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




The Bakerian Lecture

February 1885 marked a high-point in William Huggins' scientific career. Not only was he feeling extremely optimistic about the future of his method for photographing the corona, but just one week after he celebrated his sixty-first birthday, he became one of only a handful of astronomers to be awarded a second Gold Medal by the RAS.129  It will be recalled that Huggins had shared his award of the prestigious Gold Medal in 1867 with his collaborator, William Allen Miller, professor of chemistry at King's College, London.  The Council had selected Huggins and Miller because of their pioneering examination of stellar and nebular spectra.  This time, the Council wished to recognize both Huggins' introduction of the spectroscopic method of measuring stellar radial velocities into routine astronomical research and his successful photographs of stellar and cometary spectra.

The lengthy address delivered by RAS President Edwin Dunkin detailed a stunning array of Huggins' achievements in a wide variety of research areas. Dunkin praised Huggins for having given "practical life" to the study of stellar radial motion, for his study of nebular spectra, for his pioneering work in observing solar prominences and for his "recent labours" on the photographic spectra of stars, nebulae and comets.  Dunkin hoped that Huggins' photographs of stellar spectra would eventually serve as a foundation for a complete atlas of stellar spectra.  He argued there was still much work to be done.

Dr. Huggins's successful application of photography to the subject of these inquiries is now so far acknowledged to be an important astronomical achievement that it is hoped that others will follow his example.  But any attempts to follow in his footsteps will certainly end in failure unless the observer is in possession of instruments of the highest class as well as the necessary zeal for the work.130

In Dunkin's view, Huggins' great virtue in all this was perseverance.  As a pioneer, he had encountered difficulties and occasional failure.  In spite of this, Huggins invariably turned setbacks into success because he did not give up.  William Huggins exemplified the motto:  "The anxious inquirer after knowledge conquers all difficulties at last."  Perhaps this was meant as tacit encouragement for the success of his, as yet, unsubstantiated method of photographing the solar corona, the one area of Huggins' research which received no mention at all in Dunkin's address.

The very next week, Huggins gave an evening address to the Royal Institution on the subject of the solar corona.  In this talk, Huggins summarized observations of the corona from recent eclipses and described briefly some of the more popular theories proposed to explain those observations.  He pointed out the obvious benefits of having the opportunity to subject the corona to daily scrutiny and provided details of his own method for accomplishing this which, he was quick to point out, had received the approbation and encouragement of a number of experienced photographers and eclipse observers.

Here, for the first time, Huggins speculated publicly on the nature of the corona.  Huggins drew the attention of his audience to the analogous appearance of the structural features of the solar corona to the "luminous streamers and rifts and curved rays" seen in the tails of comets.  Photographs taken during the Egyptian eclipse clearly showed the image of a comet with its tail pointing radially away from the sun as though pushed by a powerful repulsive force.  This evidence when added to reports from numerous visual observations of comet tails made over the years had led to increasing speculation that comets were subjected to "electrical disturbances" as they approached the sun, perhaps similar to the electrical disturbances responsible for aurorae and lightning in Earth's atmosphere.  High electrical potential at the level of the photosphere could account for both the movement and the glow of oppositely charged material far above the sun's surface, particularly if that material were extremely tenuous.  The morphological variety presented by coronal features could be easily accommodated within the bounds of such a theory.

Huggins reminded his audience that such speculation did not provide answers for the many questions about the corona that remained unanswered.  It was still unknown, for example, by what physical mechanism the corona emits its light, or what happens to the ejected coronal matter.  Huggins closed his talk with a little demonstration.  An evacuated glass bulb lent him by William Crookes contained a small metal ball which was connected to the cathode of a battery (see Figure 40). When sufficient potential difference was applied, the metal ball became surrounded by a "corona of blueish-grey light which was sufficiently bright to be seen from all parts of the theatre."  Huggins believed this simulation of physical conditions in the near solar environment provided a convincing demonstration of electricity's probable role in producing the form and structure of the solar corona.  Nevertheless, Huggins refused to speculate further, claiming he was sure that David Gill's regimen of daily coronal photographs would reveal much of additional interest to solar investigators.131

Figure 40.  Illustration showing apparatus similar to that used by William Huggins to demonstrate possible electrical cause of the solar corona [from Manch. Lit. Phil., Series 3, 5 (1871):  207].

One month later, he sent Stokes a copy of his Royal Institution lecture with the hope that Stokes would "be disposed to approve of the speculation about the corona."132  He apparently received the desired praise from Stokes, for just four days later, Huggins sent him an animated and enthusiastic note:

I am very much pleased to find that you think so well of the corona theory.  On this subject I value your opinion more highly than that of any other living man, & your approval is a source of much gratification to me.133

Stokes must have questioned Huggins about the demonstration he had performed with Crookes' apparatus, however, wondering whether the glow produced by the current in the evacuated tube could rightly be considered a simulation of the electrical effects producing the solar corona.  In truth, no one at the time claimed to understand what caused the glow in Crookes' apparatus.  And Huggins did not really care about such details.  He was satisfied that the glow represented a "very attenuated matter luminous in connection with an electric discharge, which was the point I wished to illustrate."134

In May, the Council of the Royal Society selected Huggins to deliver the annual Bakerian Lecture, established by the Society in 1774 in conformity with the terms of the will of Fellow Henry Baker, an antiquarian and naturalist.135  It was a great honor to be selected.  And Huggins was quick to express his deep appreciation to Stokes.  "I heard of the action of the Council in conversation from two or three members of the Council," he wrote.  "I was too much taken aback to say anything then."136

The Council wished Huggins to speak on the subject of the sun.  But, as he told Stokes, other than what he had already said in his recent Royal Institution lecture, he had nothing new to say about the sun, unless, of course, some late-minute confirmatory report should arrive by telegraph from David Gill at the Cape. Huggins explained to Stokes that he was certain his method of photographing the corona without an eclipse would work, "& yet considering the extreme delicacy of the process, & the amount of doubt existing in some minds, I should have greatly preferred receiving some further confirmation before writing, or speaking again about it."137

The tone of the letter betrayed the depth of Huggins' anxiety.  He was as worried about his ability to measure up to the high quality expected by the Royal Society in this effort as he had been almost fifteen years earlier when he contemplated the responsibility of accepting custody of the Society's great telescope. He worried whether the skies at the Cape had sufficient clarity to capture the corona's image on film.  He worried whether Gill would notify him of positive results in a timely manner.138  He even worried whether the Council wanted him to show lantern slides to illustrate his lecture.  But most of all, he worried that his lecture be "worthy of the Society."

Much of this concern can be ascribed to overactive conscientiousness.  But Huggins had been perturbed by a brief, but public, confrontation over the validity of his claim to have photographed the solar corona without an eclipse.  The clash began in April 1885, when a letter critical of Huggins' method was published in the American journal Science.139  The letter was written by the American astronomer and photography expert, William H. Pickering.  Then just in his late 20s, Pickering was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and assisting in the photographic research projects of his well-known older brother, Edward, the director of the Harvard College Observatory.  Young Pickering's letter detailed his own attempts to duplicate Huggins' coronal photographs.  "Very corona-like effects were certainly produced," Pickering admitted, but "unfortunately no two of the pictures were alike."  He concluded that "though it is very easy to obtain a corona-like image, one may readily be deceived in such matters."

Complicating matters somewhat was the fact that Huggins had recently had cause to criticize Edward Pickering for what Huggins claimed were "wildly wrong" measures for the spectral lines in a Lyrae.  He had written to the elder Pickering privately to urge him to reexamine his data because "it would be better that you should yourself discover the error and publish the correction, than that the matter should be pointed out by others."  Huggins added that he had also sent "the substance of this note to Prof. Young as his name is on one paper."  He did not tell Pickering that he had sent a letter with details of his criticisms to Edward Holden as well, a letter which concluded, "Such papers [as Pickering's] throw back the progress of science, and are much to be regretted, as so many astronomers & book-makers have not the necessary knowledge to distinguish between what is sound & what is not."  Huggins later suspected that his criticisms of Edward Pickering's work contributed to his younger brother's desire to return the favor.140

William Pickering sent a copy of his Science letter to Huggins.141  Huggins was incensed by Pickering's insinuation that he was lacking in certain rudimentary methodological and interpretive skills.  But before Huggins was able to begin rallying his forces in Britain, Charles Young, the eminent American solar observer who was now at Princeton, attempted, albeit with limited success, to cast doubts on the validity of Pickering's own methodology.142  Meanwhile, Huggins drafted a reply which he sent to Stokes for editorial guidance.  The original letter has not been uncovered so we cannot know what changes Stokes may have suggested.  Huggins' reply published in Science was, however, both caustic and personal.  Huggins stated that he would be willing to admit failure of his method due to some unforeseen physical limitation or theoretical constraint, but he could not tolerate criticism of his method based on accusations of unskilled ingenuousness.143

Pickering added further insult by having his original letter published again, this time in a British journal, the Photographic News.  Huggins feared a rash of inquiries would be directed to the RAS in search of some explanatory response from him.  He therefore sent William Wesley, the Society's Assistant Secretary, a copy of his reply to Pickering to help him "answer any point raised."144

Huggins did not want to be distracted by a dispute with Pickering, or anyone else, at that time.  He had to prepare his worthy address.  Nevertheless, he could not lose sight of the fact that delicate new methods, such as the one he was proposing for photographing the solar corona without an eclipse, would always draw fire.  The criticism from Pickering alerted Huggins to the potential for similar attacks from his own countrymen in consequence of his forthcoming lecture.  Thus, just three weeks before Huggins was to deliver the Bakerian Lecture before the Royal Society, he wrote again to Stokes.

Huggins wished to say something in his lecture about the photographs taken by Ray Woods in Switzerland:  "I know that astronomers in other countries are much interested in these plates."145  However, Huggins worried that to discuss the plates properly, he would be placed in the position of having to state his own opinion of them, and he wished very much to avoid that.  In retrospect, it is clear Huggins harbored personal doubts about Woods' Riffel photographs, but he could not openly disclose them to Stokes.  Instead, he assured Stokes in confidence that he believed the plates showed the corona.  At the same time he added, "there are good many markings about which I do not know what to say.  Some of these may be, and probably are truly normal, many others I fear are instrumental, or due to stains in the film."  One alternative which briefly came to Huggins' mind was to use Woods' drawings made from the photographic plates.  He rejected that out of hand, however, because he found the drawings unreliable as evidence.  Their value was "only as a sort of index to what is on the plates.  [Woods] put nearly everything in his drawings, and perhaps too strongly."

To avoid the necessity of having to give his own opinion on the plates, Huggins suggested that Abney, Christie, De La Rue and Stokes sit together for an hour and examine the Riffel photographs in order to formulate a collective written opinion of the plates:  "If this could be done, so that I could quote the verdict in general terms, it would add much to the interest of the lecture."146  Stokes must have demurred on this request as the Riffel plates were alluded to only briefly in the text of the lecture, and supportive evidence given only from Woods' own interpretive remarks concerning them.147

Huggins' Bakerian Lecture was, in many ways, a more elaborate and sophisticated version of his lecture given to the Royal Institution in February.  He carefully laid out the theoretical foundation for the preponderance of violet light in the corona which made possible his method of photographing it.  He described his method in detail, giving particular attention to the many precautions he had taken to prevent the appearance of false effects -- a direct result of his earlier bout with Pickering.  He painstakingly built up the case for the acceptance of his interpretation of the coronal images that had been taken by his new method.  He emphasized the persuasive value of the sheer numbers of successful plates obtained, the corroborative interpretations of these plates by expert witnesses, and the positive outcomes of the confirmatory tests that had been tried thus far.  In Huggins' view, adding this new investigative method to the toolkit of solar observers would go far toward answering many of the perplexing questions which still plagued them.

In addition to discussing the details of his photographic method, Huggins elaborated further on the electrical theory of the solar corona which he believed was strongly supported by the photographs taken using his method.  He repeated the evidence for this cited in his Royal Institution lecture.  To this, he added the fact that coronal streamers could be seen in a number of the photographs pointing in the direction of Mercury and Venus indicating some kind of electrical attraction between the coronal material and the planets.  But much of the detailed support for his argument in favor of the electrical theory of the solar corona was not in place at the time the lecture was given.  Throughout the summer of 1885, while awaiting news from Gill at the Cape, Huggins worked on refining the text of his Bakerian Lecture for publication in the Proceedings.  He carried on an extensive and what seems to have been for him a theoretically challenging correspondence with George Stokes on the central question of the electrical theory of the corona.148  It is unfortunate that we only have one side of this correspondence.  We are left to speculate on the content of Stokes' expert guidance on the basis of Huggins' queries and comments in his letters to Stokes and from the notes added to the Lecture's text after the date it was delivered.

Refining his argument for the electrical theory was not the only difficulty facing Huggins in readying his lecture text for publication.  William Pickering raised yet another question concerning Huggins' claims to have photographed the corona without an eclipse.149  This time, he challenged Huggins to photograph the moon at midday, a feat Pickering claimed to be impossible.150  Huggins was unsure how to handle Pickering's criticisms in publishing his Bakerian Lecture.  On the one hand, he did not wish to create the appearance that he was shying away from criticism ("If there were reason to suppose that a mistake had been made, and that the corona had not, & could not be photographed, in that case I should wish to be myself the first to say so.  My only anxiety is for the truth."151)  On the other hand, he was concerned about the "tone of the letter," the sense of "personal animus" which made the matter a delicate one.  He sought Stokes' advice on how to handle this diplomatically without damaging his own case.

He also sought advice from Stokes on what to do about the lack of supporting evidence from the Cape.  Huggins had had high hopes that the Cape photographic regimen would clinch his case.  It had not.  It was not that Gill had been unable to photograph the sun.  He had.  In spite of having obtained images that seemed likely to represent the solar corona, Gill could not say he was " quite sure about success" given the atmospheric conditions.  It was this lack of certainty that plagued Huggins.

On 30 October, after Huggins had finally submitted the text of his lecture to be printed, he received a promising letter from Gill:

Last [S]aturday a glorious day -- the plates do show something very delicate and that looks like true corona shape -- something certainly much nearer the real thing than any we have previously secured.  I have not at all lost faith, and do most earnestly believe and hope to succeed.  I expect with the daily increasing altitude of the sun to get still more satisfactory results.152

He received another promising but uncertain letter from Gill on 19 November. Huggins began to despair of gaining the kind of absolute proof he desired, especially since even the comparison of Gill's photographs with those taken at the long-awaited New Zealand eclipse of September 1885 was inconclusive.153

The excitement and enthusiasm Huggins had felt in early 1885 turned to exasperation by the beginning of 1886.  In January, Arthur Ranyard, a barrister and avid amateur solar observer, read a paper before the RAS which argued that the limitations on photographic plates were such that there was simply no "chance of photographing the corona under ordinary daylight conditions."154  Ranyard had tested Wratten and Wainwright "extra sensitive" plates as well as commercial dry plates from various makers by exposing them in steps by opening the shutter at selected time intervals and exposing limited portions of each plate.  But in these experiments, even the Wratten and Wainwright plates only distinguished at most nineteen gradations in intensity whereas contemporary studies of human sensory response had shown that humans can detect differences in illumination of one in sixty with certainty.155

It is clear from Huggins' letters to Stokes that Stokes was trying to find ways of improving the chances of the method's success.  But Huggins was becoming more discouraged by what he called the "rough ways of most professional & amateur photographers" which were hindering any hope of success.  The reputations of astronomers, he asserted, were at stake and dependent on the skill, or lack thereof, of these artisans.  He cited Pickering and Ranyard as examples who have an "obvious incapacity even to understand properly the conditions of the method," while Abney, clearly an exceptional photographer, had been able to detect photographically differences in illumination of only one in 120 and was aiming to reach one in two hundred!156

Encouragement came in a letter from E. L. Trouvelot of the observatory at Meudon informing Huggins that he had observed the corona when the sun was behind a cloud.157  This provided Gill with yet another method to try.158  In May, an elated Huggins reported to Stokes that "Wesley tells me that he can make several satisfactory drawings from Gill's plate, & that he has no doubt of the reality of the coronal appearances, at least on some of the plates."159  Another total eclipse was approaching in August.  It would cross the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, and it was predicted to last four minutes.  If the weather cooperated, which was questionable, eclipse observers could reap much valuable information in the time available.

Huggins hoped observers would be able to confirm the presence of coronal streamers in the direction of Mercury and Venus as Tennant had helped him show from observations gathered in two previous eclipses.160  Unfortunately, the weather was temperamental and, although observers did see the sun during totality, the corona did not present a particularly pronounced appearance.161  Huggins was disappointed that efforts to photograph the corona during the partial phases of the eclipse using his method were unsuccessful.162  He concluded that given the current weakened state of the corona, his method was especially ineffective at sea level because of the additional obscuration due to the denser atmosphere there.163 Although the description of the corona's appearance provided by visual observers conformed to Huggins' expectations in the sense that luminous regions in the near-solar environment were described as being generally in line with the inner planets, he was nevertheless disheartened by his method's weak performance.  He confided to Stokes, "I am doubtful as to how I should look at the early favourable results 1880-1883."164

In the spring of 1886, the Hugginses resumed making entries in Notebook 2 after a lengthy hiatus.  Curiously, those written between 3 April and 16 November are in William's hand, not Margaret's.165  The entries relate to comparisons of Greenwich's measures of stellar motion in the line of sight with Huggins' own.166 Even after Margaret's return as record keeper, their attention, seemingly distracted from the problem of the solar corona for the moment, was instead focussed on stellar and nebular spectroscopy.  There are hints that it was a difficult and possibly a contentious time for William and Margaret Huggins.  In her first entry after her lengthy absence, Margaret states bluntly, "My husband thought the nebula was brighter in the achromatic.  I thought not -- but probably I was wrong."167  A few months later, she described a disagreement between them over the interpretation of a nebular photograph.168

Then, in May 1887, Huggins was suddenly and brutally awakened to the reality of competition on an unprecedented and, for him, unimaginable scale. Ironically, this challenge materialized as an indirect consequence of the death some five years earlier of the young American amateur astronomer, Henry Draper.169  The cause of Huggins' anxiety was the news that Harvard College Observatory had just received a large endowment from Draper's widow, Anna, to begin a long-range program there of photographing, measuring, and classifying stellar spectra.170  Much remains to be explored about the dynamics of the occasionally competitive relationship between Draper and Huggins from 1874 when the two men corresponded briefly about techniques of photographing stellar spectra, and Draper's untimely death in 1882.171  Suffice it to say here that while Huggins was genuinely grieved by Draper's death, he was nonetheless relieved to be free of the tension arising from the fact that, in Huggins' view, Draper's research agenda was coming to parallel his own far too closely.  More importantly, Huggins genuinely believed that Draper had stolen his own research plans and techniques for photographing stellar spectra during a visit paid to the Tulse Hill Observatory in the summer of 1879.172

The announcement of the Draper endowment revived and enhanced Huggins' old worries about his ability to keep apace, let alone make any future contributions of value to the rapidly changing field of astronomical physics.  He wrote to his trusty confidante, George Stokes:

A grave question is upon my mind, & I venture to ask your opinion now, as perhaps you can tell me what you think in a few words when we meet tomorrow night.

I have just received a paper from Harvard Observatory & there, through the large endowment of Mrs. Draper the photography of star spectra is to be carried on upon a magnificent scale.  Three large instruments are to be kept at work all through the night by relays of photographers & photographs to be enlarged by special methods & measured by other men.

The question is, is it worth my while to continue working in this direction now that it is being done under circumstances with which no zeal & perseverance on my part will enable me to be in an equal position.

It is scarcely worth while to do what will be done well, no doubt, elsewhere--

I do not at this moment see clearly any entirely new direction of work.

At this moment my spectra go much further in the ultra-violet, but the Americans are about to go in this direction.  As the telescope belongs to the R.S. I am the more anxious to do the best work I can with it.173

Having vented his anxieties, Huggins soon turned his "zeal & perseverance" to plans for a new project, one which "at present has not been attempted at Harvard," namely, concentrating on photographing the ultra-violet region of stellar spectra.174 As he was currently "suffering unfortunately from reduced rents," Huggins claimed he was unable to afford the necessary improvements to the Royal Society's telescope to carry out this program of research and asked Stokes privately to ask the Council of the Society for a grant.175  The ensuing contact with Grubb rekindled Huggins' interest in general observation of the sun's surface that had lain dormant since the New Zealand eclipse in September 1885.

Grubb suggested a new instrumental arrangement to Huggins that promised to make it possible to observe individual images of the sun which were "approximately homogeneous" in wavelength.  By "placing suitable diaphrams [sic] in front of prism, & observing with a similar prism, reversed in position, next the eye[,] I got well-defined images of the sun of different colours."176

Stokes continued to provide Huggins both encouragement and suggestions for further improving his method of obtaining a photograph of the solar corona.177 During the fall of 1887 and spring of 1888, Huggins renewed his efforts, interspersing daytime coronal work with evening nebular observation.  In September 1888, he had once again accumulated enough photographs which were "certainly coronal in appearance" to send them on to Stokes for his inspection, even though Huggins feared "there is not enough evidence to come to any decision upon the point at present."  He also wrote to Gill to request his cooperation in taking yet another round of photographs based on Stokes' suggested improvements to serve as comparisons.178

The continuing lack of conclusive evidence in support of his coronal method made Huggins long to be able to show Stokes "one of the very early trials -- the one, which made me feel pretty certain about the matter, and the one, which when Abney saw he exclaimed:-- 'It is the corona.'"  But, Huggins explained, that particular photograph had deteriorated with time and "I have never since got any photo, showing distinct forms in the same manner."179  In strict confidence, Huggins raised the same concerns about the quality of the Riffel photographs that he had expressed when preparing his Bakerian Lecture, only this time he carefully began distancing himself from them.  In a portion of a letter to Stokes marked "Private," Huggins admitted:

It ... seemed desirable [in 1884] to compare drawings of the plates, and a number of drawings were made by Mr. Woods under Capt. Abney's direct superintendence.  When we compared these among themselves we (my wife especially, who had spent much time over them, & whose eyes are artistically trained,) began to doubt very much if the features which made one photo differ from another were really due to the corona.  We then had here the original negatives, a further examination of these confirmed us in the view, that these features were almost certainly due to instrumental causes of some kind.

We took them back to South Kensington & there went over some of them with Capt Abney, who still expressed himself in favour of a true coronal origin of these forms, or marked features.

The result of the prolonged examination in our own minds was a strong conviction that all the more marked features seen upon the plates were instrumental, & that any true coronal effect was confined to a very short distance from the limb, & even then was too much mixed up with atmospheric & instrumental effects for any conclusions as to the corona and its possible changes to be got from the plates.180

To make matters worse for the confirmation process, Gill's latest photographs arrived from the Cape.  Huggins proclaimed his profound exasperation to Stokes:

I think the truth of the matter is summed up in what I said to my wife on my return home on Thursday that "All the photos are spoilt through bad photography"  This, of course, in confidence, but it would be well to point out to Gill, if you write, (Gill himself has no knowledge of photography) that the photographs for the corona need much greater delicacy of treatment, that the development must be stopped with greater judgment, & that the chemical processes must be so conducted that a solarized image of the sun is almost quite white. It is badly damaging to the method to send photos which show so little intelligence in their production....

I looked at the prints hastily, but I think there are no whites anywhere.  All that Woods has to do is follow the processes on the enclosed paper, & use great cleanliness, avoidance of light coming upon the paper.  What is wanted above all is, what I may call, intelligence in the darkroom, namely to see when to stop the development, & also to use the solutions weak so that they be slow in their action, & thus enable the operator to stop at the exact moment.181

Gill was one of the foremost celestial photographers of his day.  Huggins' strong words indicate more about his own state of mind than Gill's photographic abilities. Huggins showed an even greater impatience and disappointment the following summer, when Ray Woods, the photographer responsible for taking most of the photographs used to corroborate Huggins' method, visited London on a vacation from his duties at the Cape.  Woods unexpectedly called on Huggins to deliver some more photographs which Huggins complained showed "nothing, or next to nothing, which can be supposed to be coronal."  Huggins quizzed Woods on his developing technique and found, much to his dismay, that Woods had, in Huggins' view, been processing the coronal photographs incorrectly.  "I have urged him to experiment in London until he can develop properly."182  Huggins ceased to have any confidence in further efforts at the Cape and turned elsewhere for evidentiary support.

In late 1889, even after becoming embroiled in controversy with Lockyer over the identity of the chief nebular line discussed in chapter 4, Margaret and William Huggins continued to seek support for their method of photographing the corona.  William Huggins complained to Stokes, "There has been only one day in which there seemed to me any chance of the Corona, but I have been so overwhelmed with anxious work (up to yesterday) over my paper on Orion....  Now I will watch everyday."183  He sought some positive word from Americans Edward Holden and Charles Young.184  He eagerly solicited the help of the new director of the Athens Observatory, Demetrius Eginitis, who advertised the skies above Athens as "very pure & black," "preeminently the place" for attempting Huggins' corona method.185  But three years later, in July 1892, we find him still awaiting news of success from the Athens Observatory.186  In 1894 and 1895, Huggins' method received considerable, though critical, attention from the young American astronomer, George Ellery Hale, and was a common subject of the correspondence between the two men into 1896.187  In December 1895, Huggins wrote to David Peck Todd of Yale University expressing his delight that Todd was going to give the method another trial.188  Yet, when, in 1897, Huggins wrote his retrospective essay, "The New Astronomy," he never mentioned these many efforts to photograph the corona without an eclipse.  The enthusiasm that had been generated by the initial perception that Huggins had developed a successful method to capture the solar corona photographically in broad daylight subsided.  And Huggins' pioneering role was forgotten.

In this chapter, I have shown that Huggins responded to prevailing competitive political, social and disciplinary influences by pursuing three significant solar research projects from the late 1860s through the mid-1890s.  The eclecticism of his own personal research interests, the voraciousness of his curiosity, the spur of his personal ambition, and the entrepreneurial style of his project selection led Huggins to take substantial career risks during this more established phase of his career in order to keep apace, if not ahead, of what he recognized as a rapidly growing and evolving discipline.

Because William Huggins is remembered principally as a pioneer in the field of stellar and nebular spectroscopy, his efforts to introduce spectroscopic methods into solar research are less well known.  Although he was not the first to observe solar prominences without an eclipse, Huggins noisily claimed priority for suggesting that they could be observed in the first place.  He thus intruded upon the claims of his chief competitor, Lockyer.  In the process, Huggins gained a healthy respect for the constructive potential of establishing priority.  His work on solar prominences and his expedition's failure to observe the eclipse of 1870, encouraged Huggins to attempt a bold plan for photographing the solar corona without an eclipse.  Huggins' initial impression of success in this project led him to pursue it for many years with great interest and drive.  The inconclusiveness of his results tested the strength of his persuasive power and encouraged him to try to build an international network of confirmatory witnesses.  The evidence Huggins believed he needed to argue successfully for the validity of his method was not forthcoming. Nevertheless, his correspondence contains the details of the verbal and visual rhetorical process by which he was able, as a relative outsider to solar observation, to shape the development of methods of observation in the emerging discipline of solar research, the types of questions being asked about the solar atmosphere, the kind and form of observation which counted as conclusive evidence and established it as real, and finally the direction in which solar observation was taken by the growing network of solar observers up to the turn of the century.

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129. Other illustrious recipients of this honor up to 1885 include, J. F. W. Herschel (1826, 1836), Francis Baily (1827, 1843), George Biddell Airy (1833, 1846) and U. J. J. Leverrier (1868, 1876).

130. Edwin Dunkin, "President's Address on Presenting the Gold Medal of the Society to William Huggins," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 45 (1885):  277-93; 292.

131. Huggins, "On the Solar Corona," Proceedings of the Royal Institution 11 (1885):  202-14.

132. William Huggins to George Stokes, 25 March 1885, Add MS 7656.H1172, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

133. William Huggins to George Stokes, 29 March 1885, Add MS 7656.H1173, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

134. Huggins sent Stokes a proposed replacement for his earlier description of the effect observed in Crookes' apparatus.  He hoped this new paragraph would satisfy Stokes' criticisms.  Unfortunately, he explained, James Knowles, the editor of the popular magazine Nineteenth Century had requested that Huggins convert the text of his lecture on the corona into an article suitable for his readership.  Huggins had already submitted the manuscript for publication, and was thus unable to make any further adjustments to it.  See, William Huggins, "The Sun's Corona," Nineteenth Century 17 (1885):  676-89; 689.

135. For a discussion of the Bakerian Lecture, see Henry Lyons, The Royal Society 1660-1940:  A History of its Administration under its Charters (Greenwood Press:  New York, 1968):  192; and Hall, All Scientists Now, 224 n13.

136. William Huggins to George Stokes, 4 May 1885, Add MS 7656.H1175, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.  The three members who revealed the Council's decision to Huggins were William Christie, Warren De La Rue, and William Abney.

137. Ibid.

138. Huggins had "begged" Gill to telegraph him immediately, "which he can do free of expense, in case of scientific urgency."  Ibid.

139. William H. Pickering, "An attempt to photograph the corona," Science 5 (1885):  266-7; 266.

140. See, William Huggins to Edward Pickering, 12 March and April/May 1884, Pickering papers, Harvard University Library; William Huggins to Edward S. Holden, 2 June 1884, Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory; William Huggins to Stokes, 4 September 1885, Add MS 7656.H1188, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

141. William Huggins to George Stokes, 20 April 1885, Add MS 7656.H1174, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

142. Charles A. Young, "An attempt to photograph the corona," Science 5 (1885): 307.  Young's letter was dated 8 April.

143. William Huggins, "An attempt to photograph the solar corona," Science 5 (1885):  397-8.

144. William Huggins to William Wesley, 26 April 1885, Correspondence, Royal Astronomical Society Library.

145. William Huggins to George Stokes, 19 May, 1885, Add MS 7656.H1176, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

146. Ibid.

147. William Huggins, "On the Corona of the Sun -- The Bakerian Lecture," Proceedings of the Royal Society 39 (1885):  108-35; 115-6.  It is possible that Stokes merely let the issue drop.  In preparing the written text of his lecture for publication, Huggins indirectly raised the question to Stokes again:  "I presume it is not desirable to say more about the Riffel plates, than the short quotation I have given of Mr. Woods' own words."  William Huggins to George Stokes, 5 July 1885, Add MS 7656.H1181, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

148. See William Huggins to George Stokes, 15 June; 5, 12, 17, 22 July; 19, 24 August 1885 [Add MS 7656.H1180-1186]; 4 September 1885 [Add MS 7656.H1188]; 18 September; 2 October 1885 [Add MS 7656.H1191-1192], Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

149. William H. Pickering, "An Attempt to Photograph the Solar Corona without an Eclipse," Science 6 (1885):  131-3; 132,

150. Huggins claimed he was able to obtain four images of the moon between 11:30 a. m. and noon.  Thus, he believed that "Pickering is fully disposed of."  To bolster his own view that Pickering had no practical or theoretical foundation for his claims, Huggins consulted his photographic expert, William Abney, who had become quite an authority on the ability of various photographic processes to detect slight gradations in the intensity of light emitted by the object being photographed.  See Huggins to Stokes, 4 September 1885, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

151. Ibid.

152. The letter from Gill is cited in William Huggins to David Peck Todd, 2 November 1885, Todd papers, Yale University Library.  Huggins also sent a slightly different and more informative version of this letter to Holden:  "Saturday being a clear day, Woods carried out your suggestions.  He made some excellent chloride plates, & with short exposure and development and after intensification they do show something very delicate that looks like the true corona shape -- something certainly much nearer to the real thing than any we have previously secured.  More than this I can not say, until we get more pictures of like quality.  I do most earnestly believe and hope to succeed."  See William Huggins to Edward S. Holden, 19 November 1885, Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory.  It is interesting that Huggins took such liberties in copying out others' letters.

153. See William Huggins to William Wesley, n.d. and 14 November 1885, Correspondence, Royal Astronomical Society Library; William Huggins to Charles A. Young, 20 November 1885, Young papers, Dartmouth College Library.

154. Arthur C. Ranyard, "On the Connection between Photographic Action, the Brightness of the Luminous Object and the Time of Exposure, as applied to Celestial Photography," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 46 (1886):  305-9.

155. Ibid., 305.

156. See, for example, William Huggins to George Stokes, 22 and 26 January 1886 [Add MS 7656.H1194-1195], Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

157. Trouvelot's letter has not been uncovered.  It is referred to in William Huggins to George Stokes, 7 February 1886, Add MS 7656.H1197, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

158. Gill was also trying to photograph the new moon in front of the corona. See, David Gill to William Huggins, 2 March 1886, Add MS 7656.H1199a, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

159. William Huggins to George Stokes, 16 May 1886, Add MS 7656.H1201, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

160. Just after Huggins delivered his Bakerian Lecture, and before it was published, Tennant calculated the positions for Mercury, Venus and Mars at the moment of totality during the 1871 and 1882.  Huggins was able to relate these positions, particularly those of Mercury and Venus, to the arrangement of notable streamers in the solar corona.  See, Huggins, "On the Corona of the Sun -- The Bakerian Lecture," Proceedings of the Royal Society 39 (1885):  108-35; 132.

161. Clerke, History of Astronomy, 235-6.

162. William Huggins, "Photography of the Solar Corona," Nature 34 (1886): 469-70.  Huggins wrote this note to Nature and a similar letter to the London Times (13 September 1886) because he wished "to be the first to make known this untoward result."

163. He was encouraged in this view by Andrew Ainslie Common, an ardent celestial photographer.  See, William Huggins, "Photography of the Solar Corona," Nature 34 (1886):  469-70; 470.

164. William Huggins to George Stokes, 23 September 1886, Add MS 7656.H1202, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

165. This is the first time in ten years that William, not Margaret, recorded the pair's observations in the regular notebook.  There is no explanation given for the temporary shift.

166. William Huggins, 3, 5, 9, 12, 13, 14, 24, 26, 27, 30 April and 6, 8, 11 May 1886, Notebook 2.

167. Margaret Huggins 16 November 1886, Notebook 2.

168. Margaret Huggins, 21 March 1887, Notebook 2.

169. Draper died in November 1882 at the age of 45 from pleurisy contracted while on a lengthy hunting expedition in the Rocky Mountains.  See, Howard Neil Plotkin, Henry Draper:  A Scientific Biography (Ph.D. dissertation, The Johns Hopkins University, 1972); Charles A. Whitney, "Henry Draper," Dictionary of Scientific Biography 4 (Scribner & Son:  New York, 1970):  178-81.

170. Howard Plotkin, "Harvard College Observatory," In Astrophysics and Twentieth Century Astronomy to 1950:  Part A, Owen Gingerich, ed. (Cambridge University Press:  Cambridge, 1984):  122-4.

171. For a discussion of Huggins' 1874 correspondence with Draper, see chapter 4.

172. Huggins' accusations of Draper's theft of his ideas were contained in a letter to the American astronomer, Charles Young, written shortly after Draper's death. The original letter has not been uncovered, perhaps because Young followed Huggins' request to burn it.  Its contents survive, however, in a copy of it written out by Margaret Huggins and sent by her to Edward S. Holden.  See "Copy of portion of a letter from Dr. Huggins to Professor Young.  Private," in Margaret Huggins to Edward S. Holden, 31 January 1883, Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory.

173. William Huggins to George Stokes, 10 May 1887, Add MS 7656.H1211, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

174. William Huggins to George Stokes, 7 June 1887, Add MS 7656.H1213, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

175. Ibid.  Huggins' reference to "rents" provides one of the only clues as to his source of income after he sold the family silk shop in the mid-1850s.  He repeated this complaint a year later as a rationale for requesting more financial assistance from the Royal Society (see, William Huggins to George Stokes, 27 October 1888, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.H1225, University of Cambridge Library).  There is no information given as to where his leased properties were located, or what they may have been.  In the 1861 census, he and his mother were listed as "fundholders" under the column for "Rank, Profession, or Occupation."  Beginning with the 1871 census, however, Huggins merely enumerated his honorary degrees.  See, Census Reports for Lambeth:  1861, R. G. 9/364/23; 1871, R. G. 10/684/10; 1881, R. G. 11/615/10.

176. William Huggins to George Stokes, 22 July 1887, Add MS 7656.H1215, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

177. Stokes was particularly interested in Huggins' speculation that the solar corona was an electrical phenomenon.  He had proposed similar ideas relating terrestrial aurorae, geomagnetic fluctuations, so-called "earth-current" (spontaneously induced current in insulated wire), and solar phenomena in a lecture at South Kensington in April 1881.  The lecture, "Solar Physics," was published in two parts in Nature 24 (1881):  593-8 and 613-8.

178. William Huggins to George Stokes, 18 September 1888, Add MS 7656.H1221, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

179. William Huggins, 19 October 1888, Add MS 7656.H1224, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

180. William Huggins to George Stokes, 7 November 1888, Add MS 7656.H1229, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

181. William Huggins to George Stokes, 27 December 1888, Add MS 7656.H1231, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

182. William Huggins to George Stokes, 13 July 1889, Add MS 7656.H1248, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

183. William Huggins to George Stokes, 27 April 1889, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.H1243, University of Cambridge Library.

184. See, for example, William Huggins to Edward Holden, 12 April 1889; Holden to Huggins, 4 May 1889; Huggins to Holden, 20 May 1889 and 13 July 1889; Margaret Huggins to Holden, 16 July 1889; Holden to Huggins, 28 August 1889, in Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory.  Also, William Huggins to Charles A. Young, 12 April 1889 and Huggins to Young, 14 July 1889 in Young papers, Dartmouth College Library.

185. William Huggins to George Stokes, 13 July and 28 September 1889, Stokes papers, Add MS 7656.H1252, University of Cambridge Library.

186. William Huggins to George Stokes, 1 July 1892, Add MS 7656.H1268, Stokes papers, University of Cambridge Library.

187. Hale had serious, but generally friendly, disagreements with Huggins over the validity of the theoretical basis of Huggins' photographic method.  See, George Ellery Hale, "On Some Attempts to Photograph the Solar Corona without an Eclipse," Astronomy and Astrophysics 3 (1894):  662-87, 664-6; idem., "Note on the Exposure Required in Photographing the Solar Corona without an Eclipse," Astrophysical Journal 1 (1895):  438-42; and, idem., "Note on the Huggins Method of Photographing the Solar Corona without an Eclipse," Astrophysical Journal 2 (1895):  77.

188. William Huggins to David Peck Todd, 6 December 1895, Todd papers, Yale University Archives.


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

    • Part 4—

The Bakerian Lecture