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, the spectroscope, a simple instrument consisting of a prism and a sighting telescope, served as the principal research tool of two groups.  One analyzed the chemical properties of terrestrial materials, while the other investigated the physical properties of light.  In the early 1860s, a third and more eclectic group initiated a program of spectroscopic research into the physical and chemical properties of celestial bodies.  Within a relatively short time span -- less than two decades -- this new research agenda had transformed existing social and professional networks among members of Britain's astronomical community, revamped their work space, imposed new methodologies, and generated new knowledge.  A central figure in this last group was William Huggins (1824-1910, see Figure 1), a non-professional astronomer whose rise to prominence in scientific London was synchronous with the successful adaptation of this old chemical and physical instrument to new astronomical purposes.  The previously unexamined, unpublished details of Huggins' career and the complexity of its symbiotic rise along with astronomical spectroscopy in Britain are the focus of my thesis.

Figure 1.  William Huggins (1824-1910) [from Proc. Roy. Soc 86A (1910):  facing page i.]

By the turn of the twentieth century, the "new" astronomy, or astronomical physics, as it was then called by its practitioners, boasted its own set of questions, its own instruments, its own jargon, its own journals, its own standards for assessing technical expertise and interpretational competence, as well as its own system for awarding prestige.  The emergence of this new scientific specialty has attracted the attention of historians of science in recent years.  Astronomical physics blends the methods, instruments, and theories of chemistry and physics, as well as both mathematical and descriptive astronomy.  This hybrid has offered those seeking to understand the social, cultural, and intellectual factors which catalyze and nurture the development of new scientific specialties with an excellent opportunity to analyze the dynamics of cross-disciplinary borrowing, conceptual transfer, and boundary realignment.1

The name of William Huggins is largely unfamiliar to modern ears, but he was celebrated in his own lifetime as a self-taught pioneer who played a key role in introducing spectrum analysis into astronomical work.  To date, those historians and scientists who have discussed William Huggins and his contributions to stellar and nebular spectroscopy have drawn on the large body of evidence to be found in published accounts of his work.  In this thesis, I present the first historical analysis of Huggins' career based on archival sources.  My aim is to use the private William Huggins as an historical probe to explore the theoretical and methodological flux within Britain's astronomical community during the last half of the nineteenth century.  One individual's incremental career choices do not define the shape or inner dynamics of a developing research agenda.  Nevertheless, the choices made by Huggins, a recognized novice, as he moved from the periphery of scientific London toward its inner circle, expose the dynamic and often uncertain process by which the boundaries of acceptable research were redefined in astronomy during his lifetime and the strategies he used which made possible the transfer of old skills to new problems and the translation of new jargon into a working vernacular.

Among the first to compare stellar spectra directly with those of terrestrial elements, William Huggins was also the first to observe emission lines in the spectra of nebulae, the first to apply Doppler's principle to a star's light in order to determine its motion along the line of sight, the first to suggest a plausible method of observing solar prominences out of eclipse, and the first to identify the ultraviolet spectral lines of hydrogen on film, all recognized by Huggins' contemporaries as major achievements.  He served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Royal Society. Huggins reaped many awards and honors for his scientific contributions, including honorary degrees from Cambridge, Oxford, St. Andrews, Edinburgh, Dublin, and Leyden.  He received the Royal Society's Rumford, Royal and Copley Medals, the Académie des Sciences' Lalande prize, and joined the ranks of those elect few in the history of the Royal Astronomical Society to be chosen twice as the recipient of that society's prestigious Gold Medal.  In 1871, the enlightened Emperor of Brazil, Pedro II, bestowed on Huggins the Order of the Rose following a visit to Huggins' observatory located at his home in the London suburb of Tulse Hill.  He was elected to London's elite and highly selective Athenaeum Club in 1879.  In 1897, Huggins was knighted by Queen Victoria, and in 1902 he was selected to be among the first twelve individuals awarded the prestigious Order of Merit by King Edward VII.  All this was accomplished with little formal education and no professional or university training in science or mathematics.

Huggins published accounts of his research efforts in the important scientific journals of his day and he offered public lectures on his latest discoveries.  Toward the end of his observing career, Huggins waxed nostalgic as he witnessed his past efforts being rapidly eclipsed by those of younger astronomers privileged to use the large telescopes and state-of-the-art spectrographs built in the United States.  With editorial assistance from his wife and collaborator, the former Margaret Lindsay Murray (1848-1915), Huggins set to the task of collecting much of the published record of his life's work and putting it before the public.  The autoconstruction of his historical image began with the publication in a popular magazine of a personal retrospective on the so-called "New Astronomy."2  This was followed by a self-selected collection of the scientific work done at his Tulse Hill observatory which appeared in two volumes, The Atlas of Representative Stellar Spectra,3 and The Collected Works of Sir William Huggins.4  These volumes were organized topically and included new interpretive commentary written by the Hugginses on the nature and historical importance of the work described.

Others who have written about Huggins' life and scientific work have chronicled his chief spectroscopic accomplishments based on these later works, especially the essay, "New Astronomy."5  This reminiscent account bore a special brand of authority akin to first-hand testimony.  Huggins' powerful and stirring narrative encapsulated the nearly forty years of his hard-won struggle with a seemingly intractable natural puzzle -- uncovering the chemical and physical nature of heavenly bodies.  Weaving the suspenseful challenge of the unknown with the dramatic tension of patient observation and unexpected discovery, Huggins artfully situated his own benchmark contributions to celestial spectroscopy in the evolving lore of nineteenth century spectrum analysis.

In his now-classic study of the structure and functioning of scientific communities, Warren Hagstrom has noted the importance of uncomplicated mythical histories of a scientific specialty's origins for legitimizing the work of past and present researchers in that specialty as well as socializing its new recruits. Typically, these histories are constructed with tautological clarity from specially selected and interpreted events in order to help later generations of researchers define their role within a chosen community.6  They reduce the confusing field of theoretical and experimental options which confronted originators of the specialty to a set of clear alternatives.  In some cases, even these alternatives fade to a sequence of inevitable outcomes.  Such accounts are valuable recruitment and motivational tools, but by masking, even deleting from the record, the complexities and uncertainties which marked the first forays into the new realm of scientific investigation, they diminish the role of calculated risk, negotiation, and persuasion in getting the new specialty accepted as a valid form of scientific inquiry.  The pervasiveness of this type of account of the origins of a scientific specialty requires that the historian examine a variety of materials associated with the time, place and individuals involved in the early stages of the specialty's development.7  This is particularly true in the case of astronomical physics.

The task here, then, is threefold:  first, to present a new interpretation of the events which marked the development of Huggins' career based on an in-depth examination of his unpublished notebooks and correspondence; second, to bring to light the research options Huggins perceived were available to him and analyze the actions he ultimately took in the context of mid-nineteenth century British amateur astronomy; and finally, to present a new account of the synergy of Huggins' career and the rise of astronomical physics in light of Huggins' private and public accounts.

I have gone beyond the published record of Huggins' contributions to examine both his extant correspondence and his observing notebooks.  There is a wealth of correspondence available, although much of it is widely scattered in collections of his correspondents' papers.8  It is in Huggins' correspondence, not his published papers, that he discusses his methodological concerns, his reactions to controversy, his anxiety about the accuracy of his measurements.  In addition, Huggins' correspondence reveals the identities of those individuals whose advice and counsel he valued.

Similarly, a comparison of Huggins' notebook description of his observations against the published accounts of these same observations reveals Huggins' acumen in presenting his work to the community of researchers of which he considered himself a part.  It brings to light Huggins' considerable skill at manipulating balky or temperamental instruments, the wide range of his observing interests, and his ability to transform uncertain observational notes into confident published reports. Six of Huggins' observatory notebooks are held in the Huggins Collection at the Whitin Observatory on the campus of Wellesley College near Boston.  Shortly before her death in 1915, Margaret Huggins gave the six notebooks to Wellesley along with many personal items and objets d'arts that she and her husband had accumulated during their travels.  These notebooks span forty-five years of William Huggins' observing career from 1856 to 1901.9  Because Margaret assumed the task of recording the couple's observations in the notebooks following their marriage in 1875, examination of the notebook accounts from that time forward brings into vivid relief, for the first time, the full extent of her collaborative role in the work done at Tulse Hill.

To substantiate most clearly and completely the contrast between Huggins' unpublished correspondence and notebooks, on the one hand, and the published record on the other, I have chosen to concentrate on the details of a few well-documented episodes in Huggins' career rather than present an encyclopedic account of his life and scientific work.  Huggins participated in a wide range of projects during his lengthy career, many of them illustrative of his role in the rise of astronomical physics.  While it has been difficult to choose among them, I have necessarily omitted discussion of a number of his activities including his efforts to develop a system of stellar classification based on spectral types, his involvement in the spiritualist movement in the early 1870s, his tenure as president of the Royal Astronomical Society, the British Association, and the Royal Society, as well as his pioneering investigations of the spectral properties of radium which he performed after the turn of the century.  Indeed, more could be said about the particular episodes I have selected, but I believe each in its way adds a new and previously undisclosed dimension to Huggins' carefully constructed, linear historical image.  In the chapters which follow, Huggins emerges from this examination 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 for specific mensurational tasks, and rallying influential colleagues' support for his investigative ventures.

I shall begin with a brief sketch of William Huggins' early life.  In the first chapter, I focus on the development of Huggins' fledgling astronomical career from the time of his election to fellowship in the Royal Astronomical Society in 1854 to the end of the 1850s.  By the conclusion of that five-year period, he had adopted a moderately rigorous, albeit eclectic, research program based on others' interests.  My goal is to address the important question of how Huggins' methods, instruments, and observational agenda were shaped by the avocational choices he perceived as being available to him during this formative period of his career.  Why did he elect to pursue astronomy?  How did he acquire and demonstrate sufficient technical and methodological expertise to his colleagues in the Royal Astronomical Society to gain their acceptance as a serious amateur?

In the second chapter, I bring to light the elements of Huggins' individual response to the introduction of the spectroscope as an instrument with mensurational capabilities suitable to a program of rigorous astronomical research.  I begin by identifying the problems which challenged the ingenuity of the British astronomical community in the early 1860s.  What theories, methods, and instruments constituted legitimate means for attacking these problems and interpreting results?  What standards determined the observational interpretations deemed by the astronomical community at large to be reliable and confirmable descriptions of Nature?  What were the strategies Huggins employed to build his reputation among his fellow astronomers, both amateur and professional, and to acquire the recognition and respect of eminent men of science?

Expanding on, as well as revising somewhat, the usual account of the British reception of Gustav Kirchhoff's radiation law suggests new questions which inform the discussion in the rest of chapter 2.  How might a novice amateur astronomer like Huggins have first become aware of Kirchhoff's work?  How did undertaking the spectroscopic study of starlight affect Huggins' own subsequent observational choices as well as those of his fellow amateurs?  As an amateur on the periphery of the astronomical community, how free was Huggins to work outside the rules of behavior which governed the discipline's inner circle?  And finally, what measure of conformity was required to cloak an innovative break with traditional views on the limits of what is knowable?

I shall argue that there are two characteristic behaviors which recur throughout William Huggins' career, namely, his pursuit of an eclectic and opportunistic research agenda and his active cultivation of advantageous alliances among the elite in the physical sciences.  These behaviors, which are masked in the published accounts of Huggins' work, proved to be extremely useful to him as he maneuvered his way into the inner circle of London's scientific community, and they form the central focus of the third chapter.

Huggins' reminiscences later in life drew special attention to the success of a few key pioneering contributions from his early career in astronomical physics, namely his initial studies of stellar and nebular spectra, and his classic use of spectroscopy to detect stellar motion in the line of sight, all of which were completed between 1862 and 1868.  In "The New Astronomy," for example, Huggins gave the impression that all, or much, of his work during those years and afterwards centered on the application of spectroscopy to astronomical subjects.  But as Huggins' career developed and matured, he showed a dynamic eclecticism in his selection of subject and method which is both characteristic of an avid and skilled amateur and emblematic of the methodological and theoretical diversity to be found in the astronomical community at that time.

To judge from his actions, Huggins shunned repetitive observations of a single class of celestial event or object.  He could have set himself the arduous task of examining the spectrum of every known nebular object, or systematically cataloguing the spectra of northern hemisphere stars.  Instead, he chose to pursue a varied and opportunistic research program.  Like many other amateur astronomers contributing reports of their observations to the RAS's Monthly Notices as the third quarter of the nineteenth century drew to a close, Huggins devoted considerable time and serious attention to research problems generated by others, and to the exotic rather than the mundane.  Nevertheless, as Huggins gained greater public recognition after 1868, he developed a reputation among his colleagues for his care in making observations and his caution in suggesting explanations for the phenomena he observed.  How did Huggins maximize his opportunities for new discoveries and not become identified as a speculative or impulsive dilettante?

From the very beginning of his involvement in astronomical observation, Huggins cultivated alliances with noted men of science to great personal advantage, eventually earning for himself selection as the custodian of a state-of-the-art telescope paid for with funds appropriated by the Royal Society.  In the early 1870s Huggins increasingly felt the need for regular assistance in the observatory in order to maintain both his position on the cutting edge of research in astronomical physics and his reputation among his fellows as the worthy custodian of the Royal Society's telescope.  Rapid developments taking place in celestial photography at that time pressed Huggins to incorporate it in his research agenda and adapt his methods and instruments to the idiosyncracies and special needs of photographic celestial spectroscopy.  It was at this time that William Huggins married Margaret Lindsay Murray, a woman nearly a quarter century younger than he, and in whom he found both a lifelong and devoted companion as well as an interested and capable collaborator.

In the fourth chapter, I present a new interpretation of the collaborative work of William and Margaret Huggins based on an examination both of their notebooks and their extensive correspondence from the time of their marriage in 1875 until the publication of their first co-authored paper in 1889.  These documents describe on-going daily activity in the Hugginses' home-based laboratory and observatory, and make possible, for the first time, a more definitive assessment of Margaret Huggins' role in these investigations.  They also reveal her role in introducing photography into William Huggins' astronomical toolkit and identify her as more of a complementary collaborative partner than an able assistant in a wide variety of investigative projects.  Comparison of the notebook record and the published account of her joint work with her husband on the interpretation of the so-called "chief nebular line," a bright nebular emission line which baffled astronomical spectroscopists, helps explain why the Hugginses selected this controversial project to serve as the subject of their first co-authored paper.  Finally, I draw on the example of Margaret Huggins to address the wider issue of the construction of an historical image.  Specifically, I examine the question of why the published accounts trivialize and even obscure the extent of Margaret Huggins' contributions to the astronomical investigations she performed with her husband in spite of the fact that she is often the principal source of information about that work.

Aside from the need for assistance and photographic expertise, Huggins faced another serious problem in the early 1870s, namely criticism from a faction in the RAS which questioned his choice of observational tasks, his methods, and even his diligence in making use of the Royal Society's Grubb telescope.  In the fifth chapter I return to this period of crisis in Huggins' career to examine his involvement in the uneasy politics of the growing numbers of amateur astronomers in the early 1870s.  A divisive contingent in Britain's astronomical community sought to gain State support for the establishment of a network of national observatories devoted to astrophysical observation.  Their agenda, founded on the systematic study of solar phenomena, conflicted with the more wide-ranging goals of independent observers like Huggins.  The public clash of interests severely strained relations among the Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society and forced Huggins to take a stand on the issue in order to protect his own self interest and justify his personal research agenda.  To show how this conflict informed Huggins' own career choices during this period, I have turned to testimony delivered by key figures in the astronomical community before the Devonshire Commission, a national committee impanelled to gather information from science experts throughout the Nation on the question of Government support for science.

Because Huggins is remembered chiefly for his stellar and nebular spectroscopic research, his efforts in solar observation are seldom discussed by his biographers or historians of science.  By the end of the 1860s, the field of astronomical physics was developing quickly on many fronts.  It was difficult for Huggins to know which line of investigation held the most potential for discovery. In keeping with the eclecticism and opportunism evident in his selection of research problems throughout his active observing career, Huggins responded to prevailing competitive, political, social, scientific, and technical influences by including solar research projects in his personal research agenda.  In the final chapter, I focus on three of Huggins' solar projects based on evidence from his notebook records and correspondence.  Each of these projects [observing solar prominences without an eclipse (1866-1868); leading a solar eclipse expedition (December 1870); and, photographing the solar corona without an eclipse (1882-189?)] ultimately ended in failure.  Nevertheless, they demonstrate Huggins' instrumental and methodological ingenuity, his endless concern for priority, his power of persuasion, and his perseverance in an observational domain where his contributions have been overshadowed by others' accomplishments.

William Huggins participated with vigor and vision in the events which shaped the new scientific specialty of astronomical physics.  Coupling the spectroscope to the telescope suggested new questions to him which, in turn, generated new mensurational tasks and ultimately altered the familiar boundaries of acceptable research within the astronomical community.  Published accounts of Huggins' life and work emphasize his early spectroscopic successes to the near-exclusion of his other research efforts.  But as I shall show in the pages which follow, Huggins' astronomical career was not constructed solely around spectroscopic observation.  He pursued a wide range of investigative projects and took many calculated risks to maximize his opportunities for discovery, risks which expose the richness of his creativity and the boldness of his entrepreneurial approach.

[click on footnote number to return to text]

1. See, for example, Harry Woolf, "The beginnings of Astronomical Spectroscopy," in Melanges Alexandre Koyré 1 (Paris, 1964):  619-34; idem., "Astrophysics in the early nineteenth century," Actes du XIe Congres International d'Histoire des Sciences, 1965 3 (1968):  127-35; John Lankford, "Amateurs and Astrophysics:  A Neglected Aspect in the Development of a Scientific Specialty," Social Studies of Science 11 (1981):  275-303; A. J. Meadows, "The Origins of Astrophysics," in Owen Gingerich, ed., Astrophysics and Twentieth Century Astronomy to 1950 (Cambridge University Press:  Cambridge, 1984:  3-15, and, in the same volume, "The New Astronomy," 59-72; Karl Hufbauer, "Amateurs and the Rise of Astrophysics 1840-1910," Berichte zu Wissenschaftsgeschichte 9 (1986): 183-90; Mari E. W. Williams, "Astronomy in London:  1860-1900," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 28 (1987):  10-26.

2. William Huggins, "The New Astronomy:  A Personal Retrospect," The Nineteenth Century 41 (1897):  907-29.

3. Sir William Huggins and Lady Huggins, An Atlas of Representative Stellar Spectra from l4870 to l3300 (William Wesley and Son:  London, 1899).

4. The Scientific Papers of Sir William Huggins, Sir William Huggins and Lady Huggins, eds., (William Wesley and Son:  London, 1909).

5. E. W. Maunder, Sir William Huggins and Spectroscopic Astronomy, (T. C. & E. C. Jack:  London, 1913; Sidcup, 1980); Charles E. Mills and C. F. Brooke, A Sketch of the Life of Sir William Huggins (Times Printing Works:  Richmond, 1936); Frank Harold Anstis, "The Scientific Work of Sir William Huggins," M.Sc. thesis (University College, London, 1961).

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

7. See essays in Perspectives on the Emergence of Scientific Disciplines, Gerard Lemaine, Roy McCleod et al., eds., (Mouton:  The Hague, 1976), especially, M. J. Mulkay, "Methodology in the Sociology of Science:  Some Reflections on the Study of Radio Astronomy," 207-20; and R. G. A. Dolby, "The Case of Physical Chemistry," 63-73.

8. There is no one repository for Huggins' correspondence.  Principal collections can be found in the Cambridge University Library Archives, Cambridge, England: correspondence with Sir George Stokes, the Reverend Thomas Romney Robinson, Sir George Airy among others; the Royal Astronomical Society Archives and the Royal Society Library, London, England:  correspondence with John Herschel, Arthur Schuster, Joseph Larmor among others; Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.:  microfilm of correspondence with George Ellery Hale.

9. The notebooks were received in 1914.  Announcement of this fact was made by Wellesley professor, Sarah F. Whiting, in "The Tulse Hill Observatory Diaries," Popular Astronomy 25 (1917):  158-63.  More recently, a brief description of the contents of the notebooks has been published.  See Julie Morgan, "The Huggins Archives at Wellesley College," Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980):  147.


  • Introduction

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