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Halley, Edmond

1. Dates
Born: Hagerston (near London), Middlesex, 29 Oct. 1656?
Died: Greenwich, 14 Jan. 1743
Dateinfo: Birth Uncertain
Lifespan: 87
2. Father
Occupation: Merchant
Also Edmond Halley, he was as a prosperous salter and soapmaker. The astronomer's mother died in 1672; his father was murdered in 1684.
It is clear that the father was wealthy. Aside from the business, he had accumulated properties in London that brought in rents of about £1000 per annum.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Oxford
St. Paul's School, 1671-3.
Oxford University, Queen's College, 1673-6; as the wealthy frequently did, Halley left without B.A.
M.A. by a royal mandate, 1679 (not to be listed).
Ll.D, 1704; D.C.L., 1710, both from Oxford (not to be counted as advanced degrees).
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican, Heterodox
All of the smoke about his heterodox views must have come from some fire, though there is cause to suspect that the extent of his free-thinking has been exaggerated. However, it does seem clear that Halley questioned (or better rejected) the universal authority of Scripture--for example, in his famous paper on the cause of the deluge and in his calculation of the age of the earth from the salinity of the sea, which yielded an age well beyond the accepted Scriptural chronology.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Astronomy, Mathematics, Physics
Subordinate: Demography, Magnetism, Met
Halley was a major astronomer. He began observing seriously already as an undergraduate and published a paper on theoretical astronomy in the Philosophical Transactions at that time. He is known today primarily for A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets, 1705, but he made other important contributions: the catalogue of the southern skies (Catalogus stellarum australium, 1678), the method of measuring the astronomical unit via transits of Venus, the establishment of stellar motion and the secular acceleration of the moon.
He published important editions of Apollonius and of other ancient geometricians as well as papers in pure mathematics.
He is considered the founder of geophysics, especially for his paper on trade winds and his work on tides.
He was one of the pioneers in social statistics by calculating annuities from the mortality tables of Breslau (1693).
He was constantly concerned with the magnetism of the earth, and developed a general theory about this. He also experimented at determining the law of magnetic poles.
He was concerned as well with weather, and published on the relation of barometric pressure to the weather.
Halley was something of a universal natural philosopher. He worked on historical geology and on the sources of springs and fountains, which I am subsuming under his geophysics. He published papers on optics, especially a universal theorem for determining the foci of lenses (again subsumed under physics). Navigation was a constant concern, and he was an important figure in it. I subsume this under his astronomy and magnetic science.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia, Government
Secondary: Personal Means, Scientific Society
The issue of Halley's personal means after his father's demise is debated. There is no question that his father supported his scientific work until his death, with an annual allowance of £300. Folkes' memoir (in MacPike) claims to quote Halley himself about the crisis of 1684 and his need to interrupt everything to defend his patrimony. He did take a fairly menial position with the Royal Society, and later he was happy to get the appointment with the Chester mint. However, recent biographers seriously question that he was made destitute by his father's death; they contend that there is too much evidence that he continued to have some personal means.
Halley had an allowance of £300 from his father when he left for St. Helena. Not long after he returned, he set out on a grand tour of the continent, and when he returned from that and married, he was apparently still supported by his father.
Assistant of the secretaries of the Royal Society, 1685- 96.
Deputy controller of the mint at Chester, 1696-8.
Naval captain in command of the Paramore, a vessel built explicitly for Halley's scientific expeditions, which were concerned with navigation, 1698-1701.
On a mission concerned with a naval base at an Adriatic port of the Austrian empire, 1702-3.
Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, 1704-43.
Astronomer Royal. 1720-1743.
Naval captain on half pay, 1729-43.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Government Official, Aristrocrat, Scientist
Sir Joseph Williamson and Sir Jonas Moore, both governmental officials, backed Halley's expedition to St. Helena. Charles II recommended him to the East India Company and procured transport to St. Helena for him in 1676. He received a treasury grant of £500 for equipment.
He dedicated a planisphere of the southern hemisphere stars to Charles II. It included a constellation (I think the one we call the Southern Cross) which he named "Robur Carolinum." With the assitance of Williamson again, he obtained a royal mandate for his M.A. degree at Oxford.
It appears that Archbishop Tillotson supported him for the Savilian chair in 1691. He cannot have supported him very strongly, however, because Halley did not get the appointment, and all the accounts suggest that he lost it on religious grounds.
At one point Newton acted as his patron, appointing him to the position at the Chester mint.
Halley had patrons among officials powerful in the navy. They sponsored his expeditions in 1698-1701. The Earl of Nottingham, the Secretary of State (but if I understand correctly also connected with the navy) arranged for the mission to the Austrian empire and then, when he returned, engineered his appointment to the Savilian chair.
As he completed his first Austrian mission, the Holy Roman Emperor presented him with a valuable diamond ring.
Halley dedicated his map of the Atlantic (with isogonic lines of magnetic variation, 1701) to William III, and the world map on the same principles (1702) to Prince George.
Halley dedicated his 1706 edition of Apollonius' De sectione rationis to Dr. Aldrich, Dean of Christ Church. However, Aldrich had been involved in instituting the project, and this does not smell like patronage to me.
Halley owed his position as Astronomer Royal to the Earl of Macclesfield and the Earl of Sunderland.
In 1729 Queen Caroline arranged for him to receive the half pay of a naval captain, in order that his income be sufficient.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Navigation, Cartography, Instruments, Military Engineering
Halley was as involved in technological concerns as in pure science. His astronomy had the problem of longitude determination (via lunar positions) in mind most of the time. In 1731 he published such a method claimed to be accurate within 69 miles at the equator, a serious improvement. As was frequently the case, cartography was intimately connected with navigation. He drew up a map of magnetic declinations as a possible means to determine longitude. The isogonic lines were the first use of this device in cartography. Earlier, somewhat similarly, he produced a world map with trade winds shown. His expedition of 1701 produced a chart of the Channel, and earlier he had done charts of the mouth of the Thames and of the western coast of Sussex. He did a survey of the New River, the canal and aqueduct that brought fresh water to London. The expedition in the Atlantic was as much concerned with determining the precise locations of islands and ports as it was with magnetici declination. He mapped the Austrian part of the upper end of the Adriatic.
He was much involved with instrumentation--a thermometer, a device (an alternative to the log and line) to determine the speed of a ship through the water, an improvement in the backstaff to measure the height of the sun, and of course his famous diving bell. Much later he helped Harrison to make his clock.
Halley's paper on gravity in 1687 was concerned with gunnery and trajectories. The mission to Austria was to advise on the fortification of a port on the Adriatic, and on his second mission he oversaw the actual building of the fortifications.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Royal Society, Académie Royal des Sciences
Informal Connections: Friendship with Newton. Involved in the Newton-Leibniz controversy. Friendship (followed by enmity) with Flamsteed, 1675-6. Helped Harrison to make his clock. Worked with David Gregory on the translation of the conics of Apollonius.
Royal Society, 1678-1743. Assistant of the secretaries, 1685-96. Editor of the Philosophic Transactions, 1685-92. Council, 1703 (and I think other times). Secretary, 1713-21.
The Académie des Sciences at Paris, 1729-43.
  1. A. Armitage, Edmond Halley, (London 1966).
  2. C.A. Ronan, Edmond Halley, Genius in Eclipse, (Garden City, NY, 1969). Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50) 8, 988-93. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 4, 2494-2520.
  3. Anthony à Wood, Athenae oxonienses (Fasti oxonienses is attached, with separate pagination, to the Athenae), 4 vols. (London, 1813-20), 4, 536-9. John Aubrey, Brief Lives, pp. 120-1.
  4. Eugene Fairfield MacPike, Correspondence and Papers of Edmond Halley, (Oxford, 1932). This contains, along with much else, a list of all of Halley's correspondence published by 1932 plus the texts of other letters not previously published.
  5. _____, Dr. Edmond Halley (1656-1742). A Bibliographical Guide to His Life and Works, ((London, 1939). Charles H. Cotter, "Captain Edmond Halley, R.N., F.R.S.," Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 36 (1981), 61-77. Edward Bullard, "Edmond Halley (1656-1741)," Endeavor, 15 (1956), 189-99. A.H. Cook, "Halley in Istria, 1703: Navigator and Military Engineer," Journal of Navigation, 37 (1984), 1-23. _____, "The Election of Edmond Halley to the Savilian Professorship of Geometry," Journal for the History of Astronomy, 15 (1984), 34-6. Simon Schaffer, "Halley's Atheism and the End of the World," Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 32 (1977), 17-40. Gerald Funk and Richard S. Westfall, "Newton, Halley, and the System of Patronage," in Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: A Longer View of Newton and Halley, Norman J.W. Thrower, ed., (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press), 1990, pp. 3-13.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Eugene Fairfield MacPike, Hevelius, Flamsteed and Halley: Three Contemporary Astronomers and Their Mutual Relations, (London, 1937).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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