Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Huggins, William

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HUGGINS, Sir WILLIAM (1824–1910), astronomer, born at Stoke Newington, London, on 7 Feb. 1824, was son of William Thomas Huggins, silkmercer and linen-draper of Gracechurch Street, by his wife Lucy Miller of Peterborough (d. 1868). Entering the City of London School in February 1837 on its foundation, he left at Easter 1839 to pursue his education under private tutors. He worked at classics, mathematics, and modern languages, but his inclination lay towards science. Early in life he spent much time in microscopical research, especially in connection with physiology. He joined the Royal Microscopical Society in 1852 and also occupied himself with chemistry and physics. After a few years of business life Huggins came into the possession of a moderate competence and decided to devote himself to observational astronomy. He joined the Royal Astronomical Society on 12 April 1854, and in 1856 built for himself an observatory attached to his house at Tulse Hill, which is briefly described in the society's 'Monthly Notices,' 9 May 1856. That house he occupied for life. The observatory there, on its foundation, contained a 5-inch equatorial by Dollond, a transit-circle by Jones of 3¼ inches aperture, with a circle 18 inches in diameter, and a clock by Arnold. Huggins's earliest observations were of ordinary geometrical or visual astronomy, and his first communications to the 'Monthly Notices' are records of his observations of occultations of stars by the moon (vol. xxii.). In 1858 he purchased from the Rev. W. R. Dawes for 200l. an object-glass of 8 inches diameter made by the American firm of Alvan Clark, which was mounted equatorially and provided with a clock motion by Messrs. Cooke of York. With this instrument he observed between 1858 and 1860 the changes in the forms of the belts and spots on Jupiter, and the periodic disappearance of Saturn's rings in 1862 (cf. R. Astr. Soc. Notices). The publication in 1862 of Kirchhoff's interpretation of the Fraunhofer lines in the spectrum as showing the chemical constitution of the sun turned Huggins's attention in a new and more fruitful direction. To his neighbour at Tulse Hill, William Allen Miller [q. v.], professor of chemistry at King's College, who had worked much on chemical spectroscopy, Huggins confided a scheme for applying Kirchhoff's methods to the stars, and asked Miller to join him in the research. Huggins and Miller devised a new instrument, a star spectroscope, which enabled them to determine the chemical constitution of stars. They described their star spectroscope in the 'Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society' for 1864, pp. 415-17. The light-dispersing portion of the apparatus consisted of two prisms of very dense and homogeneous flint glass made by Ross, which were attached to the 8-inch refractor. Mr. Rutherford in America had already devised similar apparatus quite independently. Miller and Huggins owed nothing to his invention. As a preliminary to work on the stars with this instrument it was necessary to have convenient maps of the spectra of terrestrial elements, and Huggins devoted a large part of 1863 to making twenty-four such maps with a train of six prisms. These were published in a paper read before the Royal Society in December of that year (Phil. Trans. 1864, cliv. 139). Earlier in 1863 Miller and Huggins had presented to the Royal Society the results of their first investigations with their star spectroscope in a paper on the 'Lines of the Spectra of some of the Fixed Stars' (Proc. Roy. Soc. 1863, xii. 444) ; this was followed by a more complete paper on the ' Spectra of some of the Fixed Stars' (Phil Trans. 1864, cliv. 413-35). The conclusion was that 'in plan of structure the stars, or at least the brightest of them, resemble the sun. Their light, like that of the sun, emanates from intensely white-hot matter, and passes through an atmosphere of absorbent vapours. With this unity of general plan of structure there exists a great diversity amongst the individual stars. Star differs from star in chemical constitution' (cf his addresses, Brit. Assoc. 4 Aug. 1866). On 29 Aug. 1864 Huggins made an important observation. Examination with the spectrum apparatus showed that the light from a certain planetary nebula in Draco was such as would emanate from a luminous gas, and hence it was to be concluded that so-called nebulae were not in all cases aggregations of stars too far distant to be resolved into their constituent units, as had hitherto been supposed. In a paper 'On the Spectra of some of the Nebulæ' (Phil. Trans. 1864, cliv. 437) Huggins showed that eight nebulae he had examined exhibited gaseity. This paper, by Huggins alone, was published as a supplement to the joint paper on the 'Spectra of the Fixed Stars,' and like the former papers was communicated by Dr. Miller, Huggins not being then a fellow of the Royal Society. He was elected a fellow in June 1865.

In May 1866 Huggins first subjected to spectroscopic examination a Nova, or new star, one having appeared in the constellation Corona Borealis. He suggested that, owing to some great convulsion, the star had been suddenly enveloped in flames of burning hydrogen (Proc. Roy. Soc. 1866, XV. 146). By 1866 ten papers in all had been published. In that year the Royal Society awarded a royal medal to Huggins for his researches. Miller, as a member of the council, was excluded from this honour, and his other engagements soon prevented him from working with Huggins by night, but in 1867 the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society was given to Huggins and Miller jointly for their work in astronomical physics. From to 1870 Huggins was one of the hon. secretaries of the Royal Astronomical Society, vice-president from 1870 to 1873, and from 1873 to his death, except for two years (1876-8) when he was president, was foreign secretary.

In the years following 1864 Huggins extended his series of observations of nebulae, examining amongst others the great nebula in Orion (cf. Phil. Trans. clvi. 381, clviii. 540 ; Phil. Mag. xxxi. 475 ; Proc. Roy. Soc. 1865, xiv. 39; Monthly Notices R.A.S. xxv. 155). From 1866 onwards he observed the spectrum of several comets as they appeared, and found the spectrum of Brorsen's comet of 1868 to indicate a chemical constitution different from that of the nebulae (cf. Proc. Roy. Soc. 1868, xvi. 386), whilst spectroscopic examination of the second comet of 1868 (Winnecke's) revealed volatilised carbon, which has since proved to be typical of many cometary spectra.

In Feb. 1868 Huggins in the annual report of his observatory to the Royal Astronomical Society referred to experiments he had made in following up suggestions made by (Sir) Norman Lockyer for observing the red flames on prominences in the sun's chromosphere, which had previously been only observed at times of the sun's eclipse. He was not successful in this attempt until the end of the same year, and meanwhile he had been anticipated by Lockyer and Janssen, who saw these prominences immediately after the eclipse in Aug. 1868. Huggins, however, made an essential advance in the method by widening the slit of the spectroscope. About 1862–3 Huggins thought to apply to spectroscopic astronomy the principle enunciated by Doppler in 1841 that the positions of spectrum lines change as the object moves to or from the spectator. After consultation in 1867 with James Clerk Maxwell [q. v.], but wholly independently of him, Huggins presented to the Royal Society early in 1868 some observations on the spectrum of Sirius (Phil. Trans. 1868, clviii. 529), from which a motion of the star from the earth could be deduced of about 25 miles per second. In 1870 the Royal Society came into possession of the Oliveira bequest. This was placed at Huggin's disposal for the construction of a large telescope to enable him to pursue more effectively his researches into the motions of stars. The dome of his observatory was enlarged to a diameter of 18 feet instead of 12, and a new instrument procured from Sir Howard Grubb consisting of a 15-inch refractor and an 18-inch Cassegram reflector, with mirrors of speculum metal which could be used on one mounting. From 1870 to 1875 Huggins used the refracting telescope for determining the velocity of stars in the line of sight by visual observation; the results appeared in the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society’ in papers ‘On the Spectrum of the Great Nebula in Orion, and on the Motion of Stars towards and from the Earth’ (1872, xx. 379), and ‘On the Motions of some of the Nebulæ towards or from the Earth’ (1874, xxii. 251). Later observers, Vogel, Belopolsky, Frost, Adams, Newall, and Campbell, have greatly developed Huggins's method of this kind of observation with immense advantage to astronomical knowledge. Meanwhile Huggins soon turned his attention with important consequences to the application of photography to stellar spectroscopy. As early as 27 Feb. 1863 he had attempted to photograph the spectrum of Sirius; but the result was unsatisfactory and the effort was not pursued (Phil. Trans. 1864). In 1872 Dr. Draper in America photographed with greater success a spectrum of Vega. In 1876 Huggins secured improved apparatus, and using the gelatine dry-plate, which dates from 1871, he obtained a still better photograph of the spectrum of Vega (cf. Proc. Roy. Soc. 1876, xxv. 445). There followed photographs of great precision of the spectra of the larger stars, of the moon and the planets (cf. ‘On the Photographic Spectra of Stars,’ Phil. Trans. 1880, part ii. p. 669; 1890, xlviii. 216). Applying photography to solar research, he announced to the Royal Society on 21 Dec. 1882, that he had obtained photographs of the solar disc showing also the characteristic rays and structure of the corona round the sun, hitherto seen only during a total solar eclipse. But the promise implied in this communication has not since been realised. ‘The Corona of the Sun’ formed the subject of the Bakerian lecture delivered by Huggins before the Royal Institution on 20 Feb. 1885. In 1882 the photographic method of spectroscopy was applied to the Great Nebula in Orion, and this object was observed again both visually and photographically some years later, mainly to determine the origin of the chief nebular line (cf. Proc. Royal Soc. 1882, xxxiii. 425; 1889, xlvi. 40, with Mrs. Huggins; and 1890, xlviii. 213). On this subject Huggins's conclusions differed from those which (Sir) Norman Lockyer had reached, but finally the observations of Prof. Keeler at the Lick Observatory corroborated Huggins's view that the nebular line is not a remnant of the magnesium fluting and that its origin is still unknown.

Huggins's reputation as an astronomer of the first rank was early recognised. In 1870 he received the degree of hon. LL.D. from Cambridge, and of hon. D.C.L. from Oxford in 1871 (at Lord Salisbury's installation as chancellor). The Universities of Edinburgh, Dublin and St. Andrews all conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D. From the Royal Society he received the royal medal in 1866, the Rumford in 1880, and the Copley in 1898. The Royal Astronomical Society awarded to him the gold medal for his researches on velocity in the line of sight in 1885. The Paris Academy of Sciences bestowed on him the Lalande prize in 1882, and in 1888 he received the Prix Janssen of the Institute of France, and from the National Academy of Sciences of Washington he obtained the Draper gold medal in 1901. His private means were not large, and in 1890 a civil list pension of 150Z. a year was granted him. In 1891 he was president of the British Association meeting at Cardiff. His address was an eloquent statement of recent progress in astronomy, chiefly of the discoveries which had been made since 1860, owing to the introduction into the observatory of the spectroscope and the dry plate, and he spoke of the quite recent application of photography to star-charting. In 1897, at the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, Huggins was created a K.C.B., and in 1902 he was one of the original members of the Order of Merit. In 1900 he was chosen president of the Royal Society, and held the office till 1906. In that capacity he delivered four annual addresses, two on the 'Importance of Science as a Part of General Education,' and two on the 'Duty of the Royal Society to the Specialised Scientific Societies, and secondly on its Duty as Adviser to the State.' The four addresses were collected with some notes on the history of the Royal Society in 'The Royal Society, or Science in the State and in the Schools' (1906).

Huggins continued his spectroscopic researches almost to his death. He made especially important observations of the new star in the constellation of Auriga in 1892 (Proc. Roy. Soc. 1892, 1. 465 ; 1892, li. 487 ; 1893, liv. 30). His final conclusion was that the cause of the Nova was the casual near approach of two bodies previously possessing considerable velocities in space ; that enormous forces of a tidal nature were set at work, and caused an outburst of hot matter, and that the phenomenon had some analogy to the periodic outbursts on the sun, but on a grander scale (cf. lecture at Royal Institution on 13 May 1892, and Fortnightly Review for June). In 1895 he examined the helium line in the spectrum of the sun, which after a first unsuccessful attempt (Chemical News, No. 1855) he found to be double, and so procured additional evidence that helium is a terrestrial element. In 1897 he did much to settle the vexed question in solar physics regarding the extent and the presence of calcium in the sun (cf. Proc. 1897, lxi. 433). The discovery of radium by Professor and Madame Curie in 1903 again led to laboratory experiments by Huggins with the spectroscope (Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1903, lxxii. 196 ; 1903, lxxii. 409 ; 1905, lxxvii. 130).

Through life Huggins occasionally pursued scientific inquiries outside the range of astronomy. In a paper on 'Prismatic Examination of Microscopic Objects' he described the application for the first time of the spectroscope to the microscope (Quarterly Journal Microsc. Soc. 1865). In 1883 he wrote 'On the Function of the Sound Post, and on the Proportional Thickness of the Strings of the Violin' (Proc. Roy. Soc. 1883, xxxv. 241). In his later years Huggins with the co-operation of Lady Huggins collected into two volumes the results of his work. Volume i. entitled 'An Atlas of Representative stellar Spectra from λ 4870 to λ 3300,' comprises a discussion of the evolutional order of the stars and the interpretation of the spectra, preceded by a short history of the observatory and its work (1900). The second volume, 'The Scientific Papers of Sir William Huggins' (1909), contains the complete set of his contributions to scientific literature, in most cases verbatim, and with some additions.

At the end of 1908 Huggins found it necessary, owing to advancing years, to give up astronomical work, and the instruments provided in 1870 by the Royal Society reverted to that body, who gave them to the syndicate of the Cambridge University Observatory. On a brass tablet fixed in 'the Huggins dome' of that observatory the following words were inscribed : '1870-1908. These telescopes were used by Sir William Huggins and Lady Huggins in their observatory at Tulse Hill in researches which formed the foundation of the Science of Astrophysics.' He died in London on 12 May 1910 rather suddenly, following a surgical operation, and, according to his wish, his body was cremated at Colder's Green, where his ashes remain. In 1875 Huggins married Margaret Lindsay, daughter of John M. Murray of Dublin, who survived him. He had no children. In his wife Huggins found a devoted and helpful coadjutor, and her services to astronomy were recognised by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1901, when she and Agnes Mary Gierke [q. v. Suppl. II] were chosen honorary members of that society.

Huggins was a representative of the Royal Society on the Board of Visitors of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, from 1898 until his death, and served in a like capacity at the University Observatory at Oxford. When the organisation of astronomical amateurs known as the British Astronomical Association was founded in 1890 it had the warm approval of Dr. Huggins, who was present at the initiatory meeting and was a vice-president for many years.

A portrait by the Hon. John Collier hangs in the rooms of the Royal Society; it is reproduced in the volume of Huggins's scientitic papers.

[The Scientific Papers of Sir William Huggins, edited by Sir Wm. Huggins, K.C.B., O.M., and Lady Huggins, Hon.M.R.A.S.; Proc. Roy. Soc., series A, vol. 86, 20 Feb. 1912; Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Soc., Feb. 1911.]

H. P. H.