Sir William Huggins

Sir William Huggins (1824-1910) CLS 1837-43


The son of a linen draper William Huggins became known as a pioneering astronomer.


In 1892 he reminisced that, in 1837, he was ‘amongst the first few boys who entered the original building in Milk Street’, a time when the school had only 441 pupils and practised games ‘in the dark in a passage underneath Honey Lane Market’. In 1840 he delivered an oration he’d composed in German at one of the school’s earliest prize days, and fittingly he is still remembered on prize day through the award of the Sir William Huggins Scholarship.


Unable to attend University owing to his family’s silk business, Huggins moved the family to Tulse Hill and built his own observatory where he revolutionised the field of astronomy. In 1856 he started recording his astral observations and in 1868 published his theory that the radial velocity of a star could be calculated.  A natural innovator, he was the first to take the spectrum of a planetary nebula, the first to distinguish when he between nebulae and galaxies and also the first to adopt dry plate photography in imaging astronomical objects. Most famous, of course, was his adaptation of the spectroscope for the field of astronomy.


He was President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1876 to 1878, the British Association in 1890 and President of the Royal Society from 1900 to 1905. In 1902 he was one of the first people to receive an Order of Merit, awarded to him by King Edward VII. A keen member of the John Carpenter Club he continued to attend events throughout his career and even gifted the school a copy of The Scientific Papers of Sir William Huggins, writing in the inscription that it would allow him to remain part of his old school.


“The speech of Dr Huggins was listened to with great interest, not only for the distinguished position he fills in the world of science, but also for his venerable appearance and the simple dignity of his manner” School Magazine, 1892Sir William Huggins (1824-1910)