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 February 1893, Herbert Hall Turner, Chief Assistant to the Astronomer Royal, sought William Huggins' help in composing a memoir for the Royal Astronomical Society's Monthly Notices on the death of Lewis M. Rutherfurd. Recall from chapter 2 that Rutherfurd, an American amateur astronomer, had independently initiated a pioneering program of stellar spectrum analysis similar to that which Huggins undertook with his neighbor William Allen Miller in 1862. Turner, a mere infant when these events took place, hoped that Huggins, who had twice met Rutherfurd, would be able to provide some "local colour" for the essay drawn from those early days of stellar spectroscopy.  The young astronomer also requested some clarification on the question of priority concerning Huggins' and Rutherfurd's first efforts to map stellar spectra.1

Huggins had little to offer Turner on the first count, but he was happy to provide a brief chronology of events related to spectroscopic examination of starlight.  He began with Fraunhofer's first observations of the spectra of a few bright stars in 1823 and concluded with the near simultaneous resurrection of research interest in this subject almost forty years later by a handful of astronomers including himself, the American Rutherfurd, and the Italian Giovanni Battista Donati.2  Huggins attributed this burst of renewed interest in stellar spectra to "Kirchhoff's discovery of the true meaning of the Fraunhofer lines" announced in 1859.  Huggins argued that the concept of priority had little meaning here because he and these few others took their initial steps in stellar spectrum analysis " independently and unknown to each other."  He assured Turner that he only became aware of Rutherfurd's efforts on the evening he was to read his own paper on the subject before the Royal Society.

In 1893, Huggins could afford to be generous on the matter of priority in this instance since he clearly could stake no claim for himself, having been the last of these men to subject starlight to spectroscopic study.  Nevertheless, Huggins dismissed Donati's measures as unreliable, and, in a postscript, he reminded Turner that Rutherfurd had abandoned this line of investigation soon after conceiving it.  In Huggins' view, Rutherfurd had forfeited any claim to be a founder of stellar spectroscopy, a title, it will be recalled from chapter 2, Agnes Clerke had bestowed upon Huggins in her Popular History of Astronomy.3  Turner cited verbatim much of Huggins' brief letter without attribution in his anonymous obituary essay on Rutherfurd.

I begin my concluding remarks by recounting this episode because it illustrates two important points which undergird my thesis.  The first, and more conspicuous point, is that Huggins was concerned about the public treatment of his contributions to astronomical physics.  That had always been the case, but became more central to his thinking in this more mature phase of his career.  Huggins' discoveries drew colleagues' acclaim and imitation as well as their criticism and reinterpretation, a consequence of working on the cutting edge of a new scientific specialty.  Huggins was attracted to the idea of applying the spectroscope to the light of celestial bodies in large part because of the opportunities it offered for making discoveries.  But Huggins soon learned the hard and, for him, discomfiting lesson that making a discovery does not necessarily guarantee the discoverer lifelong credit for it, or control over its perceived place in the evolving history of the field. This leads to the second point, namely that to retain control requires vigilance and continual reinsertion of one's own version of events into the public record.

Turner's failure to reveal in Rutherfurd's obituary the source of information about the sequence of events in the early 1860s transformed Huggins' personal and self-serving recollection into a disinterested chronology which readers could accept at face value.  In this primitive sketch of how spectroscopy was introduced into astronomical investigation in Britain, we recognize the seed of the traditional account of the origins of stellar and nebular spectroscopy, an account which took form gradually in the mid-1890s, became firmly rooted in Huggins' detailed 1897 retrospective essay, "The New Astronomy," and ultimately became authenticated through recitation in the many essays written in memory of Huggins by his colleagues following his death in 1910.4

"The New Astronomy" was an apparently candid and captivating narrative through which Huggins carried the reader behind the scenes of scientific discovery in a very personal and dramatic way.  In it, Huggins detailed his own first encounter in early 1862 with spectrum analysis, and the vision conjured in his restless mind of the potential for this method to open new paths of astronomical investigation.  He provided vivid descriptions of the career risks he took, the instrumental and methodological challenges he faced, as well as the rewards he gained throughout his long and illustrious career in consequence of his decision to transform his observing program to one focussed primarily on the spectroscopic study of celestial bodies.

Where Huggins had rationalized discounting his competitors and their contributions in his 1893 letter to Turner, four years later, in "The New Astronomy," he simply ignored them as extraneous players.  In both versions, Huggins credited the catalyzing impact of Kirchhoff's explanation of the Fraunhofer lines for stimulating interest in stellar spectroscopy.  But in "The New Astronomy," Huggins described his own personal introduction to Kirchhoff's interpretation of the Fraunhofer lines as a transformational experience which delineated for him what would become a rich and rewarding long-term research plan.

It has been tempting for all who have read this account to place it in a different category from Huggins' other published work:  to see it as truer for its candor, as more accurate for its detail, as closer to the way things actually happened than any of his formal scientific papers.  In "The New Astronomy," Huggins portrayed his classic spectroscopic discoveries as originating in flashes of insight and developing one upon the other in a linear and logical way.  New research questions flowed naturally and inevitably out of his unrelenting and skilful application of this chemical and physical instrument to old astronomical subjects. Traditional astronomical methods were depicted as being not so much obsolete as tired.  Huggins painted himself as not so much a revolutionary as a cautious, yet visionary, shepherd guiding the astronomical community toward greener research pastures.  In this sense, Huggins' retrospective possesses all the essential ingredients of a model mythical history of the origins of astronomical physics.5

Excerpts from this essay have been cited with unquestioning abandon by numerous well-respected scientists and historians.  The public's ready access to these passages, in contrast with the difficulty of examining the extant correspondence and notebook records for direct comparison, has given portions of "The New Astronomy" wide readership and great authority due, in part, to the implied imprimatur of their sources.  But "The New Astronomy" is not a deposition chronicling events precisely as they happened.  It is a synthetic account composed of specially selected, sequential events recalled some thirty-five years after the fact. Huggins was not a disinterested observer of those events.  He was an active participant in them with much to gain from characterizing for posterity his own career development and the wider growth of interest in subjecting the light of celestial bodies to prismatic analysis as a synchronous and near symbiotic process.

I have shown in this thesis that Huggins' unpublished notebook records and correspondence bring new evidence to bear on the matter of his contributions to the development of astrophysics.  The private Huggins that emerges from the evidence presented in the first three chapters is more interesting and certainly more complex than the cautious, focussed, and methodical individual portrayed in the public record. Throughout his career, Huggins' nagging personal insecurities and his ambition intersected in a dynamic and generally positive way to fuel his successful efforts to become one of the elite in scientific London.  Rather than exhaust a single line of investigation, Huggins routinely looked for different ways to make his mark in the methodologically and programmatically diverse community of late-nineteenth century London's amateur astronomers.  His was an eclectic and opportunistic observing program in which he took calculated risks and at the same time garnered support from and forged strong alliances with men of science around the world.  The disparity between the public and private Huggins underscores the importance of searching beyond the published record if any understanding of the formation of a new species of scientific investigation is to be gained from analysis of historical examples.

A similar cautionary lesson can be drawn from the case of Huggins' wife and collaborator, Margaret Lindsay Huggins, although here it becomes necessary to take into account the larger social constraints which played a significant role in the construction of her public image.  As I have shown in the fourth chapter, Margaret Huggins' public image was in large part self-constructed.  Cloaking herself in the invisible garb of the proper Victorian lady, Margaret took care that her publicly acknowledged contributions to the work done at Tulse Hill did not contradict or interfere with the image she had helped to create of her husband as the innovator and principal observer in the team.  Thus, the Margaret Huggins portrayed in the pages of the published record was an able assistant and a help-meet, whose artistic talents and training prepared her to illustrate her husband's published papers and volumes of collected works.  But as we have seen, the notebook records and correspondence reveal the integral role that she played in many of the investigative efforts at Tulse Hill following her marriage to William in 1875.  Margaret can be described more accurately as a complementary collaborative investigative partner to her husband.  She figured prominently in introducing photography into the methodological toolkit at Tulse Hill, in designing and modifying instruments and procedures, in selection of subjects for examination, and in communicating the results of their joint efforts in the relevant scientific journals.  Despite her near-invisibility in the public record, Margaret Huggins' presence and expertise not only strengthened, but also shaped the research agenda at Tulse Hill.

In "The New Astronomy," Huggins represented himself as starting out in the early 1860s on the periphery of professional and institutional science.  For many, this has explained his freedom to deviate from traditional astronomical practice in his choice of subject and method.  But, as we have seen in chapter 5, Huggins was not entirely free of constraints on his work, particularly as his reputation grew and he was designated steward of the Royal Society's fine Grubb telescope.  In the early 1870s, Huggins came under fire from a vocal faction in the astronomical community because, in their view, his self-directed and eclectic observing schedule was not focussed on problems with any practical application to larger national economic and social concerns.  Huggins grappled with his desire to remain autonomous and at the same time satisfy demands from colleagues for public accountability concerning his use of the coveted Grubb telescope.  His private moral dilemma became part of a larger public debate over the issue of Government support for the development of a network of national laboratories equipped for routine study of the sun.  In the end, as we have seen, Huggins was unwilling to adapt his research program to conform to such a regimen, and so allied himself with the powerful Astronomer Royal, George Biddell Airy, a calculated risk which both helped advance his career and facilitated the introduction of spectrum analysis into the agenda of traditional positional astronomy at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

Finally, in chapter 6 we examined three of Huggins' less successful observational projects.  Each of these projects involved innovative efforts to observe solar atmospheric phenomena such as prominences and the corona.  Huggins failed to mention these efforts in "The New Astronomy," but his unpublished correspondence and notebook records show he pursued each of them with considerable vigor.  The exclusion of these projects from his retrospective essay and their notable absence from any subsequent rendition of the origins of stellar and nebular spectroscopy by others provides some indication of the control Huggins gained over what eventually became the official account of the origins of astronomical physics.

In his retrospective essay, Huggins enumerated a neat sequence of his pioneering projects in astronomical spectroscopy which he believed defined the "new astronomy."  He began with his first efforts in stellar spectroscopy, and ended with his design of a spectroscopic method to determine stellar motion in the line of sight. He omitted reference to research efforts that, in his view, had either failed or did not fit the prescribed sequence.  In this way, Huggins imposed an artificial order and rationale upon the programmatic decisions he had made throughout his investigative career.  Like tracing the path of the string out of a labyrinth once the puzzle has been solved, the multitude of choices Huggins encountered each time he met with an array of diverging paths were all too conveniently forgotten, while investigative deadends simply disappeared.

We have seen that the unpublished record restores these methodological and interpretational deadends.  Examining them, we have learned about the development of a new species of an existing scientific discipline as well as the mechanisms by which change can be successfully introduced into a scientific group.  Failure, rather than stifling Huggins' research efforts, motivated him to improve his research methods and instrumentation.  It forced him to hone his rhetorical and technical skills in order to persuade his colleagues of the validity of his observations. Huggins' efforts to be the first to observe solar prominences without an eclipse, say, or photograph the solar corona in full daylight influenced the development of instrumentation and methods of observation in solar research.  In particular, Huggins' struggle to convince others of the validity of his coronal photographs renders visible the ordinarily more tacit discussion of how a scientific community achieves consensus on what counts as conclusive evidence.  Through his failed solar projects, Huggins made important contributions to the growing field of solar physics.

In this thesis, I have focussed on the research efforts and career choices of one individual, William Huggins, to present a new interpretation of his role in the development of modern astrophysics.  This new interpretation has emerged principally from a rigorous examination of unpublished correspondence and Huggins' own notebook records, as well as published accounts of his work.  In contrast to the public image of Huggins as the solitary, focussed pioneer -- an image constructed, as we have seen, in large part by Huggins and his wife, Margaret -- the unpublished record reveals Huggins as an opportunistic researcher who took substantial, but well-reasoned risks throughout his career in an effort to gain prestige and status among the scientific elite of his day.  Huggins' entrepreneurial approach to scientific discovery, which led him to explore a wide range of physical phenomena in innovative and often technically challenging ways, did not fit the usual selfless and disinterested personality which marked the stereotypical man of science in the late nineteenth century.  The eclecticism of his research program did not fit the pattern of logical and sequential investigations which build inexorably to a new and better understanding of natural phenomena.  Huggins could not tame his natural research style to fit that of the ideal scientific investigator which existed in the public imagination, but he could and did construct a more conforming public account of himself and his work.  To attempt to understand the origins of astronomical physics by analyzing this artificial construction is to fall into the alluring but tautological trap of the scientist's account and thereby lose the opportunity to explore the visceral forces which drive individuals to extend the boundaries of acceptable research, and prescribe the adaptive response of the bounded community.

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1. The request from Turner undoubtedly came in a letter to Huggins. Unfortunately, this letter has not yet been uncovered, but its contents can be inferred from Huggins' reply.  See, William Huggins to Herbert Hall Turner, 15 February 1893, in the correspondence of the Royal Astronomical Society, Royal Astronomical Society Library.

2. For whatever reason, no mention was made of James Carpenter, whose comparisons of stellar spectra were performed at Greenwich under Airy's direction.

3. It should also be recalled that Clerke named the Vatican astronomer, Father Angelo Secchi, as a second founder of this new science.  Secchi began his spectroscopic investigations shortly after Huggins, so he was not among the very first stellar spectroscopists, thus technically justifying Huggins' failure to name him in his letter to Turner.

4. Huggins -- on invitation from his new young astronomer friend, George Ellery Hale -- prepared what was to be the principal address for the dedication of the Yerkes Observatory on the history of the new astronomy.  Unfortunately, poor health prevented the Hugginses from making the trip overseas and the address was never delivered.  Huggins converted the speech into an essay for publication in Nineteenth Century.  William Huggins to George Ellery Hale, 10 March 1896, Hale papers (microfilm), Museum of American History Library, Smithsonian Institution.

5. See Warren O. Hagstrom, The Scientific Community (Southern Illinois University Press:  Carbondale, 1965):  211-5.


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

  • Conclusion