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 mid-nineteenth century Britain, a small group of chemists, physicists, and amateur astronomers adapted the spectroscope in order to analyze the light coming from celestial bodies.  The investigative efforts of these individuals played an important part in the development of what came to be called the "new" astronomy, astronomical physics, or astrophysics.  William Huggins (1824-1910), a non-professional astronomer whose rise to prominence in scientific London was synchronous with the successful adaptation of the spectroscope to new astronomical purposes, was recognized in his own lifetime as one of the principal founders of this new science.

Huggins' biographers, and later historians of science who have discussed his contributions to early stellar and nebular spectroscopy, have drawn largely on Huggins' published accounts of his work.  They have allowed their research to be guided by a retrospective essay Huggins wrote in 1897 for a popular magazine in which he distilled the complexities of his own eclectic and opportunistic agenda over the previous thirty-five years into a synthetic account of specially selected sequential events.  Through this essay, Huggins has influenced the construction of the traditional account of the origins of stellar and nebular astronomy.

In contrast, this dissertation presents a new interpretation of Huggins' career based on archival, as well as public sources, to explore the theoretical and methodological flux within Britain's astronomical community during the last half of the nineteenth century.  Unpublished notebook records and correspondence bring new evidence to bear on the matter of Huggins' contributions to the development of astrophysics, as well as his collaborative work with his wife, the former Margaret Lindsay Murray.  A close analysis of these unpublished materials reveals that Huggins took calculated risks and at the same time garnered support from, and forged strong alliances with, men of science around the world.  We see Margaret Huggins as a complementary collaborative partner rather than an "able assistant," and Huggins himself as less of a single-minded, focussed, and exhaustive researcher, than a scientific entrepreneur who possessed considerable skill at selecting research projects, designing and manipulating instruments, and rallying influential colleagues' support for his investigative ventures.


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