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



—for ahzbi and the wombat

where in the murky depths of mind
do idea-seeds sleep?
what seasons do they know
that make them wont
to wake and grow
in spasms --
madly now, dormant then --
entangling all within their ken:
synaptic vines
to clamber
to the very stars.


Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood.
-- Dante, The Divine Comedy, "Hell," Canto I.

It has been nearly seven years since, in the middle of my life, I found myself in what seemed to be a dark wood akin to that described by Dante so many centuries ago.  Dante evoked the image of the wood to symbolize the world of sense.  It served as the starting point of an arduous and awe-inspiring journey through hell and purgatory, to the heavens and the empyrean sphere.

I was recently reminded of this passage when it was cited in a local newspaper.  Its message resonated with my own experience.  A journey is a good metaphor for graduate study.  The transposition in time, space, and mind which accompany the challenge of the task conjure up visions of dusty roads, uphill climbs, and unsuspected hazards.  But I cannot say that these seven years have been so much a journey for me as a metamorphosis.  Perhaps it was a cocoon rather than a dark wood that surrounded me:  a shroud of fine-spun thread which both hindered my growth and nurtured it.  The struggle to break free and to become something quite new was at once daunting, dispiriting, exhilarating, unforgiving, and unstoppable.

There were times when I worried that the restless itch I felt as I wriggled my way out was a sign of molting.  I feared I would emerge like a snake or a grasshopper:  a fresh replica of my former self, but hardly anything new.  There were times when the struggle was simply too much.  Each new word became a difficult birth, each chapter a Sisyphean stone.  The upheaval, the turmoil, the enormity of it all weighed so heavily on my inner soul that the security of the cocoon seemed the only haven.  But those dark times were made lighter by the cheering laughter of my family and friends.  The job at hand was made clearer by the prodding voice that urged, "keep scribbling."  And so I did.

My interest in William Huggins was first aroused during the course of a seminar on hybrid disciplines directed by Robert Kargon in the spring of 1987. Fertile discussions generated among fellow participants by the presentations of John Hubble, Ron Brashear, and Elizabeth Comerford Melia, raised a number of provocative questions in my mind about the origins of modern astrophysics, but after the seminar ended, I went on to pursue other research interests.  In the fall of 1988, I was given the opportunity to work with Robert Smith as a teaching assistant.  Conversations with him about William Huggins rekindled my interest in Huggins' role in the origins of astrophysics just as I was completing my fields and getting ready to select a dissertation topic.

In conducting the research for this thesis and throughout its many incarnations, I have incurred a multitude of debts.  The necessarily cursory acknowledgements which follow do not begin to express the depth of my gratitude to all who assisted me in this task.  First, Dr. Scott Birney, then director of Wellesley College's Whitin Observatory, provided me with warm hospitality during my several visits to the campus, and generous opportunities to examine the materials in the Huggins Collection held there, especially the observatory notebooks.  The Observatory's current director, Dr. Richard French, has encouraged me in my efforts and kindly granted me permission to reproduce photographs from the Huggins Collection for inclusion in this document.  Anne Anninger, then Special Collections librarian at the Wellesley's Margaret Clapp Library, conducted a successful search for the Hugginses' first observatory notebook which was discovered to be inexplicably missing from the Observatory on my first trip.  Wilma Slaight, archivist, and Jenny Crooks, assistant in Special Collections at the Clapp Library, also provided kind assistance during my visits there.

Brenda Corbin, librarian of the United States Naval Observatory granted me special privileges in the comprehensive periodicals collection there which made it possible for me to extend considerably my research efforts.  Gregory Shelton's cheerful help and genuine enthusiasm for my research project made each of my lengthy visits to the Library truly rewarding.

I have not yet had the opportunity to meet Dorothy Schaumberg of the Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory, but her assistance via letter and telephone has proved invaluable to me.  The materials she provided from the rich collection of correspondence in the Shane Archives helped me to conceive of the structure for this project.

Phillip B. Dunn, British Correspondent for the Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the volunteers at the Family History libraries in Ellicott City, Maryland, and Washington, D. C., assisted me in locating the vital statistics I needed to support the limited biographical information on Huggins available through more anecdotal sources.

Elsewhere in the United States, I received important materials from the Harvard University Archives and the Harvard College Observatory, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, the Dartmouth College Library, the Hutzler Collection of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library of The Johns Hopkins University, the Museum of American History Library at the Smithsonian Institution, the Manuscript Collection of the Library of Congress, and the New York City Public Library.  I should like to thank the staff at each of these libraries, particularly the individuals in the Inter-Library Loan office at Hopkins' Eisenhower Library, for their promptness in processing my requests for information.  I would especially like to thank Dr. Clark Elliott and Dr. Erwin Hiebert for their responses to my inquiries.

I was fortunate to have been able to make two research trips to England. While each of these trips was brief, I was able to use the time to excellent advantage, mainly because of the kind assistance provided me by the staff at each library I visited.

In London, Sheila Edwards, librarian of the Royal Society, and her staff welcomed me on my first visit in spite of the fact that the facility was undergoing renovation.  I thus had the pleasure of poring over the albums containing the Joseph Larmor papers in the Council Meeting Room while new carpeting was being installed in the main library reading room.  Keith Moore, then archivist at the Library, and especially Alan J. Clark, Deputy Librarian, not only assisted me in my research during my visits to the library (even on the afternoon of the bomb threat), but took time to answer my questions by mail afterwards.

Peter Hingley, librarian of the Royal Astronomical Society, made a wide range of the library's collection available to me and graciously invited me to lunch at the conclusion of my visit there.  Mary Chibnall was also of great assistance to me in my research efforts.  The correspondence held in the Library's collection is filed alphabetically within years requiring many boxes to be examined carefully and sorted through one at a time.  Miss Chibnall provided me with her personal help in this arduous task and suffered cheerfully through my seemingly endless requests for new boxes to examine.

At King's College, London, Dr. P. I. Davies, chairman of the chemistry department, made special arrangements to meet with me and show me around the building in which William Allen Miller taught and worked.  He shared many insights into Miller's teaching and introduced me to a number of useful sources on Miller which helped me to understand Miller's relationship to Huggins in the early days of their collaboration.  Also, the staff of the Manuscripts Division in the college library were especially helpful in locating documents related to Miller's tenure at King's.

Frank Anstis kindly granted me permission to examine his fine Master's thesis on the life and scientific career of William Huggins which is kept at the library of the University of London.  The library staff kindly set this document aside for my use, and provided me with desk space during my several visits there.

In Cambridge, I was the beneficiary of the hospitality of Jennifer Tucker and Richard Staley who made arrangements for me to stay in a guest room at Gonville and Caius College.  Jim Bennett, Curator of the Whipple Museum spent a great deal of time with me and provided me with information on spectroscopes held in the Whipple's extensive collection of scientific instruments.  He kindly made available copies of Huggins' correspondence located in the Rosse papers at Birr Castle to which I would not have had access otherwise.  I should also like to thank Simon Schaffer for introducing me to the University Library's Tea Room, for the interest he has always shown in my research, and particularly for his helpful remarks and suggestions.  Adam Perkins assisted me in locating, in the Royal Greenwich Observatory documents held in the University Library's Manuscript Collection, those portions of the Airy papers related to my interest in William Huggins and the introduction of spectroscopy at Greenwich.  The staff in the Library's Manuscripts Room, particularly Godfrey Waller, then Superintendent of Manuscripts, were most helpful in making materials available to me to study at my leisure.  They cheerfully filled my burdensome requests for photocopies in the months separating my two visits, and promptly responded to my subsequent requests for information.

While I was in England, I was unable to visit Exeter University where the Lockyer papers are currently held.  Dr. George A. Wilkins, Assistant to the Astronomer Royal, retired, kindly made pertinent correspondence in that collection available to me.  These letters were of great value to me in my research.  William F. Hallett of the City of London School provided me with information about the founding of the School, and about William Huggins' brief time there as a student in its first years.

There are many individuals who deserve my thanks for the specialized information they have provided me.  M. Susan Barger spent many hours sharing her rich technical expertise on early photographic techniques.  Maire Brück, formerly of the Dunsink Observatory and the University of Edinburgh, and Ian Elliott, currently at Dunsink, provided me with much detailed information they have collected in their own research on the early life of Margaret Lindsay Huggins.  Maire also sent me lengthy letters of encouragement when I struggled in my own efforts, as did Joan Mason, who has written extensively on women in science, particularly on the career of Hertha Ayrton.  The encouragement of these women has been immensely helpful to me, especially in the final months of the project.

Helena Pycior's editorial guidance on early drafts of the chapter on Margaret Huggins I was preparing for separate publication, helped to tighten my arguments and gave me much needed confidence in developing drafts of other chapters in the thesis itself.  Her energy has been an inspiration throughout this project.

Ian Glass of the South African Astronomical Observatory kindly provided me with important correspondence between both William and Margaret Huggins and then Observatory director, David Gill.  Without his assistance I would have been unable to examine these letters.  Howard Plotkin drew my attention to a number of important letters in the Henry Draper papers held at the New York City Public Library which would otherwise have escaped my notice.  Howard has been a source of encouragement, even before we met at the History of Science Society meeting in Madison in October 1991, because of his excellent dissertation, which, I confess, I kept on my home bookshelf for reference purposes from the time I first conceived of the topic of my thesis.

Peter Harman, who was a visiting scholar at Harvard University when Harvard hosted the Joint Atlantic Conference on Physical Science in April 1991, provided me with great encouragement following my presentation on Margaret Huggins.  He also alerted me to several interesting letters exchanged between James Clerk Maxwell and William Huggins on a variety of subjects.  Allan Chapman shared his insight on George Biddell Airy both in correspondence and in a lengthy and enjoyable chat during a visit he made to Hopkins in April 1992.

John Lankford has been a constant source of help and encouragement throughout this project -- a veritable reservoir of calm assurance.  I value highly his wit and down-to-earth advice and always look forward to his electronic mail messages.  Karl Hufbauer and Ted Porter have done much to ease my transition to Southern California by providing opportunities to talk shop over lunch.

A number of individuals have read various drafts of chapters of my thesis as the project progressed.  I would especially like to thank Karl Hufbauer, Sharon Kingsland, David DeVorkin, Rebecca Lowen, and Louis Carlat for their insightful comments and suggestions.  I tend to be a "trees" sort of person.  Working on a project of this scale only exacerbated that tendency.  I am grateful for these individuals' assistance in restoring a vision of the forest at each reading and for guiding me towards saying what I meant with less ambiguity.  I learned a great deal from their criticisms.

The students of the History of Science department at Hopkins always provided intellectual stimulation, humor, camaraderie, support, the best advice, friendship, and patience in dealing with a crabby old lady among them.  I consider myself fortunate to have been able to experience these years of transformation in their company.  Special thanks to the concierge and maitre d'Hotel d'Homestead for their four-star hospitality, as well as their E-Z Reference and Used Car Sales services; also to Gail Schley, Michael Alexander, and especially Edna Ford, who, in spite of insurmountable odds, always kept the ship afloat and on course.

I am extremely fortunate to have had Robert Smith as my advisor and mentor.  It is a difficult thing to facilitate another's growth.  It is a special challenge to muster the patience and forbearance needed to convert the flailings of an irascible and often incorrigible novice into something more closely resembling historical analysis and interpretation.  But Robert has met that challenge with skill and sensitivity.  In the nearly five years I have had the opportunity to work with him, I have grown to admire more and more Robert's scholarship, his breadth and depth of knowledge, his clarity of thought and expression, his incredible memory and attention to detail, his wit, his gentility, and above all his candor and honesty. Incidentally, I should also like to say a special thank you to Harold Larwood, without whom routine communication with Robert during this past year would have been all but impossible.  Regardless of the hour, unfazed by the ravages of either the Noachian deluge in Southern California or the Great Blizzard of '93, Larwood, reputed to have been cricket's fastest bowler, unflinchingly went the distance through it all to carry messages between Robert and me.

There are a number of individuals who have provided special guidance for me at various critical points throughout my life:  my parents, parents-in-law, and surrogate parents -- Pat and the late Elaine Noble, Harry and Sally Becker, and Monroe and Frances Lerner; my teachers -- George Siehl, Dale Gerster, Dorothy Ehlers, Donald Risley, W. Richard Stroh, Ingrid Bucher, Bart Houseman, Eli Velder, Phyllis Stein, Doren Recker, Robert Forster, Owen Hannaway, and Sharon Kingsland; and my friends -- the late Grace Musgrove, Gillian Wu, Mary Lu Larsen, Ruth and Ed Fahrmeier, Pat and Joan Canan, Melpa and Steve Warres, and all our neighbors on Pinkney Road.

Finally, without the encouragement and loving support of my family, I would never have been able to endure the challenge with which this task confronted me. While I was self-absorbed and wrestling with my own halting growth and development, my children, Misha and Aaron, took advantage of the opportunity to become two unique and remarkable individuals.  Their creative energy and determination to squeeze every drop out of what life presents them have been a continuing source of joy and inspiration to me.  My best friend and loving husband, Hank, and I have shared more than a quarter century together.  In all that time, he has provided me with the room to grow and the support necessary to accomplish all that I set out to do.  He assuaged my fears, dispelled my doubts, and restored my failing confidence at each step of the way.  Thus it is that, like Dante's hero, I have emerged from my purgatorial cocoon to see " the stars both brighter and larger than their wont" ("Purgatory," Canto XXVII.)


  • Preface

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

Moving in the Inner Circle

  • 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