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



Late in his life, William Huggins compiled, with editorial assistance from his wife, Margaret, two volumes in which he reintroduced and synthesized the published results of his many research efforts throughout his career:  An Atlas of Representative Stellar Spectra (1899), and The Scientific Papers of Sir William Huggins (1909).  These volumes, coupled with his retrospective essay, "The New Astronomy," which appeared in the popular magazine, The Nineteenth Century (1897), have served as the principal sources of information on William Huggins' scientific career for his biographers and historians of science.  For this study, I have consulted not only these published materials, but have examined previously untapped archival material as well.  Of prime importance have been the unpublished correspondence of William Huggins and his circle of correspondents, and the unpublished observatory notebooks kept by William and, later, Margaret Huggins detailing the work of the Tulse Hill observatory.


I have drawn extensively upon manuscript collections in the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Union of South Africa.  I have uncovered no collection of Huggins' received correspondence, save the copies of letters written by Huggins' correspondents which they made for their own records, and the handful pasted into Huggins' observatory notebooks.  There is no one repository for Huggins' outgoing letters.  Principal collections can be found in the University of Cambridge Library, the Library of the Royal Society of London, the Library of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, the Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory in Santa Cruz, California, and the South African Astronomical Observatory.

The University of Cambridge Library holds the extensive collection of papers of George Gabriel Stokes, long-time Secretary of the Royal Society.  In addition to the many letters Stokes received from William Huggins, this collection includes letters from a number of other individuals who were key to Huggins' career development including Warren De La Rue, J. Norman Lockyer, William Allen Miller, Henry Enfield Roscoe, and Alexander Strange.  Also contained in the Stokes' collection, are letters written by William Huggins to the Reverend Thomas Romney Robinson, Stokes' father-in-law.

The papers of George Biddell Airy, part of the massive collection of documents from the Royal Greenwich Observatory, are currently held in the Cambridge University Library.  The Airy papers are a rich source of information about Airy's personal and administrative concerns as Greenwich observers confronted the need to include spectroscopic measures in their daily routine.  In addition, the papers of James Clerk Maxwell held in this library contain a few letters from William Huggins.

The Royal Society's library holds significant collections of correspondence of such scientific notables as William Crookes, John F. W. Herschel, Joseph Larmor, J. Norman Lockyer, William Allen Miller, and Arthur Schuster, to name a few, in addition to the correspondence of William Huggins.  Of special interest are the numerous letters from Margaret Huggins to Joseph Larmor, particularly those written after her husband's death.  The Royal Society has also preserved many valuable referee reports written in review of colleagues' papers.  These documents are a rich source of information on the critical reception of the scientific elite to new ideas being presented in papers before the Royal Society.

The Royal Astronomical Society's library contains many letters written by Huggins, chiefly on matters of business relevant to the Society.  Of particular interest are Huggins' letters to William Wesley, that Society's Assistant Secretary for many years.  Huggins presented the RAS with drawings from his observations throughout his career.  These items deserve more intensive examination.  The RAS library also holds letters from Huggins' colleagues including Warren De La Rue, George Ellery Hale, and J. Norman Lockyer.

The Library of King's College, London, holds a number of interesting documents and letters relating to William Allen Miller's tenure there as Professor of Chemistry.

Elsewhere in Britain, what has survived of Huggins' direct correspondence with J. Norman Lockyer is held at the University of Exeter.  These letters provide insight into the evolution of the working relationship between these two men. Letters Huggins wrote to A. B. Kempe, dealing principally with administration of the Royal Society and Kempe's tenure as the Society's Treasurer, can be found in the collection of the West Sussex Record Office, Chichester.  Several letters from Huggins to H. A. Acland are held in Oxford's Bodleian Library.  In addition, a few letters from Huggins to Lawrence Parsons, the fourth Earl of Rosse, can be found in the Rosse papers at Birr Castle.

In the United States, the Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory hold a number of letters of interest to the history of early astrophysics.  A well-indexed collection, it contains letters Huggins wrote to Edward S. Holden and W. W. Campbell, as well as many exchanged among prominent astronomers of the day including Holden, Campbell, George Ellery Hale, H. F. Newall, J. Norman Lockyer, J. E. Keeler, and Henry Draper.

The William Peck Todd papers at the Yale University Library, and the Charles A. Young papers at Dartmouth College contain important letters from both William and Margaret Huggins.  The George Ellery Hale papers are held at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, but a number of libraries, including that in the Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., have these important papers on microfilm.  The Hale papers include Hale's correspondence with Huggins and J. Norman Lockyer, as well as other international figures who played a role in the early development of astrophysics.  The Library of Congress Manuscript Collection holds the Simon Newcomb papers and the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson Jackson See.  Worthy of special note in the Newcomb papers is the diary of Mrs. Newcomb describing her experiences on the solar eclipse expedition to Gibraltar in December 1870.  The Harvard University Library holds important correspondence between Harvard Observatory director, Edward C. Pickering, and Huggins.  In addition, the New York City Public Library is the repository for the Henry Draper papers which contain important letters from Huggins, John W. Draper, Edward S. Holden, William Lassell, and Richard A. Proctor, among others.

I have consulted materials from the South African Astronomical Observatory which contain a number of letters from Huggins in the papers of David Gill received during his tenure as Director of the observatory.


One of the more valuable resources to this study has been the Huggins Collection at Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts.  This collection, given to the College by Margaret Huggins shortly before her death in 1915, consists of personal letters from Margaret Huggins to Sarah F. Whiting, and a number of objets d'arts held in the Margaret Clapp Library.  In addition, a wide range of small astronomical instruments, and other items from the Tulse Hill Observatory are held in the small library at the College's Whitin Observatory.  Among these items are six bound observatory notebooks in which William and Margaret Huggins recorded their investigations from 1856 through 1901, with Margaret assuming the role of recorder in 1876.

Published Material

William Huggins published extensively in the scientific and popular journals of his day including the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Transactions of the Microscopical Society of London, the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, the Report of the British Association, the Philosophical Magazine, the Proceedings of the Royal Institution, Observatory, Nineteenth Century, Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the Astrophysical Journal.  In addition, important information about the reception of Huggins' research and that of his contemporaries within the community of Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society can be found in the pages of the Astronomical Register, volumes of which are held in the library of the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D. C.

The minutes of evidence from the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science are an invaluable resource for gaining insight into the tension in Britain's astronomical community in the 1870s as individuals struggled to gain government support for the establishment of national observatories throughout the Empire.

Biographical Information

Little biographical information about William Huggins can be found in his own published papers.  There are, however, a few clues to his life before he achieved prominence in the scientific community to be found in census returns and other public records, as well as in the City of London School (Douglas-Smith, 1965), a published history of the school Huggins attended for a brief time.

Edward Walter Maunder, the Assistant at Greenwich first assigned the task in the 1870s of making regular measures of stellar radial velocities using Huggins's new spectroscopic method, wrote a small booklet entitled Sir William Huggins and Spectroscopic Astronomy (1913), which hailed Huggins as the "Herschel of the Spectroscope."  Maunder emphasized that this book was not intended to be a narrative of Huggins's life, since "his life was his work."

A small book entitled A Sketch of the Life of Sir William Huggins (Mills and Brooke, 1936) was based on materials collected by Huggins' widow.  Following her husband's death, Margaret Huggins intended to write the definitive work on William Huggins' personal life as a complement to the collection of published papers which defined his professional life.  She hoped this biography would reveal the truth behind the inaccuracies she felt abounded in her late husband's obituaries. Unfortunately, Margaret Huggins died before the task was completed.  The materials Margaret had collected were left in the hands of her old friends, John Montefiore and his sister Julia.  On Julia's death, the responsibility fell to her executor, Charles E. Mills, who, along with C. F. Brooke, eventually completed the project in 1936. As with many biographical efforts directed by individuals close to the subject, A Sketch of the Life of Sir William Huggins must be used with discretion in drawing conclusions about Huggins's early life.  More recently, Frank Anstis has completed a thorough survey of the published works of William Huggins (Anstis, 1961). Pnina G. Abir-Am has drawn attention to the difficulties inherent in scientific autobiographies (Abir-Am, 1991).  While Mills and Brooke's work on Huggins' life is not autobiographical in the strict sense, it falls into the category of "authorized biography," a genre which shares many of the same pitfalls Abir-Am notes in her essay (see also, James, 1992).

Biographical information about Margaret Huggins remains elusive.  Maire Brück and Ian Elliott have, thus far, uncovered important leads which warrant further development (see Brück, 1991; Brück and Elliott, 1992).


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

  • Note on Sources