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




In order to explicate the breadth and depth of Margaret Huggins' contributions to the research efforts at the Tulse Hill observatory, it was necessary in the last chapter to examine the work done there over an extended period of time: from the practical difficulties the bachelor William Huggins faced as a solitary observer in the early 1870s, to the inclusion of his wife, Margaret as co-author on their first joint publication at the end of the 1880s.  But in the years immediately following his acceptance of custodianship of the Royal Society's Grubb telescope, William grappled with more than the logistics of carrying out a productive observing program.  He also became a target of anxiety-provoking criticism from disgruntled colleagues concerning his choice of observational problems, his methods, and even his diligence in the application of this costly instrument.

In this chapter, then, I shall turn back briefly to the early 1870s to explore the synchrony and interactive dynamics of Huggins' personal career trajectory as it intersected the wider sweep of change afoot in London's astronomical community. I shall argue that the censure Huggins received regarding his use of the Grubb telescope was, in part, a by-product of growing dissension in the ranks of the RAS over the complex and contentious issue of government support of scientific endeavor.

The Strains of Diversity

The number of Fellows in the Royal Astronomical Society rose by 34% between 1860 and 1870, the largest increase by far in any decade since its founding.1  This expansion broadened the spectrum of research interests among the Fellows which, in turn, gave rise to a range of factions within the RAS and keen competition for limited resources and rewards.2  One important element in this complex process was the way some astronomers adapted the spectroscope to suit the existing instrumentation and traditional observational methods of astronomical research.  Spectroscopic observations stimulated new questions and suggested new physical parameters to be measured, quantified, standardized, compared and related.

In the 1860s, William Huggins had played a key role in laying the groundwork for the successful transplantation of the spectroscope from the laboratory of the analytic chemist into the observatory of the astronomer.  By the early 1870s, increasing attention to spectroscopic research in the pages of the Monthly Notices, Astronomical Register, and the Royal Society's Proceedings, made it clear to amateur and professional astronomers alike that new discoveries awaited those willing to incorporate the new methods and instrumentation into their research agenda.

But in Britain at least, to prosecute a fruitful research agenda in this youthful and still evolving specialty required independent financial means.  Popular liberal notions of laissez-faire and individual responsibility stood in opposition to State support of private endeavor.  The kudos heaped on British participants in the Great Exhibition of 1851 for their technical ingenuity was tangible evidence to many, at the time, of the wisdom of the liberal position.  This acclaim soon faded as serious questions about Britain's ability to maintain its competitive edge both technologically and economically emerged following the International Exhibition in Paris in 1867.  A few, but influential, ears were at last turned to those jeremiahs who had previously tried with little effect to rouse the Nation from its complacency regarding the need to attract talented young men into technical fields and prepare them to carry the baton of Britain's past industrial success into the next century.3

The growth in public concern over the Government's stance on State support for scientific institutions and science instruction also coincided with the rise of astronomical physics and the consequent increase in choices of research opportunities available to Fellows of the RAS.  These large scale developments took place during a critical phase of William Huggins' career as he made the uneasy transition from total independence to beholden obligation.

After being named custodian of the Royal Society's Grubb telescopes, Huggins became embroiled in a vigorous debate between two hard-nosed factions. One of these, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Strange, believed that the new research agenda opened up by astronomical physics and the skills required to pursue it with diligence and efficacy, warranted the establishment of a network of Government-sponsored astrophysical laboratories.  The other faction, led by the Astronomer Royal, George Airy, argued that such research was best left to the combined efforts of Greenwich and the contributions arising out of individual initiative.  By publicly placing himself in Airy's camp, as we shall see, he incurred the wrath and public criticism of Alexander Strange.

The Insufficiency of National Observatories

D. S. L. Cardwell used the words "alarm" and "near-panic" to describe the reaction at home to the disappointing showing by British participants in the 1867 International Exhibition in Paris.4  The great wave of self-congratulation, satisfaction and confidence set in motion by the accolades tendered toward Britain in the spacious galleries of the Crystal Palace sixteen years earlier had now subsided leaving in its wake the fear that Britain had been soundly beaten at her own game.5 The chemist, Lyon Playfair, served as a juror at the Paris Exhibition.  He returned to London disheartened by the realization that foreigners viewed the British as having passed their peak.6  Playfair was sure it was the fault of the woeful lack of technical education in Britain, and he was moved to recommend a Government inquiry into what he viewed as a national emergency.7  Others agreed that an inquiry was necessary even if they did not all agree on where to place the blame. These individuals hoped that an inquiry would resolve that question and present the Nation with a list of recommendations to help put Britain back on track.

The Society of Arts was the first institution to respond to this concern.  The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, as it was originally called, was an esteemed institution having served the congruent needs of British science, technology and society for over a hundred years.8  The Society of Arts had not only the motivation to construct a forum for this inquiry soon after Playfair and others had called for one, but it had the institutional history and structure to fashion a workable and formalized mechanism to keep the issue of scientific progress alive and before the public eye so that it would not become a mere flash in the pan.  Cardwell has described in detail the ensuing activities sponsored by the Society and so they need not concern us here.9  Of greater importance is the longevity and the continuity afforded these activities by virtue of their sponsorship by the Society of Arts.  This extended exposure garnered additional support for the cause of broad-based State sponsorship of science and education from those social visionaries who questioned the basic tenets of the liberal political theory of individualism.

One of the more vocal of these crusaders was Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Strange.  His efforts on behalf of direct financial assistance from the Government to insure the growth and development of astronomical physics distributed the individuals from various factions in the astronomical community along a number of nonorthogonal axes.  Debates ensued over where -- properly or even sensibly -- to locate the boundaries for acceptable astronomical research; over what to consider as a legitimate question to ask of celestial phenomena being observed; over how to collect data to help answer these questions; and finally, over who should be deemed a sufficiently authoritative observer such that their evidence not only counted, but determined the standard against which other evidence was to be weighed.  These sometimes cantankerous exchanges both informed the direction and accelerated the pace of future astronomical research.10

Alexander Strange (1818-1876) was a retired officer of the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery returned from years of service in India.  The son of a British jurist in India, Strange was educated in England, but returned to India at age sixteen when he entered the 7th Madras Light Infantry as a cadet.  His keen interest in science and his able tinkering with telescopes and other instruments made him an obvious choice for his superiors to assist in the challenging project of triangulating the longitude of India.  Following a bout with malaria, Strange returned to England in 1861, where he won an appointment as Inspector of Scientific Instruments in the India Department of the Government.  Strange's excellent design of scientific instruments and careful superintendence of their construction gained him a reputation as a "mechanician of the highest order" in the scientific community of London.11

Strange was a member of a number of scientific societies including the Royal Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, the British Association, and the Meteorological Society.  Shortly after his return to England from India, Strange became actively involved in the organizational work of these societies, serving on the Councils of the RAS and Royal Society.12  Like Lyon Playfair, Strange served as a juror at the Paris Exhibition in 1867.  The two men shared a deep concern for the future of scientific progress in Britain.  Strange eagerly participated in the January 1868 conference on improving the status of science in British educational institutions organized by the Society of Arts in response to Playfair's request for an inquiry on the matter.  While others who became involved in this educational reform movement focussed on the problem of constructing an institutional framework within which to situate a practical and technical science education curriculum, Strange believed that to effect scientific progress, there first had to be an infusion of financial support for education from the Government.13  This was a radical proposal in a time when many still had greater faith in unencumbered individual enterprise.

Strange presented an appeal for State support for science in an address before the Mathematics and Physics Section of the British Association at its Norwich meeting in 1868.14  The BAAS was moved to appoint an investigatory committee, a committee on which William Huggins served, as did Strange, George Stokes, Thomas Henry Huxley and other scientific luminaries.  I was unable to ascertain why Huggins served on this particular committee, although he was on the Council of the BAAS for that year.  The report of this committee indicated there was widespread belief among members of the scientific community that they lacked sufficient resources to carry on their research at a competitive level.  Unsure about what recommendations to make to locate the source of the problem, let alone rectify it, the committee suggested that a Royal Commission be appointed to launch a thorough investigation.15

The Devonshire Commission

Thus it was that in 1870 the Government appointed a special commission composed of eight eminent men with the proper political credentials and an avowed interest in scientific research, science education, and its practical applications.  The Commission was chaired by William Cavendish, the seventh Duke of Devonshire (1808-1891), a Second Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge who possessed all the characteristics listed above.16  The Commission, which became known as the Devonshire Commission, in honor of its chair, was tasked to solicit a range of expert opinion on the matter of Britain's current scientific health, to analyze the spectrum of comments and recommendations with which it was presented, to identify and assess what was already in place, to suggest improvements that would emend any failings, and to propose means by which these changes could be implemented.  The Devonshire Commission heard testimony aimed at stimulating progress in a wide range of scientific fields, but I shall focus on the lengthy testimony presented by those individuals concerned about the development of astronomical physics.  We shall see from this testimony that the hearings served both as a vent and a showcase for the simmering diversity within the astronomical community.

The Commission began its hearings in June 1870.  From the published transcriptions of the testimony heard, particularly that presented in the spring of 1872, we can examine the tension among practicing astronomers, professionals and amateurs alike.  Alexander Strange prepared his fellow astronomers for his forthcoming testimony before the Commission by presenting a statement, "On the Insufficiency of existing National Observatories," at the monthly RAS meeting on 12 April 1872.  Strange's statement contained both his assessment of the current state of astronomical research and his recommendations for improving it.17  The way Strange saw it, the research agenda which mathematical and physical astronomers pursued until the second half of the nineteenth century had narrow and well-defined goals related to navigational needs and interests.  Timekeeping was a central concern, and routine, repetitive measurement of positions of celestial bodies was the principal method.  By the 1870s chronometers had largely replaced starshooting with sextants, and the mission of the Royal Observatory had gone beyond the mere cataloguing of celestial positions.  In fact, Strange contended, astronomy itself had changed so much in recent years that "Greenwich cannot, as at present constituted, be expected to contribute systematically to the advancement of the new branch of astronomy ... now generally recognised as the Physics of Astronomy."18  Or, as he was more bluntly paraphrased in the Astronomical Register, it would be "impossible for Greenwich to follow up the numerous branches into which the science has ramified."19  Not that the Astronomer Royal, George Biddell Airy was incapable, but his many duties to the existing program of research at Greenwich prevented him from attempting anything else.  In fact, Strange took pains to remind his audience, Airy had recently recommended establishing a special observatory given solely to observing Jupiter's satellites because there was no longer any room in the daily routine at the Royal Observatory for that project.20

Private individuals had initiated a variety of projects of their own design incorporating methods and instruments commensurate with the new astronomical agenda.  But Strange considered this sort of decentralized approach to be inefficient. He believed that astronomical physics required both long-term and large-scale research projects, and he warned that the continuity so essential to the collection of useful data would be lost if individuals working out of their own private observatories were relied upon too heavily.  As Strange explained:  "It is certain that we cannot count upon such extended continuity from private energy, which however supreme it may be, must die with its possessor."21   Besides, he argued, the sheer quantity of observations needed in order to make possible some reasonable analysis was simply "too heavy a work for individuals."  Such an effort "required co-operation and assistance, or it would never be completed."22

Strange pointed to solar physics as a case in point.  This was no accident. Strange was particularly anxious that routine and thorough study of the sun be undertaken because:

... what we now call the uncertainties of climate, are connected with the constant fluctuations which we know to be perpetually occurring in the Sun itself.  The bearing of climatic changes on a vast array of problems connected with navigation, agriculture, and health, need but be mentioned to show the importance of seeking in the Sun, where they doubtless reside, for the causes that govern these changes.  It is indeed my conviction, that of all the fields now open for scientific cultivation, there is not one which ... promises results of such high utilitarian value as the exhaustive, systematic study of the Sun.23

Alexander Strange believed that the only way to make possible the long-term and large-scale research required by the new astronomy was through active Government support of astronomical "laboratories."

The kind of laboratory Strange had in mind was exemplified by that operated by Warren De La Rue, Balfour Stewart and B. Loewy at Kew Gardens where weather permitting, the solar surface was photographed daily.24  Unfortunately, as Strange noted in his report to the RAS and emphasized again in his later testimony before the Devonshire Commission, the Kew operation was coming to a close due to lack of funds.25  After Kew's demise, he claimed, there would be no regular photographs being taken of the sun's surface anywhere in the British Empire.  In Strange's opinion, "Any prolonged loss of continuity in the series will be a most deplorable circumstance.  No time ... should be lost in averting such an evil."26

Strange hoped to alert his colleagues at the RAS to the tremendous opportunity afforded them by the ongoing investigation being conducted by the Devonshire Commission.  He recognized this as a rare chance to influence science policy directly.  In his view, it was a matter of extreme importance that the RAS provide the Devonshire Commission with information on the current state of astronomical research as well as "any recommendations which ... may seem to it advisable."27  Such testimony would likely determine the shape of astronomical research opportunities in Britain "for a long time to come."28

An animated exchange ensued among the Fellows present at the RAS meeting following Strange's presentation.  Airy was quick to point out with a humorous anecdote the reluctance of the public to support scientific endeavor with their tax money.29  Warren De La Rue wondered if meteorological stations throughout the Empire could not be converted into solar observatories by supplying them with the necessary equipment and resources to prepare daily photographs of the sun.  Another Fellow announced that he had been engaged in recording the solar surface for the last nine years and that, should he live long enough, he planned to complete one complete solar cycle of eleven years.30

Perhaps to demonstrate the mutually beneficial and cost-effective cooperation that was possible when forced to rely on one's wits and a shoestring budget (but more likely to underscore the importance of the routine work done at Greenwich), Airy described how his efforts to transmit time signals throughout England had been assisted by the South-Eastern Railway Company.  Additionally, he wished to point out that Government-supported agencies were assigned only to collect data, not interpret them.  He saw no value in "groping about for causes" as, for example, those inherent in the relationship being suggested between sunspot cycles and terrestrial weather patterns.31  In Airy's view, "It was the place of a Government not to establish philosophical institutions, but working bodies."32  This outburst triggered a final, impassioned response from Strange:

The Government is not remarkable for scientific knowledge, and the nation is absolutely destitute of science, because it has not had the teaching requisite for carrying out objects unintelligible to the ignorant....  The Government is ignorant, and the people more so if possible.  Whose business is it to teach them?  We must teach [the Government and the people] to understand that not only is [scientific investigation] good in an intellectual sense, but that in time it will bring forth utilitarian results likewise.  This is why I dwell in my paper upon the necessity for the study of our great luminary [the sun], as nothing can be more calculated to influence the material prosperity of the people.

Twelve days later, Strange testified before the Devonshire Commission and submitted to the public record his views on the importance of Government support for national laboratories.  He repeated much from his earlier statement made before the RAS, arguing for the importance of systematic solar observations to nurture the growth and development of meteorology.33  Strange's testimony is crucial to understanding the development William Huggins' research agenda at this time.  In it Strange presented Huggins and his award of the Grubb telescope by the Royal Society as evidence that the current system of awarding individuals money or equipment through the Society was not only inequitable, but subject to abuse by individuals who used it to further their own personal research goals in lieu of those that serve the national interest.

Strange enumerated three reasons why it would not be desirable for Greenwich to undertake such observations:  insufficient room for the instruments necessary to undertake such research, unsuitability of the mathematical "order of mind" to the pursuit of physical astronomy, and incompatibility of mathematical astronomy with the study of the physics of astronomy.  Expecting Greenwich to perform astrophysical observations was only "undesirable," not "impossible." Strange knew better than to declare George Biddell Airy unfit for any astronomical assignment.

That Strange should name three difficulties in support of his claim against Greenwich is worth noting.  Surely several would be necessary to persuade the Government to remove some astronomical responsibility from Greenwich and place it in new hands, and listing three reasons before a Commission jealous of its time implied there were likely more.  But only one of the difficulties listed was based on purely physical limitations.  The other two are strictly matters of opinion regarding method, motivation, and aptitude in astronomical research.  Strange's including them in his list of concerns signals a desire to mark a boundary, however hazy in these early stages of separation, between those astronomers who map the stars and those who feel they have the key to understanding the cosmic links between celestial and terrestrial phenomena.

When pressed by the Chairman, William Cavendish, on the work in the new astronomy being done by individuals not directly connected with Greenwich, Strange responded critically:

It is rather difficult to get from private individuals exact information upon this point, but, so far as I know, those studies are not systematically conducted, and not fully conducted by any university, or by any private individual.  One section of such observation was conducted some time ago at the Kew Observatory ... in an irregular, confused sort of manner, as most things connected with science are conducted in England, partly by means of grants from the Government, partly, I think, by means of grants from the British Association, and partly by means of private liberality.  But that series of researches has come to an end....  Therefore, at present, that particular method of studying the sun is not now pursued, I believe, by any institution or any individual systematically in the British dominions.34

Here, Strange had particularly harsh words for William Huggins, who, in his opinion, used the privilege of the loan of the Royal Society's telescope to pursue his own personal research agenda, rather than apply it to projects, like regular solar study, which Strange believed would benefit the Nation more generally.  Strange saw the case of William Huggins as exemplifying the inadequacy and the inefficiency of counting on individuals to carry out the essential work of the new astronomy.  He used the example of Huggins to highlight the importance of public accountability in scientific endeavor:

With respect to ... studying the sun by use of the spectroscope, there are several private individuals who are pursuing that, and one by the aid of the Royal Society, Dr. Huggins, that is to say, the telescope is suitable for the spectroscopic examination of the sun, but I understand that Dr. Huggins employs it not so much for that purpose as for researches on stellar, nebular, and cometic spectra.  The Royal Society some three or four years ago, when I was myself on the council, voted a sum of money for the construction of a large telescope to be placed in the hands of Dr. Huggins, who undertook on his part to erect an observatory for its shelter, and to apply himself sedulously to using it.  I think it is as well that I should mention here that though I voted with the rest of the council for this grant of money, being anxious that every aid that was possible should be given to science, still, I objected then, as I object now, to an arrangement which I did not think a satisfactory one.  It did not promise such continuity, nor was there present that element of responsibility which I think is essential in such matters.  It is possible, on Dr. Huggins's death, for instance, that there might be some difficulty with his executors regarding this double arrangement; and, moreover, I did not think that a great undertaking like that should devolve upon a private individual; I thought it a matter great enough for the nation to take up, and I still hold those views.35

Two days later, Airy delivered his own testimony before the Commission.36 Where Strange had found disorganization and waste, Airy found untapped potential. He admitted that adding new observations to the burden currently borne at Greenwich would give the Astronomer Royal "a good deal of work on his hands." Nonetheless Airy firmly believed that any project capable of routinization could be handled by the Royal Observatory in a satisfactory way.37

Airy regarded the problem of slowed scientific progress in Britain as being rooted in the inadequate mathematical education provided by British institutions of higher learning.38  A young man possessing the proper mathematical foundation in conjunction with sufficient curiosity about the world and self-motivation could pursue scientific research on his own in a manner most convenient to himself.  In Airy's view, restricting financial assistance for scientific research was not a hindrance, but a way to weed out the unworthy and insure that only the best ideas would survive.  Any individual who believed strongly enough in his own proposed research agenda, would, in Airy's opinion, pursue it at all cost.  If, after some exploration of the matter, the project demonstrated unusual promise, an application for financial assistance could be submitted to the Government Grant Committee of the Royal Society, a Committee with much experience in allocating funds to individuals to support their private scientific endeavours.  There could then be no complaints from the public about tax money ill-spent.

On the face of it, Airy's testimony bears the unmistakable earmark of a liberal political bent with a firm belief in free market science.  But Airy was himself a beneficiary of Government support for scientific endeavor and had been for over thirty-five years.  The kind of research program he directed at Greenwich would not have been possible without continued long-term financial support.  As Robert Smith has aptly pointed out, Airy's experience as a recipient of Government funding had made it clear to him that the budgetary pie was finite in size, particularly that portion available for scientific endeavor.39  While Strange may have imagined that he could persuade the Devonshire Commission to recommend larger apportionments for astronomical research, and that the Government would be moved to take immediate action, Airy knew that offering any slice of the Government's already meager pie to develop a solar observatory elsewhere, would very possibly reduce Greenwich's portion.  The Greenwich program could not weather any cuts.

Dissension in the Ranks

By the meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society on 10 May 1872, the first meeting following Strange's and Airy's testimony before the Commission, the Society's Council found itself at odds over the issue of the establishment of, and Government support for, new national observatories independent of the Astronomer Royal's direction and given to the study of the physical and chemical nature of celestial bodies.  One group -- a minority of the Council and which backed Strange's proposals -- argued for the creation of a Government-sponsored solar observatory separate from Greenwich.  The other group, which included William Huggins, allied themselves with Airy.  They saw greater value in continuing to place principal responsibility on the shoulders of Greenwich to launch a program of regular astrophysical observations all the while relying on private observers to follow their own personal research interests with support coming to them through small grants awarded on the basis of individual merit.

Huggins was sympathetic to Airy's position for a number of reasons.  For one thing, he knew that Airy was preparing to begin regular spectroscopic work at Greenwich.  In fact, he wrote to Airy as early as 28 February 1872 to express his pleasure on learning that solar spectroscopy would be undertaken at Greenwich. Huggins offered his help in this enterprise, promising Airy that he would "think for a few days as to the getting of a suitable spectroscope."40  Thus, from a purely practical standpoint, it made no sense for the Government to allocate funds or expend any additional effort on what could very well turn out to be duplicative of what Greenwich had already tooled up to do.

On a moralistic note, Huggins always viewed his own reputation as a careful observer and the custodial award of the Royal Society's telescope as a prize earned by virtue of his own hard work.  There is no question that Huggins would have been seriously and unforgivingly offended by Strange's personal attack in his testimony before the Devonshire Commission.  Huggins was unprepared to be singled out for such hard-hitting criticism as that levelled by Strange.  He was not, after all, taking unmerited advantage of the Royal Society's generosity, and could not conceive of good science being done by anyone who was.  Huggins believed, and would always believe, that he was his own man -- choosing his research agenda in conformity with his own personal interests and the promotion of natural knowledge.

I would argue that Huggins was not entirely naive or self-deceptive in holding this belief.  The eclectism and opportunism that had marked his personal research agenda to this point in 1872 characterized much of his later work as well. But after accepting responsibility for the Society's Grubb telescope, Huggins' choices of both subject and method were unconsciously, yet deeply guided by his strong desire to remain worthy of the Society's trust and the growing realization that as the telescope's custodian, he was publicly accountable for his use of it. Recall, for example, the intense personal anxiety which Huggins had expressed to Thomas Romney Robinson over his worthiness to be selected as the telescope's custodian even while the matter was under consideration by the Royal Society's Council in 1868 and 1869.

Huggins may also have reckoned that Airy's view would prevail, that in terms of Government support of science, matters would stand much as before.  It is always wise to ally oneself with the winning side, and in this sense it can be said that Huggins made a prudent choice.  Although the Devonshire Commission largely endorsed the establishment of a national astrophysical observatory of the type Strange had advocated, it was several years before any action was taken in this direction.41  In the meantime, Huggins gained additional stature as chief advisor on spectroscopic matters to Airy and other members of the Greenwich staff.42

At the 10 May RAS meeting, Alexander Strange moved that the President of the Society submit a statement to the Devonshire Commission which would formally represent the Society's belief in the importance of astronomical physics and the need for more research in that area.  This motion gave form to a debate which continued into the next regular meeting of the RAS and finally resulted in a special meeting of the Society's Council being called at the end of June 1872.  In his biography of J. Norman Lockyer, Meadows has provided some sense of the heat generated over the wording of this statement.43

At the special meeting of the RAS Council held on 28 June, William Huggins proposed a three-part resolution to be submitted by Society President Arthur Cayley to the Devonshire Commission.44  Huggins' proposal urged greater support for the "cultivation of the Physics of Astronomy," but requested that support be given in the form of increased assistance to existing national observatories such as that at the Cape of Good Hope, and/or the establishment of a new observatory somewhere in the Empire where the climate would be suitable for making routine observations.  The third clause recommended that no separate solar observatory sponsored by the Government be established.  Its strong wording and the fact that it was ultimately approved by the majority of the Council made it clear that, in their minds at least, Greenwich was the preferred site for prosecuting solar research.  The point was underscored by the well-timed announcement that action had already been taken at Greenwich to bring about such research.

Alexander Strange countered with an amendment to Huggins' statement recommending the establishment in England of an "Observatory, with a Laboratory and Workshop of moderate extent attached to it."45  He also wanted a network of similar observatories to be set up throughout the Empire to collect daily sun photographs and to "investigate the effect of the Earth's Atmosphere on Physico-Astronomical Researches in different geographical regions, and at different altitudes."46  This amendment was not approved, however, and Huggins' original statement was submitted, virtually unchanged, in the form of a letter in lieu of personal testimony from RAS President Arthur Cayley to the Devonshire Commission.47

The Lockyer Factor

Meadows has attributed the negative response given to Strange's counter-proposal to the fact that Strange had allied himself with J. Norman Lockyer, whom we have met in earlier chapters, now the editor of the journal Nature, self-styled amateur astronomer, and, as we have seen, opponent of Huggins.48  Shortly after joining the RAS in 1862, Lockyer gained considerable attention and prestige from his colleagues for his lunar observations as well as his drawings of Mars during its favorable opposition in that year.  But it did not take long for Lockyer to drop these telescopic research projects in favor of spectroscopy.  He was inspired in great part by Huggins' success in applying spectrum analysis to celestial objects.  The recognition Huggins had received in consequence of his spectroscopic study of the stars and nebulae appealed to Lockyer's ambitious nature.  Lockyer wished to establish his own area of spectroscopic expertise.  Thus, he turned to study of the sun.  By 1872, Lockyer had made quite a name for himself (see Figure 33).

Figure 33.  J. Norman Lockyer (1836-1920) [from "Sir Norman Lockyer," Proceedings of the Royal Society 104 (1909):  facing page i].

One might assume that having such a promising young solar observer on board would assist Alexander Strange in his efforts to convince his colleagues of the need for a national observatory devoted principally to making daily observations of the sun.  But in his quest for recognition and advancement, Lockyer had managed to alienate himself from a number of his colleagues in the RAS with what they perceived as brash, impulsive and self-promoting behavior.

Many people are irritating in their own unique way, but their redeeming qualities make their less admirable characteristics endurable, or even charming quirks of personality.  Huggins, for example, sufficiently annoyed his companions in his role as leader of the solar eclipse expedition to Oran in 1870, that even his friend William Crookes was prompted to write in his diary:

On returning to the ship we had a committee meeting.  Little Huggins's bumptiousness is most amusing.  He appears to be so puffed up with his own importance as to be blind to the very offensive manner in which he dictates to the gentlemen who are co-operating with him, whilst the fulsome manner in which he toadies to Tyndall must be as offensive to him (Tyndall) as it is disgusting to all who witness it.  I half fancy there will be a mutiny against his officiousness.49

In spite of this and the fact that the expedition was clouded out, there was no mutiny, only private derision as evidenced in a later diary entry by Crookes describing a particularly rough sea one evening as their ship made its way home:

Eating was almost impossible, for nearly all one's attention was required to keep the meal, &c., on the plate, and ourselves on the benches.  Huggins being small and not very careful, disappeared once, plate and all, under the table.50

But by 1870, as Meadows has argued, Lockyer had antagonized enough of the Fellows in the Royal Astronomical Society to be denied the three-quarters majority required to be awarded the Society's Gold Medal in January 1871.51  His colleagues also rankled at his treating the data he collected at the 1871 solar eclipse as though it were a marketable commodity.52  Lockyer's personal ambition coupled with his close association with Strange therefore fuelled suspicion that Lockyer was Strange's choice to head his proposed solar observatory.  Unfortunately for Strange, Lockyer's personality was one upon which it was difficult for those who knew him to remain neutral.

In the months following the presentation of Cayley's (read Huggins') letter to the Devonshire Commission, feelings in the RAS on both sides of the question of the need for national observatories intensified.  The animus towards Lockyer felt by a number of his Fellows in the RAS is evident in the emotional correspondence published in the Astronomical Register in the wake of what was termed by that journal's editor as "a very stormy meeting" of the Society in February 1873.  The furor was triggered by a circular which Strange had sent around in advance of the meeting suggesting the replacement of the RAS Council by men he believed would discharge their duties more competently.  In all this, Strange's opponents saw the figure, influence and personal ambition of J. Norman Lockyer.  Their letters published in a subsequent number of the Register betray the strong feelings held against Lockyer, particularly for his lack of participation in Society activities, his lack of contribution to the Society's journals, and his apparent lack of regard for the Society's aims of gathering and disseminating within its ranks any useful knowledge gained by an individual observer.  In their view, such selfishness should not be rewarded with the directorship of a state-supported observatory.53  Thus, the Lockyer factor appears to have done much to crystallize individuals' opinions on the question of establishing an independent solar observatory.

Huggins' coupling of the spectroscope to the telescope suggested new questions to practicing astronomers, introduced new mensurational tasks, and ultimately altered the familiar boundaries of acceptable research within the astronomical community.  By the end of the 1860s, the growing ranks of amateur astronomers and the handful of professionals in this tradition-bound discipline were adjusting their existing instrumentation and observational programs to accommodate the spectroscope.

Over the next few years, a small but vocal segment of Britain's scientific community, concerned about preserving Britain's scientific and technological pre-eminence, sought to bring about a change in the Government's recalcitrant denial of the need for State support for scientific institutions and science instruction.  This agenda intersected with the goals of one segment of those individuals interested in promoting and facilitating the growth of the new astronomy, in particular, those interested in regularized and systematic observation of changes in the solar surface and raised serious questions as to the future direction of organized astronomical research.

In this chapter, we have seen that William Huggins' designation as custodian of the Royal Society's Grubb telescope embroiled him in the vigorous and often political exchange which ensued.  By allying himself with the Astronomer Royal in this heated controversy, Huggins strengthened his ties within the social and institutional boundaries of traditional astronomical research and facilitated the introduction of spectrum analysis into the agenda of positional astronomy.  In the next chapter I shall show how Huggins' own personal research program was influenced by the tumultuous events spawned by Strange's initiatives, and the need to be more publicly accountable as custodian of the Royal Society's telescope.

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1. This is based on figures given in J. L. E. Dreyer, H. H. Turner, et al., History of the Royal Astronomical Society 1820-1920 (Blackwell Scientific Publications:  Oxford, 1987; originally published, Wheldon & Wesley:  London, 1923):  245.  In 1860, the Fellows numbered 380.  By 1870, this had increased to 509.

2. One of the central issues animating Meadows' fourth chapter in Science and Controversy is the contentious process by which recipients of the RAS's prestigious Gold Medal were selected during the 1870s.  On three occasions between 1870 and 1880, no Medal was awarded because no agreement could be reached on who deserved it.  On one other occasion, after much indecision regarding possible British recipients, the Italian astronomer, Schiaparelli was selected.  Throughout this period there was much discussion on how to amend the process of Medal selection.  See especially, A. J. Meadows, Science and Controversy:  A Biography of Sir Norman Lockyer (MIT Press:  Cambridge, 1972):  95-6, 108-9; Dreyer, Turner, et al., History, 172-3, 176, 206.

3. D. S. L. Cardwell, The Organization of Science in England (Heinmann: London, 1972):  111-26; Mari E. W. Williams, "Astronomy in London:  1860-1900," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 28 (1987):  10-26, 13-6; Meadows, Science and Controversy, chapter 4, 75-112; Roy MacLeod, "Resources of Science in Victorian England:  The Endowment of Science Movement, 1868-1900," in Science and Society 1600-1900, Peter Mathias, ed. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1972):  111-66; Peter Alter, The Reluctant Patron:  Science and the State in Britain 1850-1920 (Berg:  Oxford, 1987):  chapter 1, 13-74.

4. Cardwell, The Organisation of Science in England, 111.

5. Cardwell cites John Russell Scott, a British engineer as having reported:  "It was not that we were equalled, but that we were beaten, not on some points, but by some nation or another at nearly all those points on which we had prided ourselves."  Ibid., 111-2, note.

6. Ibid., 111-2.

7. Alter, The Reluctant Patron, 100-1; Meadows, Science and Controversy, 76-7.

8. Cardwell, The Organisation of Science in England, 75-7.

9. Ibid., 111-9.

10. The key elements of this episode are outlined in Dreyer, Turner, et al., History of the Royal Astronomical Society, 173-8.

11. [Edwin Dunkin], "Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Strange," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 37 (1877):  154-9.

12. James G. Crowther, Statesmen of Science (Dufour:  Bristol, 1966):  237-69; [Coutts Trotter], "Lieut.-Col. Alexander Strange," Dictionary of National Biography, volume 55, Sidney Lee, ed. (Macmillan:  New York, 1898):  20-1.

13. Many of those who were active in this movement were chemists like Playfair:  Henry Roscoe from Owens College in Manchester, for example, and Edward Frankland from the Royal College of Chemistry in London.

14. Lieut.-Col. Alexander Strange, "On the Necessity for State Intervention to Secure the Progress of Physical Science," Report of the British Association (Norwich, 1868):  6-8.

15. Cardwell, The Organisation of Science in England, 119-21; Williams, "Astronomy in London:  1860-1900," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 28 (1987):  10-26, 14-5; Meadows, Science and Controversy, 82-3; MacLeod, "Resources of Science in Victorian England," in Science and Society 1600-1900:  123-5; Alter, The Reluctant Patron, 80.

16. Crowther, Statesmen of Science, 213-33; Meadows, Science and Controversy, 82-3.

17. For a transcription of Strange's statement, see Lieut.-Col. A. Strange, "On the Insufficiency of Existing National Observatories," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 32 (1872):  238-41.  For a paraphrase of Strange's remarks at the meeting of the RAS, with excerpts of the discussion which followed, see idem., Astronomical Register 10 (1872):  113-20.

18. Strange, "On the Insufficiency of Existing National Observatories," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 32 (1872):  238-41; 238-9.

19. Strange, "On the Insufficiency of Existing National Observatories," Astronomical Register 10 (1872):  113-20; 113.

20. Ibid.  See also George Biddell Airy, "Proposed devotion of an observatory to observation of the phenomena of Jupiter's satellites," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 32 (1872):  80.

21. Strange, "National Observatories," Monthly Notices, 239.  In the Astronomical Register, Strange was paraphrased in this way:  "The labours of private individuals are liable to be interrupted by their deaths or the loss of the possession of the observatory."  See, idem., Astronomical Register 10 (1872):  113-20; 114.

22. Strange, "On the Insufficiency of Existing National Observatories," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 32 (1872):  238-41; 240.  Strange's own words were that this type of work would be so laborious that "individuals can never complete [it] within any reasonable period."

23. Strange, "On the Insufficiency of Existing National Observatories," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 32 (1872):  238-41; 240.  The suspected relationship between sunspot numbers and terrestrial weather patterns was of growing interest in Britain owing to the desire to anticipate droughts in India and hence prevent famine.  See, Theodore M. Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking (Princeton University Press:  Princeton, 1986):  274-9.

24. More than efficient organization was needed to insure a successful data gathering effort.  It also helped to have a ready supply of patient and attentive assistants to hand, as indicated in the following note:  "The Kew photographs are now taken by Miss Beckly, the daughter of the mechanical assistant of Kew; and it seems to be a work peculiarly fitting to a lady.  During the day she watches for opportunities of photographing the Sun with that patience for which the sex is distinguished, and she never lets an opportunity escape her.  It is extraordinary that even on very cloudy days, between gaps of cloud, when it would be imagined that it was almost impossible to get a photograph, yet there is always a record at Kew." Anonymous, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 26 (1866):  77.

25. The Duke of Devonshire's questions provided Strange with the opportunity to put the story behind the demise of the Kew's solar observations in the public record.  Strange recounted how the British Association had, until recently supported, the Kew operation.  When this money was cut off, James Gassiot had offered a large sum of money to the Royal Society to maintain many projects at Kew, but solar observations had not been included.  See Lieut.-Col. Alexander Strange, Testimony before the Devonshire Commission, 24 April 1872, Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science.  Minutes of Evidence, Appendices, and Analyses of Evidence, Volume II (Eyre and Spottiswoode:  London, 1874):  75-92; 76.

26. Strange, "On the Insufficiency of Existing National Observatories," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 32 (1872):  238-41; 240.

27. Ibid., 241.

28. Strange, "On the Insufficiency of Existing National Observatories," Astronomical Register 10 (1872):  113-20; 114.

29. George Airy, "Response to Col. Strange," Astronomical Register 10 (1872): 115.

30. It is interesting to note that the very next day after this particular RAS meeting, Huggins spent time observing the sun.  The three notebook entries Huggins made during the next week indicate that he observed the sun twice again.  On these occasions, however, he was not observing the sun's surface to gain a better understanding of the structure of the sun itself.  Instead, Huggins subjected the solar spectrum to exacting scrutiny in order better to gauge the shift he had perceived in the spectral lines of Sirius.  Where individuals like De La Rue, Strange, and Lockyer saw the sun as an object with intrinsic scientific interest, Huggins viewed it as a valuable calibration device for assisting in the study of other celestial bodies in which he had a greater personal interest.

31. The question of the relationship among such apparently disparate phenomena as sunspot numbers, fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field, and terrestrial weather patterns was an old sore point for Airy.  Airy had directed the keeping of daily records of geomagnetic variations at Greenwich in the 1830s and '40s, but later analysis of these records failed to convince him that any discernible pattern existed. Both the accuracy of the Greenwich measures and the correctness of Airy's interpretation of them was challenged by Edward Sabine and other magnetic observers who reported evidence for a ten-year cycle in geomagnetic variations. Airy did not ordinarily respond favorably to such criticism, but in this case, as Meadows has shown, Airy's reaction was magnified by his intense personal dislike of his chief critic, Edward Sabine.  Clearly then, Strange pressed some of Airy's more sensitive alarm buttons with his forceful arguments in favor of initiating solar observations based on what Airy considered unproven connections between solar and terrestrial phenomena.  See, A. J. Meadows, Greenwich Observatory, Volume 2: Recent History (1836-1975) (Taylor & Francis:  London, 1975):  96-100.

32. Airy, "Response to Col. Strange," Astronomical Register 10 (1872):  118.

33. Strange, Testimony before the Devonshire Commission, Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science, 75.

34. Strange, Testimony before the Devonshire Commission, Royal commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science, 76.

35. Ibid.

36. George Biddell Airy, Testimony before the Devonshire Commission, 26 April 1872, Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science, 93-100.

37. Ibid., 94.

38. Ibid., 95.

39. Robert W. Smith, "A National Observatory Transformed:  Greenwich in the Nineteenth Century," Journal for the History of Astronomy 22 (1991):  1-14; 6.

40. William Huggins to George Biddell Airy, 28 February 1872, RGO 6.271/7/2/327, University of Cambridge Library.  It was only two weeks later, on 15 March 1872, that Airy requested information from George Stokes on what he called "das Doppelsche Princip, or some such term."  This episode has been discussed in chapter 3.

41. Meadows, Science and Controversy, 94-5, 105.

42. Huggins' correspondence with William Christie and George Airy with advice on spectroscopic matters has already been discussed in chapter 3.

43. Meadows, Science and Controversy, 96-8.

44. For a discussion of what took place at this special RAS meeting and a transcript of Huggins' resolution, see Meadows, Science and Controversy, 97-8.

45. Minutes of the RAS Council Meeting, 28 June 1872, cited in Meadows, Science and Controversy, 97.

46. Ibid.

47. Arthur Cayley (RAS President) to J. Norman Lockyer (Secretary to the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction), 2 July 1872, cited in Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science.  Minutes of Evidence, Appendices, and Analyses of Evidence, Volume II (Eyre and Spottiswoode:  London, 1874):  Appendix VII, 30.  Indicative, perhaps, of the dissension out of which this resolution was born, Cayley stated in his letter that he was submitting to the public record a resolution approved by the Royal Astronomical Society's Council in accord with his duty as the Society's President, but that he had no "wish to offer any evidence to the Commission" in person.

48. Meadows, Science and Controversy,  95.

49. From William Crookes' diary entry for Friday, 16 December 1870, cited in Edmund Edward Fournier D'Albe, The Life of Sir William Crookes O.M., F.R.S. (T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd:  London, 1923):  154.

50. William Crookes' diary entry for Monday, 2 January 1871, ibid., 172.

51. Meadows, Science and Controversy, 95-6.

52. "Socius Nauseatus" to the Editor, "The Royal Astronomical Society and a Recent Fiasco," Astronomical Register 11 (1873):  100-2.

53. See "Letters to all Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society" (from John Browning, T. W. Burr, E. B. Denison, William Noble, and Richard A. Proctor; and Alexander Strange); as well as "Letters to the Editor" (from Richard A. Proctor; and "Socius Nauseatus"), Astronomical Register 11 (1873):  93-102.  For a summary of the tumultuous sequence of events, see Meadows, Science and Controversy, 99-102.


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"

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