of any natural object is readily performed by examining through the refracting angle of a prism of perfectly colourless glass a rectilinear band or strip of the colour to be analysed, so narrow as to have scarcely any apparent breadth, and to appear as little more than a coloured line.  Placing this on a perfectly black ground, parallel to the refracting edge of the prism, and illuminating it as strongly as possible, it will be seen dilated into a broad riband of colour or spectrum, exhibiting of course those coloured rays only which belong to the composition of the tint examined.  An exceedingly convenient arrangement for this purpose is to fasten across one end of a hollow square tube of metal or pasteboard blackened within, of about an inch square and twelve or fourteen inches long, a metal plate having in it a very narrow slit parallel to one side, quite straight, and very cleanly and sharply cut. At the other end within the tube is to be fixed a small prism of highly dispersive colourless flint glass, having its refracting angle parallel to the slit, and so placed that when the tube is directed to the sky, or rather to a white cloud, the slit shall be seen dilated into a clear and distinct prismatic spectrum....  The use of this little instrument, at once simple, portable, and inexpensive, will be found to afford an inexhaustible source of amusement and interest....54

Margaret would have been about 17 years old when these words appeared in print. Herschel gave no hint of the spectroscope's astronomical applications, choosing to emphasize its aesthetic powers:

To the water-colour painter, the study of the prismatic composition of his (so fancied) simple washes of colour and the effects of their mixture and superposition; -- to the oil painter, that of the various brilliantly coloured powders which mixed with oil form the material of his artistic creations, are all replete with interest and instruction.55

If this article influenced Margaret to make her own spectroscope, she may have done so to further her artistic interests.

There is one article by Charles Pritchard, then President of the Royal Astronomical Society, which is worth noting.  This article was entitled, "A True Story of the Atmosphere of a World on Fire" and appeared in the April 1867 number. 56  The "world on fire" Pritchard described was the recently discovered nova in Corona Borealis, T Coronae, which was discussed in the last chapter.  After recounting the flurry of interest this object generated throughout the international community of astronomers, Pritchard introduced W. A. Miller and "Mr. Huggins" of the Tulse Hill Observatory.  According to Pritchard, these gentlemen were experts in spectroscopy, and thus able to analyze the nature of such an unusual star.57

Pritchard's use of such kinetic phrases as "sudden bound," "strong impulse in a new direction," "aspires to a loftier aim," and "no longer ... restricted" conveyed the advantages he felt spectroscopy brought to astronomical research.  He provided simple directions for constructing and using a spectroscope complete with suggestions to guide the reader's expectations and insure successful observations.58 If Margaret's interest in astronomical spectroscopy was indeed piqued by reading one particular article in Good Words, Pritchard's is a likely candidate.

A number of articles in later volumes of Good Words discuss stellar spectroscopy and mention specifically the contributions of William Huggins.59 Perhaps these articles combined with one on Caroline Herschel written by Charles Pritchard in 1869 touched Margaret's sense of romance:

During the forty years of her brother's astronomical labours, whether at Bath, or Datchet, or Slough, she acted as his one and only assistant.  She always sat up with him at night, writing down the observations from his verbal dictation as they occurred, and reading off and noting the clock at each observation requiring a register of the time.  In such calculations she was perfectly indefatigable, and when she had not work enough to do for her brother, she struck out a course of calculation for herself....  Nothing seemed to her a sacrifice, or a hardship, or privation, if made in furtherance of his objects.60

If we concede that there is some element of truth in the story that Margaret's awareness of, and interest in the work of contemporary astronomers grew out of reading something in Good Words, then it is more likely to have resulted from a combined influence of several of these articles read over an extended period of time than from any one particular article.

It is not yet clear how William and Margaret met.  One romantic account tells how "the two star-gazers stopped their investigations long enough to 'exchange eyes' ...."61  A plainer, but more detailed, version recalls that the pair were first introduced at the London home of the Montefiores, a home where Margaret was a frequent visitor.  This initial encounter was followed, with the help of Howard Grubb's mediation, by further meetings in Dublin during Huggins' visits to inspect Grubb's progress on the new telescope.62

No documents or personal letters have thus far been found to substantiate these stories.  This is unfortunate, because the question of how they met and chose to marry is of historical interest in the context of collaborative couples.63  Social, intellectual and cultural barriers virtually prohibited women with scientific aptitude or interest from pursuing independent scientific research.  The Victorian social critic John Ruskin wrote:

I believe, then, with this exception, that a girl's education should be nearly, in its course and material of study, the same as a boy's; but quite differently directed.  A woman in any rank of life, ought to know whatever her husband is likely to know, but to know it in a different way.  His command of it should be foundational and progressive; hers, general and accomplished for daily and helpful use....  [S]peaking broadly, a man ought to know any language or science he learns thoroughly -- while a woman ought to know the same language, or science, only so far as may enable her to sympathies in her husband's pleasure, and in those of his best friends."64

No doubt, many gave up their scientific interests entirely or channeled their creative energies into more socially acceptable activities.  The few women inclined to persevere -- if they wished to make contributions to scientific enterprise instead of simply reading about the exploits of others or attending public lectures on scientific topics -- required a tolerant male partner with whom to collaborate.  Was Margaret such a woman?  Or did her scientific interests emerge in consequence of an offer of marriage from a gentleman interested in finding an observing partner whom he could train to assist him in his own research program?

Margaret and William Huggins were married on 8 September 1875 at the Monkstown Parish Church near Margaret's family home.65  She was about 27 years old and he was 51.  Margaret soon became involved in the work of the observatory, and her presence changed both the kind of work done at Tulse Hill and its organization.  William's terse notebook jottings were replaced by Margaret's lengthy and detailed entries.  More importantly, photography suddenly appeared as a new method of recording what had previously been purely visual spectroscopic observations.  Evidence gleaned from the notebooks points to Margaret Huggins as a strong impetus behind the establishment of Huggins' successful program of photographic research.

[click on footnote number to return to text]

1. The men most often mentioned are Sidney Kincaid and Arthur Finch, both of whom lived nearby.

2. As described in chapter 3, Corbett removed Huggins' 8-inch Alvan Clark in August 1869.  The new 15-inch Grubb telescope became operational on 20 February 1871.

3. Heinrich Schellen, Spectrum Analysis and its Application to Terrestrial Substances, and the Physical Constitution of the Heavenly Bodies, Jane and Caroline Lassell, trans.; William Huggins, ed. (Longmans, Green, & Co.:  London, 1872), originally Die Spectralanalyse (Brunswick, 1871).  Huggins refers to his having undertaken this task in a letter to George Airy, 28 September 1870, RGO 6.382/6/7/401, University of Cambridge Library.  His notebook entries indicate that he visited Lassell at Maidenhead in March of both 1871 and 1872.  See 25 and 26 March 1871, 31 March 1872, Notebook 2.

4. The eclipse expedition was clouded out, a major disappointment for Huggins who had hoped to use the occasion to examine spectroscopically the sun's outer atmosphere.  I shall discuss this expedition in more detail in the next chapter.

5. W. P., "Spectroscope Construction," Astronomical Register 8 (1870):  76.

6. G. J. W., "Solar Spectrum," Astronomical Register 8 (1870):  64.

7. Howard Grubb designed a unique spectroscope for William Huggins which consisted of 4 compound prisms and 2 semi-compound prisms which, because the arrangement of the prisms caused the light to reflect back through the system, gave a dispersion equivalent to 10 compound prisms for a total of 90°, which Grubb claimed was likely the largest ever obtained at that time.  Individual compound prisms could be removed to reduce the total dispersion when necessary and the whole apparatus was designed to adjust automatically to the minimum dispersive angle of any selected wavelength, a recent innovation introduced by John Browning and quickly adopted by other instrument makers.  See Howard Grubb, "Automatic Spectroscope for Dr. Huggins' Sun Observations," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 31 (1870):  36-8; also, J. Browning, "On a Spectroscope in which the Prisms are automatically adjusted to the minimum angle of deviation for the particular Ray under examination," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 30 (1870):  198-202.  (Notes by others on Browning's paper can be found in 30, 214-9, 225, and 31, 47-8.)

8. Miller's collaboration with Huggins was neither regular nor frequent:  he was present for only about 10% of the observations Huggins' recorded in Notebook 2 before 1870.  But Miller was always called upon when Huggins was observing something new, or when Huggins need support to overcome his own uncertainty concerning the interpretation of a particular observation.

9. [Coutts Trotter], "William Allen Miller," Proceedings of the Royal Society 19 (1870):  xix-xxvi; xxvi.

10. In later life Huggins so successfully projected an image of himself as an independent and solitary observer during the years before his marriage that his biographers routinely wrote Miller out of the story after 1864.  Dyson, for example, cited the "pressure of other duties" as responsible for Miller's discontinuing his productive collaboration with Huggins leaving Huggins to pursue "his researches single-handed" until the time of his marriage.  See, [F. W. Dyson], Proceedings of the Royal Society 86A (1910):  i-xix; iv.

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

12. J. A. Bennett, Church, State and Astronomy in Ireland:  200 Years of Armagh Observatory (Armagh Observatory:  Armagh, 1990):  146-7.

13. A. J. Meadows, Greenwich Observatory, Volume 2:  Recent History (1836-1975) (Taylor & Francis:  London, 1975):  8.

14. For a discussion of the range of middle-class incomes and the accoutrements traditionally associated with those income levels, see Trevor May, An Economic and Social History of Britain 1760-1970 (Longman:  New York, 1987):  201-4. Huggins' census report lists only a cook and a female house servant living in the home.  1871 Census Return for 90 Upper Tulse Hill Road, Lambeth, RG 10/684/10. It is worth noting that George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, received an annual salary of £800.

15. William Huggins recorded observations on 51 occasions in 1866, 56 in 1867, 51 in 1868, 6 in 1869, and 3 in 1870.  So few were recorded in 1869 and 1870 because he was without a telescope.  In 1871, Huggins noted a record 63 observations, but in 1872, this dropped to 54, with only 27 in 1873, and 15 in 1874.  He recorded no observations in 1875.

16. William Huggins, 20 March 1871, Notebook 2.

17. William Huggins, Note before entry on 12 April 1871, Notebook 2.

18. Huggins' first entry after the new Grubb telescope was installed to his satisfaction ended with, "Clouds came over." [20 February 1871].  In the next two months we find remarks like, "... perfectly clear up to 6 o'ck then became hopelessly clouded" [25 March 1871], "... some clear patches of sky, but generally a haze more or less thick over the whole sky" [26 March 1871], "Having been at work for four hours, & haze over sky shut up observatory" [13 April 1871], "Clouds & haze between observations" [17 April 1871], "From April 17 weather bad tonight" [Note before entry on 21 April 1871], "Evening fine with drifting clouds. Soirée R.S. but remained at home to make use of the night" [22 April 1871], "From April 22 evenings all bad until tonight when practically fine with clouds & masses of haze" [27 April 1871].  In a note written between 16 May and 25 August 1871, Huggins tell us, "alterations to reading telescopes, bad weather & journey to Scotland prevented observation up to Aug 20." [All entries in Notebook 2.]

19. William Huggins, 22 April 1871, Notebook 2.

20. William Huggins, 1 May 1871, Notebook 2.

21. Complaints about fatigue during this period appear pretty consistently in about 1 out of every 8 entries.  It must be kept in mind that Huggins was nearing 50 years of age during this period.

22. William Huggins to Arthur Schuster, 3 April 1873, Schuster papers, Sc.95, Royal Society Library.  Schuster, then just 21 years old, had studied spectroscopy under Henry Roscoe at Manchester and Gustav Kirchhoff at Heidelberg.  See, Robert H. Kargon, "Arthur Schuster," Dictionary of Scientific Biography 12 (Scribner & Son:  New York, 1970):  237-9.

23. William Huggins to W. H. M. Christie, 20 February 1874, RGO 6.174/3/8/85, University of Cambridge Library.

24. William Huggins to William Spottiswoode, 30 December 1874, MC 10.186, Royal Society Library.

25. George Stokes to William Spottiswoode, 1 January 1874*, MC 10.188, Royal Society Library.  [*As this letter is clearly in reference to Huggins' letter to Spottiswoode of 30 December 1874, Stokes must have written the letter on 1 January 1875 and by mistake written in the previous year's date.]

26. See, for example, William Huggins, "The New Astronomy:  A Personal Retrospect," The Nineteenth Century 41 (1897):  907-29, 926; Charles E. Mills and C. F. Brooke, A Sketch of the Life of Sir William Huggins (Times Printing Works: Richmond, 1936):  37-42; E. Walter Maunder, Sir William Huggins and Spectroscopic Astronomy, (T. C. and E. C. Jack:  London, 1913):  64; Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie, "Marital Collaboration:  An Approach to Science," in Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives:  Women in Science 1789 - 1979, Pnina G. Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram, eds., (Rutgers University Press:  New Brunswick, 1987):  104-25, 111-5.

27. Mills and Brooke, Sketch of the Life, 38.

28. Ibid., 38-41.

29. For a discussion of the very different relationships of two other nineteenth century astronomers' wives, Elizabeth Campbell and Mabel Todd, to their husbands' astronomical work, see Alex S. Pang, Spheres of Interest:  Imperialism, Culture, and Practice in British Solar Eclipse Expeditions 1860-1914, Ph.D. dissertation (University of Pennsylvania, 1991):  147-203.

30. Angelo Hall, An Astronomer's Wife:  The Biography of Angeline Hall (Nunn & Company:  Baltimore, 1908):  72-3.

31. Ibid., 80.

32. Ibid., 82.

33. Mrs. Gill, Six Months in Ascension:  An Unscientific Account of a Scientific Expedition (John Murray:  London, 1880).

34. Ibid., 84.

35. Ibid., 89-94; 89.

36. Ibid., 94-104.

37. See, Pang, Spheres of Interest, 147; Steven Shapin, "The Invisible Technician," American Scientist 77 (1989):  555-63.

38. For examples of women since the Scientific Revolution who have received insufficient recognition for their astronomical work, see "The Women Astronomers," in Margaret Alic, Hypatia's Heritage:  A history of Women in Science from Antiquity to the late Nineteenth Century (The Women's Press:  London, 1986):  119-134; "'Women's Work' in Science, 1880-1910," Margaret W. Rossiter, Isis 71 (1980): 381-98; Londa Schiebinger, "Maria Winkelmann:  The Clash between Guild Traditions and Professional Science," in Current Issues in Women's History, Arina Angerman, et al, eds. (Routledge:  London, 1989):  21-38.

39. Sheryl J. North, "The Telescope Widow Syndrome," Sky and Telescope 80 (1990):  228.  The concept of a two-person single career was developed to describe those occupations which the spouse of the employee is expected, or even required, to assume certain central responsibilities tied directly to the success of that employee's career.  These include such occupations as the ministry, career military or diplomatic corps, high level business administration or civil service. Traditionally, it is the husband who is employed while the wife performs the necessary but unpaid duties which support the husband's career.  See, for example, Hanna Papanek, "Men, Women, and Work:  Reflections on the Two-Person Career," American Journal of Sociology 78 (1973):  852-72; Barbara B. Seater, "Two Person Career:  The Pastor and his Wife," Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology 10 (1982): 75-9; and Gilbert W. Beeson, Jr., Influences on the Identification of Wives with the Air Force Organization:  An Examination of the Two-Person Career, dissertation (University of North Carolina, 1986).

40. Frontispiece, William Huggins and Margaret Lindsay Huggins, The Scientific Papers of Sir William Huggins (William Wesley and Son:  London, 1909).

41. See, for example, Derek de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science (Columbia University Press:  New York, 1963):  86-91; Warren O. Hagstrom, The Scientific Community (University of Southern Illinois Press:  Carbondale, 1965):  105-58; Alvin M. Weinberg, Reflections on Big Science (MIT Press:  Cambridge, 1967):  47-53; idem., "Scientific Teams and Scientific Laboratories," Daedalus 99 (1970): 1056-75; Lowell L. Hargens, Nicholas C. Mullins and Pamela K. Hecht, "Research Areas and Stratification Processes in Science," Social Studies of Science 10 (1980): 55-74.

42. Ogilvie, "Marital Collaboration," in Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives:  104-25.

43. There have been a few recent brief biographical accounts of Margaret Huggins.  M. F. Rayner-Canham and G. W. Rayner-Canham include a few paragraphs on her in their paper, "Pioneer Women in Nuclear Science," American Journal of Physics 58 (1990):  1036-43.  Unfortunately, there are a number of factual errors in this essay.  I have already cited Marilyn Ogilvie's treatment of Margaret Huggins as her husband's collaborative assistant in Uneasy Careers. Perhaps the most detailed examination of Margaret Huggins' early life has been carried out by two British astronomers:  Dr. Maire Brück, formerly at the Dunsink Observatory and the University of Edinburgh, and Dr. Ian Elliott, currently at the Dunsink Observatory.  Much of the information in this section was made available to me through the kindness of Drs. Brück and Elliott before their published accounts appeared.  See, Mary T. Brück, "Companions in Astronomy:  Margaret Lindsay Huggins and Agnes Mary Clerke," Irish Astronomical Journal 20 (1991):  70-7; Maire T. Brück and Ian Elliott, "The Family Background of Lady Huggins (Margaret Lindsay Huggins)," Irish Astronomical Journal 20 (1992):  210-1.

[NOTE: Since this was written, Dr. Elliot has uncovered new details concerning Margaret's birth.  According to Dr. Elliott, Margaret was born on 14 August 1848 at 62 Lower Gardiner Street in Dublin.  She and her family moved to Dun Laoghaire after her mother's death.  See, I. Eliott, Irish Astronomical Journal 26 (1999): 65-8.]

44. 9 September 1875, Irish Times.  I would like to thank Dr. Ian Elliott of the Dunsink Observatory, Dublin, for making this information available to me.

45. Dr. Ian Elliott to the author, 3 October 1991.  According to Dr. Elliott, this information was taken from Thom's Directory.

46. Dr. Maire Brück to the author, 17 October 1991.

47. Margaret's mother, Helen Lindsay, died in January 1857 at the age of 31. Margaret would have been eight or nine years old.

48. Joan N. Burstyn, Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood (Rutgers University Press:  New Brunswick, 1984):  30-47.

49. Personal communication, 5 July 1991, Mrs. M. Teresa Broadbent, Headmistress, St. Mary's Hall, Brighton, England.

50. S. J. Curtis, History of Education in Great Britain (University Tutorial Press, Ltd.:  London, 1948):  76-91.

51. Schools Inquiry Commission, Vol. I, p. 546; cited in Curtis, History of Education in Britain, 89.

52. Sarah Frances Whiting, "Lady Huggins," Science 51 (1915): 853-5; 854.  See also, Whiting, "Margaret Lindsay Huggins,"  Astrophysical Journal 42 (1915):  1-3; Louise Manning Hodgkins, "Lady Huggins:  Astronomer," The Christian Advocate (21 October 1915):  1417-8; H. F. Newall, "Dame Margaret Lindsay Huggins," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 76 (1916):  278-82; Ogilvie, "Marital Collaboration," 110.

53. Anonymous, "God's Glory in the Heavens," Good Words 1 (1860):  23; 116; 161; 225; 289; 465; 513; 577; 625; 729.  This series included such articles as, "The Moon, is it Inhabited," "The Approaching Total Eclipse of the Sun," "Comets --Their History," and "The Structure of the Planets."  Good Words had a readership of 70,000 and cost only 6 pence per number.  Maire Brück to the author, 17 October 1991.

54. John Herschel, "On Light," Good Words 6 (1865): 358-64; 363.

55. Ibid.

56. Charles Pritchard, "A True Story of the Atmosphere of a World on Fire," Good Words 8 (1867):  249-56.

57. Ibid., 250.

58. Ibid., 251.

59. Charles Pritchard, "Perceiving without Seeing," Good Words 10 (1869):  45-53; idem., "Historical Sketch of Solar Eclipses," Good Words 12 (1871):  628-37; Richard A. Proctor, "A Giant Sun," Good Words 13 (1872):  98-104; W. B. Carpenter, "Spectrum Analysis," Good Words 14 (1873):  356-64 and 528-31.

60. Charles Pritchard, "Stars and Lights; or, the Structure of the Sidereal Heavens -- V. The Arrival of Herschel's Faithful Assistant," Good Words 10 (1869): 609-14; 613-4.

61. Hodgkins, "Lady Huggins," The Christian Advocate (1915):  1417-8; 1417.

62. Mills and Brooke, Sketch of the Life, 33-4.

63. A collection of historical case studies concentrating specifically on the opportunities and impediments faced by women who made their principal scientific contributions in the context of collaborative scientific couples can be found in Creative Couples in Science, Pnina Abir-Am, Helena Pycior and Nancy Slack, eds., (Rutgers University Press:  New Brunswick, forthcoming 1993).

64. John Ruskin, "Of Queens' Gardens," Sesames and Lilies (George Allen: London, 1905):  117-8.

65. Marriage Record, 8 September 1875, Monkstown Parish Church, Dublin County.  I wish to thank Dr. Ian Elliott for making this document available to me.


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)

Achieving "A mark of approval and confidence"

  • Chapter 4—

Margaret Huggins: The myth of the "Able Assistant"

    • Part 1—

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