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William Huggins was born in Stoke Newington, London. He was educated briefly at the City of London School but was mostly tutored privately at home. Huggins hobbies were in the fields of optics, photography and electricity. He experimented avidly in these areas and, at the age of eighteen, he bought his very first telescope. Huggins started his undergraduate course at Cambridge but, after his father died, he dropped out of university and managed the family silks and linens business. For the next twelve years, Huggins worked as a draper during the day and pursued his scientific hobbies in the evenings.

In 1854 Huggins made the decision to sell the family business and become a full-time astronomer. He moved out of the centre of London, where there was a lot of smog, and moved a few miles south of the city where the skies were clear at night. The new house, in Tulse Hill, was linked by a passage to a three metre-domed observatory that Huggins constructed to house his telescope.

Huggins spent the first eight years in Tulse Hill using his telescope but he became bored with just observing the skies and cataloguing his findings. In 1862, Huggins found out about a new invention, the spectroscope. This instrument had been developed in 1859 by Robert Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) and Gustav Kirchhoff, two German scientists. The spectroscope allowed scientists to study the visible light that comes from stars and nebulae and to find out which elements these objects contain (see spectrum information).

William Huggins

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This was Huggins chance to use his expertise in photography and optics. He set to work applying these disciplines to spectroscopy and, in collaboration with the scientist Allen Miller, he developed the star spectroscope; an instrument that allowed him to photograph absorption spectra. Huggins was a pioneer in star and nebula spectroscopy. In 1864, Huggins photographed the Cat Eye nebula and he went on to make spectrographs of nova and comets. From the information on his spectrographs he was able to discover the chemical elements that they contain.

Huggins married Margaret Lindsay Murray in 1875. Murray had been born in Dublin in 1848. She had been taught about astronomy by her grandfather and had studied sunspots when she was only ten years old. Murray was already a competent astronomer and spectroscopist when she met Huggins through a mutual acquaintance, Howard Grubb, a Dublin telescope maker. Margaret Huggins worked with her husband in the observatory. She is particularly known for her investigation of the spectrum of the Orion nebula. Together, the couple was able to show that some nebulae are full of stars while others, such as the Orion nebula, are completely made up of dust and gases.

William Huggins was knighted in 1897 and he became president of the Royal Society in 1900. He has a Moon crater named after him.

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