November 8, 1656 – January 14, 1742
The English astronomer Edmund Halley studied the orbital
movements of the moon and of comets and discovered the proper
motion of the fixed stars.
of a prosperous London soap-boiler, Edmund Halley was born on
Nov. 8, 1656, in Haggerston near London. He attended St. Paul's
School, where he excelled in classics and mathematics and early
developed an interest in astronomy. At the age of 16, when he
entered Queen's College, Oxford, he was already an accomplished
astronomical observer. He continued his observations at Oxford
and, before he was 20, had sent to the Royal Society an
explanation of an improved means of calculating planetary
Recognizing the need for more accurate star charts, Halley,
while still an undergraduate, proposed a plan for surveying the
stars of the southern hemisphere as a supplement to the surveys
then being made of the northern hemisphere by John Flamsteed and
Johannes Hevelius. He left Oxford without a degree and in 1676
journeyed to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. St.
Helena's frequent cloud cover made it poorly suited for
astronomical observations, although in 18 months on the island
Halley managed to determine the position of approximately 350
stars. In addition, he made one of the first complete
observations of a transit of Mercury; it occurred to him that
similar transits might be used to accurately calculate the sun's
distance from the earth. He returned to England in 1678,
published his results, and was dubbed by Flamsteed "the Southern
Tycho, " a reference to the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.
Publication of Newton's "Principia"
Upon his return Halley received, by royal mandate, his Oxford
degree and, at the age of 22, was elected a fellow of the Royal
Society. After 2 years of travelling on the Continent, he
returned to London, where he married and, in 1682, began a
lengthy series of lunar observations. Designed to last for 18
years, these observations were to correct tables of the moon's
position in an effort to solve the problem of accurately
determining longitude. Such a lengthy project was not, however,
well suited to Halley's temperament, and he was soon diverted to
Intensely interested in the problem of gravitation, Halley had
obtained by 1684 an inverse-square relationship, but since he
was unable to deduce from it the planetary motions, in August
that year he travelled to Cambridge to seek the assistance of
Newton. What would be the orbit of a planetary body subjected to
such a force? An ellipse, Newton replied. He had earlier proved
that this was so and shortly thereafter sent Halley a copy of
his demonstration. Realizing the significance of what Newton had
done, Halley, utilizing great skill and tact, persuaded the
reluctant Newton to develop and publish his ideas on celestial
mechanics. Newton's Principia was published in 1687. Halley read
the manuscript, corrected the proofs, and paid the publication
costs out of his own pocket. A lasting friendship ensued, and in
1696, through Newton's influence, Halley was appointed deputy
comptroller of the Mint at Chester.
Astronomical and Physical Observations
Halley maintained a lifelong interest in the declination of the
magnetic compass, and he published two significant papers (1683
and 1692) discussing the causes of this variation and its change
with time. Between 1698 and 1702 he undertook a series of
government-sponsored expeditions to make extensive measurements
of terrestrial magnetism in the South Atlantic and to study in
detail the tides and coast of the English Channel. He correlated
the data from his South Atlantic voyages with other measurements
he had been collecting and in 1702 published for the first time
a map showing lines of equal declination. Of great navigational
value, these lines (known today as isogonics) were for years
called "Halleyan lines."
Halley's calculation of the periodic nature of comets was
perhaps his most significant contribution to astronomy. In his
Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets (1705) he collected and
analyzed all known observations of comets and computed the
parabolic orbits of 24 comets dating from 1337 to 1698. The
orbital elements of three (1531, 1607, and 1682) were so similar
as to suggest that they were in fact the successive returns of a
single body whose orbit was an enormous elongated ellipse,
rather than a parabola, and whose period of revolution was
approximately 76 years. Halley successfully predicted the return
of this comet in 1758 and suggested that other comets might also
have elliptical orbits. Halley's comet, as it is known today,
returned on schedule in 1835, 1910, and 1986.
Before Halley's discovery of the "proper motion" of fixed stars,
it was believed that they (unlike the planets) never moved in
relation to each other. In 1718, however, Halley pointed out
that three of the brightest stars (Sirius, Procyon, and Arcturus)
had apparently changed their relative positions markedly since
having been observed by the Greeks. In fact, Sirius appeared to
have moved perceptibly since observed by Tycho Brahe only a
century and a half earlier. After carefully comparing the
positions of other stars and establishing that this apparent
movement could not be accounted for by any motion of the earth,
Halley concluded that the three had actually shifted their
relative positions and suggested that, if observed over
sufficiently long periods, this proper motion might also be
detected in other stars as well.
Halley's knowledge and interests were extensive. He pursued such
varied topics as the magnetic origin of the aurora borealis, the
design and construction of diving bells, and the establishment
of quantitatively accurate mortality tables. He continued his
astronomical observations until a few months before his death on
Jan. 14, 1742.
Edmond Halley FRS (November 8, 1656 – January 14, 1742) was an
English astronomer, geophysicist, mathematician, meteorologist,
Biography and career
Halley was born in Haggerston, Shoreditch, England, the son of a
wealthy soapboiler. As a child, Halley was very interested in
mathematics. He studied at St Paul's School, and then, from
1673, at The Queen's College, Oxford. While an undergraduate,
Halley published papers on the solar system and sunspots.
On leaving Oxford, in 1676, Halley visited the south Atlantic
island of St. Helena with the intention of studying stars from
the Southern Hemisphere. He returned to England in November
1678. In the following year he went to Danzig (Gdańsk) on behalf
of the Royal Society to help resolve a dispute. Because
astronomer Johannes Hevelius did not use a telescope, his
observations had been questioned by Robert Hooke. Halley stayed
with Hevelius and he observed and verified the quality of
Hevelius' observations. The same year, Halley published
Catalogus Stellarum Australium which included details of 341
southern stars. These additions to present-day star maps earned
him comparison with Tycho Brahe. Halley was awarded his M.A.
degree at Oxford and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
In 1686 Halley published the second part of the results from his
St. Helena expedition, being a paper and chart on trade winds
and monsoons. In this he identified solar heating as the cause
of atmospheric motions. He also established the relationship
between barometric pressure and height above sea level. His
charts were an important contribution to the emerging field of
Halley married Mary Tooke in 1682 and settled in Islington and
the couple had three children. He spent most of his time on
lunar observations, but was also interested in the problems of
gravity. One problem that attracted his attention was the proof
of Kepler's laws of planetary motion. In August 1684 he went to
Cambridge to discuss this with Sir Isaac Newton, only to find
that Newton had solved the problem, but published nothing.
Halley convinced him to write the Principia Mathematica
Philosophiae Naturalis (1687), which was published at Halley's
In 1690, Halley built a diving bell, a device in which the
atmosphere was replenished by way of weighted barrels of air
sent down from the surface. In a demonstration, Halley and five
companions dived to 60 feet (18 m) in the River Thames, and
remained there for over an hour and a half. Halley's bell was of
little use for practical salvage work, as it was very heavy, but
he did make improvements to it over time, later extending his
underwater exposure time to over 4 hours. That same year, at a
meeting of the Royal Society, Halley introduced a rudimentary
working model of a magnetic compass using a liquid-filled
housing to damp the swing and wobble of the magnetized needle.
In 1691 Halley sought the post of Savilian Professor of
Astronomy at Oxford, but, due to his well-known atheism, was
opposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson and
Bishop Stillingfleet. The post went instead to David Gregory,
who had the support of Isaac Newton.
In 1693 Halley published an article on life annuities, which
featured an analysis of age-at-death on the basis of the Breslau
statistics Caspar Neumann had been able to provide. This article
allowed the British government to sell life annuities at an
appropriate price based on the age of the purchaser. Halley's
work strongly influenced the development of actuarial science.
The construction of the life-table for Breslau, which followed
more primitive work by John Graunt, is now seen as a major event
in the history of demography.
In 1698, Halley was given the command of the 52 foot (16 m)
pink, Paramour (a pink was a form of small unrated vessel, akin
to a sloop), so that he could carry out investigations in the
South Atlantic into the laws governing the variation of the
compass. On 19 August 1698, he took command of the vessel and,
in November 1698, sailed on what was the first purely scientific
voyage by an English naval vessel. Unfortunately problems of
insubordination arose, allegedly by officers resentful of being
under a civilian's command. The Paramour returned to England in
July 1699. Halley thereupon received a commission as a temporary
Captain in the Royal Navy, recommissioned the Paramour on 24
August 1699 and sailed again in September 1699 to make extensive
observations on the conditions of terrestrial magnetism. This
task he accomplished in a second Atlantic voyage which lasted
until 6 September 1700, and extended from 52 degrees north to 52
degrees south. The results were published in General Chart of
the Variation of the Compass (1701). This was the first such
chart to be published and the first on which isogonic, or
Halleyan, lines appeared.
In November 1703 Halley was appointed Savilian Professor of
Geometry at Oxford University, his theological enemies, John
Tillotson and Bishop Stillingfleet having passed away, and
received an honorary degree of doctor of laws in 1710. In 1705,
applying historical astronomy methods, he published Synopsis
Astronomia Cometicae, which stated his belief that the comet
sightings of 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 related to the same
comet, which he predicted would return in 1758. When it did it
became generally known as Halley's Comet.
In 1716 Halley suggested a high-precision measurement of the
distance between the Earth and the Sun by timing the transit of
Venus. In doing so he was following the method described by
James Gregory in Optica Promota (in which the design of the
Gregorian telescope is also described). It is reasonable to
assume Halley possessed and had read this book given that the
Gregorian design was the principal telescope design used in
astronomy in Halley's day. It is not to Halley's credit that he
failed to acknowledge Gregory's priority in this matter. In 1718
he discovered the proper motion of the "fixed" stars by
comparing his astrometric measurements with those given in
Ptolemy's Almagest. Arcturus and Sirius were two noted to have
moved significantly, the latter having progressed 30 arc minutes
(about the diameter of the moon) southwards in 1800 years.
Grave of Edmond Halley
In 1720, together with his friend the antiquarian William
Stukeley, Halley participated in the first attempt to
scientifically date Stonehenge. Assuming that the monument had
been laid out by the use of a magnetic compass, Stukeley and
Halley attempted to calculate the perceived deviation
introducing corrections from existing magnetic records, and
suggested three dates (AD 920, AD 220 and 460 BC), the earliest
being the one accepted. These dates were wrong by thousands of
years, but the idea that scientific methods could be used to
date ancient monuments was revolutionary in its day.
Halley succeeded John Flamsteed in 1720 as Astronomer Royal, a
position Halley held until his death in Greenwich at the age of
85. Halley was buried in the graveyard of the old church of St.
Margaret, Lee (now ruined). In the same vault is Astronomer
Royal John Pond; the unmarked grave of Astronomer Royal
Nathaniel Bliss is nearby.
In 1692, Halley put forth the idea of a hollow Earth consisting
of a shell about 500 miles (800 km) thick, two inner concentric
shells and an innermost core, about the diameters of the planets
Venus, Mars, and Mercury. He suggested that atmospheres
separated these shells, and that each shell had its own magnetic
poles, with each sphere rotating at a different speed. Halley
proposed this scheme in order to explain anomalous compass
readings. He envisaged each inner region as having an atmosphere
and being luminous (and possibly inhabited), and speculated that
escaping gas caused the Aurora Borealis.
Named after Halley
Plaque in South Cloister of Westminster Abbey
* Halley's Comet — Halley predicted the comet's return.
* Halley crater on Mars.
* Halley crater on the Moon.
* Halley Research Station, Antarctica.
* Halley's method, for the numerical solution of equations.
* Halley Street, in Blackburn, Victoria, Australia.
Edmond Halley was born in Hagerston, Middlesex, England (near
London) as son of a wealthy merchant, salter and soapmaker. His
birth date is somewhat uncertain because it is not known if at
that time in his village the Gregorian or the Julian calendar
was in use. There's also some dispute over the year.
He got educated at Oxford and studied at Oxford University,
Queen's College, 1673-6. He worked with John Flamsteed, the
Astronomer Royal in 1675-6 both at Oxford and Greenwich, and
observed e.g. the occultation of Mars by the Moon on August 21,
In November 1676, he gave up his studies without final exam, and
sailed to St. Helena on the southern hemisphere, in order to
compile a catalog of southern stars. The reasons for this are
unknown, but it may be that he wanted to complement Flamsteed's
mapping of the northern celestial hemisphere on the southern
skies. Besides compiling this first catalog of the southern
skies, Halley observed the Mercury transit of November 7, 1677.
After returning to England in 1678, he got his "Catalog of the
Southern Stars" published (Halley 1679).
On his return, Halley was elected to the Royal Society on
November 30, 1678, and King Charles II graduated him by mandate
in 1679. That year, he was sent to Danzig to visit Hevelius.
In the years following, he travelled Europe, urged Isaac Newton
to work out and publish his Principia, and acquired the
expressed enemyship of John Flamsteed. In 1691 Flamsteed
succeeded in preventing his appointment as professor in Oxford.
In 1704 he was eventually appointed Savilian professor of
geometry at Oxford, well to the dismay of Flamsteed.
Halley had observed a number of comets and, following 1695,
undertook deep studies to calculate their orbits. In 1705, he
published his "Astronomiae Cometiae Synopsis", including his
observation that the comet he had observed in 1682 had an orbit
almost identical to those of the comets of 1531 and 1607, and
concluded these were apparitions of one and the same comet, the
return of which he predicted for 1758.
In 1710, Halley discovered the proper motion of some "fixed"
stars when using Ptolemy's catalog. In 1712, he arranged to
publish Flamsteed's observations and star catalogs, an endeavor
he had worked on for a long time, heavily opposed by Flamsteed -
who later (in 1715) arranged to burn all remaining copies he
could get, about 300 of the total edition of 400. In 1715,
Halley published a summary of the variable ("New") stars known
at that time, six in number (Halley 1715), and in 1716, a
summary on the known "nebulae", also six (Halley 1716).
When Flamsteed died, his favorite enemy Halley succeeded him in
1720, then at age 64, and held this position for 21 years.
Halley passed away on January 14, 1742 in Greenwich, England at
The astronomical community has honoured Halley by naming each
one crater on Moon (8.0S, 5.7E, 36.0 km diameter, named in 1935)
and Mars (48.7S, 59.3W, 84.5 km, in 1973) after him. Asteroid
No. 2688 was named Halley, on its discovery by E. Bowell at
Anderson Mesa on April 25, 1982; previously it had been
cataloged as 1982 HG1 and former pre-discovery sightings as 1955
QN1 = 1978 SH6 = 1978 TE9 = 1978 UO. But certainly he is best
remembered for the comet which he first predicted to return, the
most famous of all comets, Comet 1P/Halley.
Halley originally discovered two deepsky objects, globular
clusters Omega Centauri (NGC 5139) and the Hercules Cluster,
M13. His "Catalog of Southern Stars" (Halley 1679) includes 3
nebulous objects, and he wrote one of the first papers on
nebulae, including a catalog of 6 entries/objects (Halley 1716).
JACANA HOME PAGE
CLASSIC VIDEO CLIPS
JACANA ASTRONOMY SITE
JACANA PHOTO LIBRARY |
OLD MAUN PHOTO GALLERY |
MAUN PHONE DIRECTORY
FREE FONTS |
PIC OF THE DAY
GENERAL LIBRARY |
MAP LIBRARY |
HOUSE PLANS LIBRARY
MAUN E-MAIL, WEBSITE & SKYPE LIST
BOTSWANA GPS CO-ORDINATES
MAUN SAFARI WEB LINKS |
FREE SOFTWARE |
JACANA WEATHER PAGE
JACANA CROSSWORD LIBRARY |
JACANA CARTOON PAGE |
This web page was last updated on:
31 December, 2008