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Edmond Halley (1656 - 1742)

Edmond Halley was born in Hagerston, Middlesex, near London in 1656. His father, originally from Derbyshire, was a merchant who made his money dealing in salt and soap. Even though the great fire of London destroyed much of his merchandise, Edmond Halley senior was wealthy enough to pay for a private tutor for his son before sending the young Edmond to the expensive St Paul's School in London.

Halley proved to be a talented scholar and was only seventeen years old when he was admitted to Queen's College Oxford in 1673. His father had bought him some very expensive astronomical instruments and Halley was an expert astronomer even before he entered university. His expertise brought him to the attention of John Flamsteed, the Royal Astronomer, who took Halley on as his assistant. The two men worked together on observations made at the Oxford and Greenwich Observatories. In 1676, while Flamsteed was mapping the skies of the Northern Hemisphere, his assistant gave up his studies at Oxford to sail to St Helena. Here Halley set to work mapping the skies of the Southern Hemisphere. This was an expensive voyage but Halley was lucky enough to have a rich father who supported his venture and he also carried a letter of recommendation from King Charles II that gave him is passage with the East India Company.

Halley established the first observatory in the Southern Hemisphere on St Helena. He stayed on the island for eighteen months and catalogued 341 stars, recording their exact latitudes and longitudes. He also discovered two star clusters, Centauri and Hercules as well as observing the movement of the planet Mercury across the surface of the Sun.


Edmond Halley

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In 1678 Halley returned to England where he published his star catalogue. Although he had never graduated from Oxford, Halley was awarded his degree by King Charles II. This was also the year that Halley, at only 22 years of age, was elected as a member of the Royal Society. Perhaps it was because of these honours that John Flamsteed became jealous of Halley and began to show a great dislike of the young astronomer.

Halley, meanwhile, opted for a European tour and it was in Calais that he observed his famous comet in 1682. He visited Cassini in Paris and the two men worked on finding the orbit of the comet. On his return to England, Halley's search for the answer to the comet's orbit sent him to search out Newton. Halley discovered that Newton had already written about elliptical orbits but he had not published his work. It was Halley who persuaded Newton to publish his Principia. In fact, Halley paid for its publication from his own pocket (he was fortunately reimbursed by the proceeds of the book's sales).

By 1691 Halley's father had died and money was not so easy to find. Halley decided to apply for a job. He tried for a post as Professor of Astronomy at Oxford but Flamsteed opposed his appointment. Halley gained an income by working for the Royal Society. He was a man of many talents, publishing, in 1686, the first meteorological chart of the oceans showing the prevailing winds. Halley also continued to study his comet, proving that the comets reported in 1305, 1380, 1456, 1531 and 1607 were, in fact, the same comet that he had seen in 1682. He even predicted that it would reappear in 1758 and when it did, it became known as Halley's Comet!

After a brief two-year period as Deputy Controller of the Mint, a post secured for him by the then Warden of the Royal Mint, Isaac Newton, Halley took command of one of His Majesty's warships, the Paramore Pink. He spent four years exploring the Atlantic shores, investigating the tides and coasts of southern England and inspecting harbours around the Adriatic Sea. On his return to England he secured the Professorship of Geometry at Oxford, much to the indignation of John Flamsteed.

In 1710 Halley was working on comparison between Ptolemy's star catalogue and Flamsteed's catalogue . He had realised that the so-called "fixed" stars did, in fact, show small movement. His realisation was based on his observation of three stars. When Halley published his findings in 1712, Flamsteed was so angry that he gathered as many copies of the book as he could, 300 out of the 400 published, and burnt them! Flamsteed would not have been too happy that Halley succeeded him as Royal Astronomer in 1720, a post that Halley kept until his death 21 years later, at the grand age of 87.


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