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Sir  William Huggins (1824–1910), by John Collier, 1905 [replica]Sir William Huggins (1824–1910), by John Collier, 1905 [replica]
Huggins, Sir William (1824–1910), astronomer, was born on 7 February 1824 in the parish of St Peter, Cornhill, London, the only child of William Thomas Huggins (1780?–1856), a silk mercer and linen draper, and his wife, Lucy Miller (1786?–1868), a native of Peterborough. He attended the City of London School from 1837 to 1839, then until 1842 was tutored privately.

In 1843 Huggins acquired a small telescope. He formalized his interest in scientific matters in 1852 by becoming a fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society. In 1853 he purchased a 5 inch Dollond equatorial, and in 1854 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). Soon afterwards he sold the family business and moved to Tulse Hill, a London suburb where he found both the time and the darkened skies necessary to pursue astronomy. Huggins had a substantial observatory building constructed at his home, and in 1856 acquired a notebook in which to record his observations. Although his first brief and sporadic entries described subjects common to casual observers, he soon undertook more systematic research through the guidance and encouragement of expert amateurs, notably William Rutter Dawes (1799–1868) of Haddenham, from whom, in 1858, he purchased an 8 inch object glass made by Alvan Clark of Cambridge, Massachusetts; this he had mounted in an equatorial, clock-driven instrument by Thomas Cooke of York.

Pioneering celestial spectroscopy

Huggins's rise to prominence coincided with the successful adaptation of the spectroscope to new astronomical purposes following the announcement in 1859 by the German scientists Gustav Kirchhoff (1828–1887) and Robert Bunsen (1811–1899) of their interpretation of Fraunhofer's lines. Their suggestion that these perplexing dark interruptions in the otherwise continuous solar spectrum betrayed the sun's terrestrial chemical make-up stimulated much interest and discussion in Britain, especially among analytic chemists such as Huggins's friend and neighbour William Allen Miller (1817–1870). Miller, professor of chemistry at King's College, London, was an experienced spectroscopist and photographer whom Huggins later credited as both the source of his introduction to spectrum analysis and the catalyst for his later efforts to discover the chemical composition of the heavenly bodies. The intrusion of chemical instruments and research goals into the observatory required major alterations to the traditional organization of astronomical work and workspace. With Miller, Huggins perfected a spectroscope which, attached to his telescope, brought the prominent spectral lines of the brighter stars into view. Huggins's star spectroscope enabled astronomers to ask new questions and undertake new mensuration, and ultimately altered the boundaries of acceptable astronomical research. He was recognized by contemporaries as a principal founder of this new science of celestial spectroscopy.

Direct visual comparison of stellar spectra against those produced by known terrestrial elements was hindered by the lack of standard and precise spectrum maps. To rectify that, in 1863 Huggins embarked on an extensive examination of metallic spectra, making important improvements in instrument design and research methodology. As an independent observer he tested the spectroscope's analytic power on his choice of a variety of celestial objects. Thus in 1864 his research shifted from stars to nebulae in the hope that the spectroscope would resolve the many unanswered questions about their nature. It was a bold initiative which ultimately propelled Huggins to a position of prestige and authority among his fellow astronomers. He selected a bright planetary nebula (37 H. IV. Draconis) as his first object, fully expecting to find that it differed from a star not so much in terms of composition but in its temperature and density. He was astonished to find a bright line spectrum unlike that of any known terrestrial element. The spectra of other planetary nebulae showed similar characteristics, leading him to conclude that they were not only gaseous in nature but represented a class of truly unique celestial bodies. Huggins's announcement captured his colleagues' imagination and heightened their awareness of the potential of spectrum analysis to generate new knowledge about the heavens. In June 1865 he was elected to fellowship in the Royal Society, and in February 1867 he and Miller were jointly awarded the RAS gold medal for their collaborative research on nebular spectra.

Celestial spectroscopy developed rapidly in a wide range of directions. No one knew which would prove most fruitful. Huggins therefore explored a variety of subjects in innovative and technically challenging ways. In May 1866 he became the first to analyse the spectrum of a nova (T Coronae). Months later he examined solar prominences, devising methods to observe them without an eclipse. He investigated the chemical composition of meteors, looked for reported changes in lunar surface features, and pioneered the use of a thermopile to measure the heat reaching earth from the moon and brighter stars. Although each of these projects met with mixed success, the attempts reveal much about his willingness to pursue risky projects to establish himself in the forefront of the new astronomy.

Huggins is renowned for his development of a spectroscopic method to determine a star's motion in the line of sight, begun in 1867. Although astronomers routinely measured the motion of stars across the field of view, they lacked visual cues for determining stellar motion towards or away from earth. Huggins believed that this information could be gained by observing an individual line in a star's spectrum alongside its counterpart in the spectrum of a known terrestrial element. As with the change in pitch that Christian Doppler (1803–1853) predicted would be heard emanating from a moving source of sound, Huggins reasoned that any lack of coincidence in the two lines' positions would be due to their sources' relative motion. He received encouragement from the physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879), along with a warning to expect the observed differences to be extremely small. Armed with new and more precise instruments, Huggins relied solely on direct visual observations of the bright star Sirius in February 1868; he compared the prominent Fraunhofer F line in the star's spectrum to that of a laboratory hydrogen spark, but obtained occasionally conflicting results. To reduce alignment error he designed an improved arrangement for throwing the light of the comparison spark into the telescopic view. He concluded that, despite some inconsistencies, Sirius appeared to be receding from the earth at a speed of 29.4 miles per second (the modern assignation is 5 miles per second towards the earth). In announcing his result Huggins expressed satisfaction that he had resolved the instrumental problems and stressed the care he had taken. He invoked Maxwell's name to underscore the theoretical soundness of his conclusions. His tone was one of confidence and spirited adventure. Indeed, arguably his greatest contribution to the successful introduction of this new method into astronomical research lay in his persuasion of his contemporaries that he had, in fact, accomplished what he claimed despite the overwhelming mensurational and interpretive difficulties the method entailed. Although few understood the physical theory, and although implementing his method was largely beyond the resources and ability of many of his fellow amateurs, celestial mechanicians such as those at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, recognized, and later took up, its potential as an aid to charting the heavens. By giving astronomy an elegant and reliable research tool of broad utility, Huggins became recognized as the one upon whom even the astronomer royal, George Biddell Airy (1801–1892), could rely for advice on spectroscopic matters.

Funding: obligations and status

However, the highly refractive train of prisms that facilitated Huggins's line-of-sight investigations impaired his nebular work. Because of the limited light-gathering capability of his 8 inch telescope, the feeble light of a nebula faded to invisibility when subjected to his spectroscope's dispersive power. The influential director of the Armagh observatory, Thomas Romney Robinson (1792–1882), desiring to advance the cause of celestial spectroscopy, persuaded the Royal Society to finance for £2000 the construction of instruments for Huggins's use. Huggins enlarged his observatory in November 1870 to accommodate a pair of fine telescopes by Howard Grubb of Dublin—one a 15 inch refractor and the other an 18 inch reflector—which could be mounted interchangeably on the equatorial base. Although the accompanying spectroscopes were not yet complete, the telescopes were ready for visual observations in February 1871. (In 1882 the instrument was modified to incorporate two independent declination axes so that both telescopes could be mounted and used simultaneously.)

The arrival of Huggins's Great Grubb Equatorial marked a turning point in his career. No longer independent of institutional expectations or constraints, he was now custodian of state-of-the-art telescopes paid for with funds appropriated by the Royal Society, and so directly answerable to criticism of his choice of observational problems, his methods, even his diligence in the use of these coveted instruments. During the protracted debate regarding state funds for research which split the RAS in 1872, there was criticism of awarding limited resources to private individuals, such as Huggins, who could further their own personal research goals instead of those in the national interest. To critics, Huggins exemplified the inadequacy and inefficiency of relying on individuals to carry out the essential work of the new astronomy.

For Huggins the trust which custody of the Royal Society's instruments represented imposed an overwhelming obligation to use them. He found the new work exhausting. No doubt he had planned to rely on Miller's skilled assistance, but Miller died unexpectedly in September 1870, just months before Grubb installed the new instruments. Huggins also needed to incorporate photography to maintain his pioneering role. His need for an assistant, preferably one familiar with the techniques of photography, combined with his sense of frugality may have encouraged him to commit to a greater change in his personal life. On 8 September 1875 he married Margaret Lindsay Murray (1848–1915) [see ] of Monkstown, on Dublin Bay, Ireland, a woman with skills and sufficient astronomical interest in whom he found a lifelong and devoted companion as well as a capable collaborator. They had no children. Margaret's presence changed both the kind of work done at the Tulse Hill observatory and its organization. Her entries in the observatory notebooks clearly reveal her initiative in problem selection, instrument design, methodological approach, and data interpretation. More importantly, they point to her as the impetus behind the establishment of Huggins's successful programme of photographic research. Her long hours of skilled guiding produced a sharpness in the definition of the photographs which was difficult to surpass for spectra only half an inch in length.

Solar research

Because he is remembered principally as a pioneer in the field of stellar and nebular spectroscopy, Huggins's forays into solar research are less well known; indeed, they are conspicuously missing from his retrospective account. He played a significant role in resolving the so-called willow-leaves controversy in 1864, and in 1866 was the first to develop both spectroscopic and non-spectroscopic methods for rendering solar prominences visible without an eclipse. In 1870 he led an eclipse expedition to observe the solar corona's spectrum, for which task he designed a sophisticated automatic recorder, but inclement weather left him empty-handed. His interest revived in 1882 when he viewed a recent eclipse photograph showing the light of the coronal spectrum to be strongest in the violet. Eager to provide solar observers with a reliable means of routinely recording coronal phenomena, Huggins and his wife developed a unique method for photographing the corona whenever the sun was visible, first using violet glass as a filter, and later relying on selective sensitivity in photographic emulsions. They pursued this project enthusiastically for over a decade, during which time Huggins successfully petitioned the Royal Society to have the method tested in locations free of atmospheric obscuration. Some of the photographs thus obtained appeared to show the general form of the solar corona.

In 1885 Huggins gave two major addresses on the corona, including the Royal Society's Bakerian lecture, in which he described the method he and his wife had devised for observing the corona without an eclipse, giving particular attention to the many precautions taken to prevent the appearance of false effects. He emphasized the persuasive weight of the numbers of successful plates obtained, their corroboration by experts, and the tests in progress. He speculated on the nature of the corona, drawing attention to the analogous appearance of its structural features to the glowing streamers seen in comets' tails, suggesting that high electrical potential at the level of the photosphere could account for both the movement and the glow of oppositely charged material far above the sun's surface. In 1886 Étienne Leopold Trouvelot (1827–1895), of the Meudon observatory in France, reported that he, too, had seen the corona without an eclipse. Despite this news, critics of Huggins's method abounded and further tests of the method proved inconclusive. By the time Bernard Lyot (1897–1952) took the first successful photograph of the solar corona without an eclipse in 1930, few remembered Huggins's earlier work. Nevertheless, his pioneering efforts contributed to the emerging discipline of solar research, the useful questions being asked about the solar atmosphere, the type and form of evidence considered as conclusive, and the direction in which solar observation was taken by the growing international network of solar observers.

Nebular theory

In 1887 the Hugginses began their search for the cause of the principal emission lines in nebular spectra, an exciting subject, though contentious because of the rich variety of nebular theories then vying for observational confirmation. Their conclusion that the lines derived from the glowing gas of some heretofore unknown element contradicted that of Norman Lockyer (1836–1920), who claimed they were produced by the magnesium in incandescent swarms of colliding meteorites. The rancorous controversy which ensued taxed Huggins's rhetorical skills. By advocating his method of gathering evidence and, hence, his interpretation of it, he contributed much towards refining and defining standards of proof within the maturing science of celestial spectroscopy.

In 1892 Huggins had the opportunity to subject the light of another nova (T Aurigae) to spectrum analysis. With his wife he conducted an exhaustive and exhausting study of the nova's spectrum. Understanding of the physical mechanisms at work in such events had not improved since T Coronae in 1866, nevertheless celestial spectroscopy and photography had greatly enriched the astronomer's methodological and interpretive potential. Alert now for any tell-tale signs of stellar motion in the line of sight, or spectral signatures betraying the presence of some new and as yet undiscovered element, the Hugginses, like all other astronomers for whom these methods had now become routine, looked at T Aurigae with new eyes.

In the final decade of his life, as direct telescopic observations became increasingly difficult for him, Huggins found other ways to advertise the investigative power of the spectroscope and to promote its use in astronomy as well as in other sciences. In 1899 he and his wife published An Atlas of Representative Stellar Spectra, a volume aimed at establishing Huggins as the pre-eminent authority in the field of stellar spectroscopy, and disseminating the spectrographic evidence gathered at Tulse Hill in support of his views on the chemical and physical nature of stars and their probable evolution. In 1903 they embarked on a long-term spectroscopic study of the newly discovered element radium. In 1908, no longer able to make routine use of the instruments entrusted to his care for nearly four decades, Huggins recommended their transfer to enhance H. F. Newall's work at the Cambridge University observatory, where they remained until 1954. In 1909 the Hugginses published The Scientific Papers of Sir William Huggins, an edited collection of previously published documents organized topically and accompanied by new interpretive commentary.

Huggins was an active member, and served as president, of the Royal Astronomical Society (1876–8), the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1891), and the Royal Society (1900–05). He received honorary degrees from the universities of Cambridge (1870), Oxford (1871), Edinburgh (1871), Dublin (1886), St Andrews (1893), and various foreign countries, and he received the Royal Society's royal (1866), Rumford (1880), and Copley (1898) medals. In 1885 he joined the ranks of those elect few in the history of the RAS to be honoured with a second gold medal. The emperor of Brazil, Pedro II, bestowed on him the order of the Rose (1871). The Académie des Sciences in Paris awarded him the Lalande prize (1882), the Valz prize (1883), and the Janssen gold medal (1888), and he received the Draper medal (1901) from the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. In addition he held honorary or foreign membership in numerous national learned societies, including the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut National de France, Paris; the Reale Accademia dei Lincei; the royal academies of Berlin and Göttingen; the Royal Irish Academy; the royal societies of Edinburgh, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands; the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC; the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia; and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston.

Huggins was created a KCB by Queen Victoria in 1897 and was among the first twelve individuals awarded the prestigious Order of Merit by Edward VII in 1902. He died on 12 May 1910 of heart failure following surgery. He was cremated and his ashes placed in Golders Green crematorium, Middlesex. He was survived by his wife and collaborator of thirty-four years, who bequeathed a number of his scientific instruments as well as six bound observatory notebooks to Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts. She also established a scholarship in her husband's name at the City of London School.

Barbara J. Becker


B. J. Becker, ‘Eclecticism, opportunism, and the evolution of a new research agenda: William and Margaret Huggins and the origins of astrophysics’, PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1993 · B. J. Becker, ‘Dispelling the myth of the able assistant: Margaret and William Huggins at work in the Tulse Hill observatory’, Creative couples in the sciences, ed. H. Pycior and others (1996), 98–111 · C. E. Mills and C. F. Brooke, A sketch of the life of Sir William Huggins (1936) · W. Huggins and M. L. Huggins, observatory notebooks, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, USA, Margaret Clapp Library · W. Huggins, ‘The new astronomy’, Nineteenth Century, 41 (1897), 907–29 · W. Huggins and Lady Huggins, An atlas of representative stellar spectra from λ4870 to λ3300: together with … a short history of the observatory and its work (1899) · The scientific papers of Sir William Huggins, ed. W. Huggins and M. L. Huggins (1909) · TNA: PRO, RG4/4226 · m. cert. · d. cert. · census returns, 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871


RAS, corresp. and papers · RS, corresp. · South African Astronomical Observatory, Cape Town, archives · Wellesley College, Massachusetts, Clapp Library, letters, observatory notebooks, scientific instruments, objets d'art |  Air Force Research Laboratories, Cambridge, Massachusetts, letters to Lord Rayleigh · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir Henry Wentworth Acland · California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, archives, corresp. with George Hale · CUL, corresp. with Sir George Stokes and T. R. Robinson · Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, C. A. Young MSS · Hunt. L., G. E. Hale MSS · ICL, letters to S. P. Thompson · NYPL, J. Draper MSS · RS, corresp. with Sir J. F. W. Herschel · RS, J. Larmor MSS · U. Cal., Santa Cruz, Lick Observatory, Mary Lea Shane archives, E. Holden MSS · University of Exeter, J. N. Lockyer MSS · W. Sussex RO, letters to Sir Alfred Kempe · Yale U., D. Todd MSS


photograph, c.1900, Hult. Arch. · J. Collier, oils, 1905, RS · J. Collier, oils, second version, 1905, NPG [see illus.] · Spy [L. Ward], caricature chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (9 April 1903) · H. J. Whitlock, carte-de-visite, NPG · oils, RAS

Wealth at death  

£6920 3s. 5d.: probate, 15 July 1910, CGPLA Eng. & Wales