William Huggins

William Huggins


Date of Birth
February 7, 1824
Date of Death
May 12, 1910

William Huggins was one of the wealthy British “amateurs” who contributed so much to 19th century science. At age 30 he sold the family business and built a private observatory at Tulse Hill, five miles outside London. After G.R. Kirchhoff and R. Bunsen’s 1859 discovery that spectral emission and absorption lines could reveal the composition of the source, Huggins took chemicals and batteries into the observatory to compare laboratory spectra with those of stars. First visually and then photographically he explored the spectra of stars, nebulae, and comets. He was the first to examine the spectra of novae and the first to show that some nebulae, including the great nebula in Orion, have pure emission spectra and thus must be truly gaseous, while others, such as that in Andromeda, yield the continuous spectra characteristic of stars. He was the first to attempt to measure the radial velocity of a star. He also pioneered in studies of the solar corona without an eclipse. After 1875 his observations were made jointly with his talented wife, the former Margaret Lindsay Murray.

Presentation of Bruce medal

von Geldern, Otto, PASP 16, 49-62 (1904).

Other awards

National Academy of Sciences, Henry Draper Medal, 1901.
French Academy of Sciences, Lalande Prize, 1872; Valz Prize, 1883; Prix Janssen, 1888.
Royal Astronomical Society, Gold medal, 1867, 1885.
Royal Society, Royal medal, 1866; Rumford Medal, 1880; Copley Medal, 1898.

Some offices held

British Association for the Advancement of Science, President, 1891.
Royal Astronomical Society, President, 1877-78.
Royal Society, President, 1900-05.

Biographical materials

Becker, Barbara J., Eclecticism, Opportunism, and the Evolution of a New Research Agenda: William and Margaret Huggins and the Origins of Astrophysics (Doctoral Dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1993).
Becker, Barbara J., Oxford Dictionary of National BiographyOxford University Press, Sept 2004.
Becker, Barbara J., Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2011).
Dingle, Herbert, Dictionary of Scientific Biography 6, 540-43.
Glass, Ian, Revolutionaries of the Cosmos: The Astro-Physicists (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK, 2005).
Maunder, E. Walter, Sir William Huggins and Spectroscopic Astronomy (T.C. & E.C. Jack, London, 1913; reprinted by Erwood, Kent, UK, 1980).
Mills, Chas. E. & C.F. Brooke, A Sketch of the Life of Sir William Huggins, K.C.B., O.M. (Times Printing Works, Richmond, Surrey, UK, 1936). [Begun by Margaret Huggins and continued by John Montefiore, concluded by Mills & Brooke. No author is listed.]
Notable Names Database (NNDB)
Tenn, Joseph S., “William Huggins: The Fifth Bruce Medalist,” Mercury  19, no. 5, 148-49, 153 (1990).


Campbell, W.W.PASP 22, 149-63 (1910).
Chant, C.A., JRASC 4, 253-60 (1910).
D[yson], F.W.Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 86, 1-19 (1912).
Hale, George E.Ap.J. 37, 145-53 (1913).
Newall, H.F., MNRAS 71, 261-70 (1911).
Scheiner, J., Astr. Nach. 185, 141/42-143/44 (1910) [in German].
More obituaries


Becker, Barbara J., includes a young Huggins, his observatory and spectroscope
Mars Society
National Portrait Gallery, London, 1905 painting by John Collier

Named after him

Lunar crater Huggins
Martian crater Huggins
Minor Planet #2635 Huggins


Papers, etc.

Huggins’s papers are at the Royal Society, London and the Royal Astronomical Society. His notebooks and a few instruments are at Wellesley College.

Other References: Historical

Becker, Barbara J., Eclecticism, Opportunism, and the Evolution of a New Research Agenda: William and Margaret Huggins and the Origins of Astrophysics (University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, MI, 1995). [abstract]

Becker, Barbara J., “Dispelling the Myth of the Able Assistant: William and Margaret Huggins at Work at the Tulse Hill Observatory,” in H.M. Pycor, et al, eds., Creative Couples in the Sciences (Rutgers Univ. Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1996) [a version appears on the author’s website].

Becker, Barbara J., “Priority, Persuasion, and the Virtue of Perseverance: William Huggins’s Efforts to Photograph the Solar Corona without an Eclipse,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 31, 223-43 (2000).

Becker, Barbara J., “Visionary Memories: William Huggins and the Origins of Astrophysics,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 32, 43-62 (2001).

Becker, Barbara J., “Celestial Spectroscopy: Making Reality Fit the Myth,” Science 301, 1332-33 (2003).

Becker, Barbara J., “Spectroscopy and the Rest of Astrophysics,” in Sandro Petruccioli, ed., Storia della scienza (Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, Rome, 10 vols., 2001–) [excerpts]

Becker, Barbara J., “From Dilettante to Serious Amateur: William Huggins’ Move into the Inner Circle,” Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 13, 112-19 (2010).

Chapman, Allan, The Victorian Amateur Astronomer: Independent Astronomical Research in Britain, 1820-1920 (Wiley, Chichester, 1998).

Chapman, David M.F., “Reflections: Comet Tales: Sir William Huggins and Jean Louis Pons,” JRASC 95, 107-08 (2001).

Clerke, Agnes, A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century (Adam & Charles Black, London, Edinburgh, 1st ed., 18852nd ed., 18873rd ed., 18934th ed., 1902; reprinted by Scholarly Press, St. Clair Shores, MI, 1977).

Elliott, I., “The Huggins’ Sesquicentenary,” Irish Astronomical Journal 26, 65-68 (1999).

Hearnshaw, J. B., “William Huggins und die Anfange der astronomischen Spektroskopie,” Sterne und Weltraum 24, 140-142 (1985).

Hearnshaw, J. B., The Analysis of Starlight (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1986).

Hentschel, Klaus, Mapping the Spectrum: Techniques of Visual Representation in Research and Teaching (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2002).

Hirsh, Richard F., “The Riddle of the Gaseous Nebulae,” Isis 70, 196-212 (1979).

Lienhard, John H., The Engines of Our Ingenuity

Maunder, Edward W., Sir William Huggins and Spectroscopic Astronomy (T.C. & E.C. Jack, London, 1913).

Morgan, J., “The Huggins Archives at Wellesley College, ”Journal for the History of Astronomy 11, 147-52 (1980).

Tenn, Joseph S., “The Hugginses, the Drapers, and the Rise of Astrophysics,” Griffith Observer 50, 10, 2 (1986).

Whiting, Sarah F., “Lady Huggins” [obituary], Ap.J. 42, 1-3 (1915).

Wood, Edmund, “William Huggins: Pioneer of the New Astronomy, ”Astronomy Now 19, no. 5, 73-75 (2005).

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Other References: Scientific

Huggins, William, “Description of an Observatory Erected at Upper Tulse Hill, ” MNRAS 16, 175-76 (1856). [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 5-8].

Huggins, William, “Note accompanying Drawings of Jupiter, Mars, &c., ” MNRAS 17, 23 (1856).

Huggins, William & William Allen Miller, “Note on the Lines in the Spectra of Some of the Fixed Stars,” Proc. Roy. Soc. 12, 444-45 (1863) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, p. 42-44].

Huggins, William, “On the Spectra of some of the Chemical Elements, ” Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London 154, 139-60 (1864) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, p. 397-421].

Huggins, William & W.A. Miller, “On the Spectra of some of the Fixed Stars, ” Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London 154, 413-35 (1864) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, p. 44-63].

Huggins, William, “On the Spectra of Some of the Nebulae,” Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London 154, 437-44 (1864) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 108-16].

Huggins, William, “On the Spectrum of the Great Nebula in the Sword-handle of Orion,” Proc. Roy. Soc. 14, 39 (1865) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 116-20].

Huggins, William, “Further Observations on the Spectra of Some of the Nebulae, with a Mode of Determining the Brightness of These Bodies, ” Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London 156, 381-97 (1866) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 120-37].

Huggins, William, “On the Spectrum of Comet I, 1866,” Proc. Roy. Soc. 15, 5 (1866) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 267-70].

Huggins, William & W.A. Miller, “On the Spectra of a New Star in Corona Borealis, ” Phil. Mag. 32, 1 (1866) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 238-42].

Huggins, William, “On the Stars within the Trapezium of the Nebula of Orion,” MNRAS 26, 71-74 (1866).

Huggins, William, “Results of some Observations on the Bright Granules of the Solar Surface, with Remarks on the Nature of these Bodies,” MNRAS 26, 260-65 (1866).

Huggins, William, “Description of a Hand Spectrum-Telescope,” Proc. Roy. Soc. 16, 241-43 (1867) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, p. 28-31].

Huggins, William, “On the Spectrum of Mars, with some Remarks on the Colour of that Planet,” MNRAS 27, 178-81 (1867).

Huggins, William, “Further Observations on the Spectra of Some of the Stars and Nebulae, with an Attempt to Determine Therefrom Whether These Bodies are Moving towards or from the Earth, Also Observations on the Spectra of the Sun and of Comet II., 1868,” Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London 158, 529-64 (1868) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 197-215].

Huggins, William, “On a Possible Method of Viewing the Red Flames without an Eclipse,” MNRAS 29,4-5 (1868) [see also following paper by John Herschel].

Huggins, William, “Note on Mr. De La Rue’s paper, ‘On Some Attempts to Render the Luminous Prominences Visible without the Use of the Spectroscope,’” MNRAS 30,36-37 (1869)

Huggins, W., “Note on the Spectrum of Uranus and of Comet I, 1871,” Proc. Roy. Soc. 19, 488 (1871) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 375-77].

Huggins, W., “On the Motions of some of the Nebulae, towards or from the Earth,” Proc. Roy. Soc. 22, 251 (1874) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 224-28].

Huggins, W., “The Photographic Spectra of Stars,” Observatory 1, 4-7 (1877).

Huggins, W., “On the Inferences to be Drawn from the Appearance of Bright Lines in the Spectra of the Irresolvable Nebulae,” Proc. Roy. Soc. 26, 179 (1877) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 150-52].

Huggins, William, “On the Photographic Spectra of Stars,” Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London 171, 669-90 (1880) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, p. 63-79].

Huggins, William, “On the Photographic Spectrum of the Great Nebula of Orion,” Observatory 5, 106 (1882) and Proc. Royal. Soc. 33, 425 (1882) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 152-53].

Huggins, William, “On a Method of Photographing the Solar Corona without an Eclipse,” Astronomische Nachrichten 104, 113-18 (1883).

Huggins, William, “On the Corona of the Sun—The Bakerian Lecture,” Proc. Royal Soc. 39, 108-35 (1885).

Huggins, William, “On the Limit of Solar and Stellar Light in the Ultraviolet Part of the Spectrum,” Proc. Royal Soc. 46, 134 (1889) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 80-82].

Huggins, William, “The Photographic Spectrum of the Nebula of Orion,” MNRAS 49, 403-04 (1889).

Huggins, William and Margaret, “On a New Group of Lines in the Photographic Spectrum of Sirius,” Proc. Royal Soc. 48, 216 (1890) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 82-83].

Huggins, William and Margaret, “On Nova Aurigae,” Proc. Royal Soc. 51, 487 (1892) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 244-54].

Huggins, William, “The Tulse Hill Spectroscope,” Astron. & Astrophys. 487 (Sept 1893) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 16-20].

Huggins, William and Margaret, “On the Bright Bands in the Present Spectrum of Nova Aurigae,” Proc. Royal Soc. 54, 30 (1893) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 254-60].

Huggins, William, “On an Automatic Arrangement for Giving Breadth to Stellar Spectra on a Photographic Plate,” Ap.J. 5, 8-10 (1897).[reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 26-28 ].

Huggins, William, “The Modern Spectroscope. XII. The Tulse Hill Ultra-violet Spectroscope,” Ap.J. 1, 359-65 (Sept 1893) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 21-26].

Huggins, Sir William and Lady, An Atlas of Representative Stellar Spectra (William Wesley and Son, London, 1899). [Review by G.E. Hale, Ap.J. 12, 291 (1900).]

Huggins, William, “Historical Note on the Spectroscopic Method of Determining Motion in the Line of Sight,” Ap.J. 14, 369 (1901) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, p. 230].

Huggins, Sir William and Lady, “Further Observations of the Spectrum of the Spontaneous Luminous Radiation of Radium at Ordinary Temperatures,” Proc. Roy. Soc. 72, 409 (1903) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, p. 448-53].

Huggins, Sir William and Lady, “On the Spectrum of the Spontaneous Luminous Radiation of Radium. Part III.—Radiation in Hydrogen,” Proc. Roy. Soc. 76, 488 (1905) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, p. 453-57].

Huggins, Sir William and Lady, “On the Spectrum of the Spontaneous Luminous Radiation of Radium. Part IV.—Extension of the Glow,” Proc. Roy. Soc. 77, 130 (1905) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, p. 457-58].

Huggins, Sir William and Lady, eds., The Scientific Papers of Sir William Huggins (Wm. Wesley, London, 1909). [Review by E.B. Frost, Ap.J. 32, 323 (1910).]

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Other Works: Popularizations, History, etc.

Huggins, William, On the Results of Spectrum Analysis Applied to the Heavenly Bodies: A Discourse Delivered at Nottingham, before the British Association, August 24, 1866 (W. Ladd, London, 1866) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 485-503].

Huggins, William, “Presidential Address, British Association for the Advancement of Science, Cardiff, 1891,” Report Brit. Assoc.1891, p. 1) [reprinted in *Scientific Papers, pp. 504-39].

Huggins, William, The Royal Society; Or, Science in the State and in the Schools (Methuen, London, 1906) [contains selections from four of Huggins’s Presidential Addresses to the Royal Society].