Edmund Halley


The field of astronomy is filled with many notable names and one of them just so happens to be that of Edmund Halley. Halley was an Englishman who was a known geophysicist, mathematician, astronomer, and meteorologist. He was also the second Astronomer Royal in Great Britain after John Flamsteed and is best known for having computed the orbit of the famous Halley’s Comet (named after him, obviously). He was a man of many accomplishments and was the brains behind several inventions and was intrepid discoverer.

His life

Edmund Halley was born in England on November 8, 1656. He was the son of Edmond Halley Sr. who was a very successful soap-maker in London. His family was originally from Derbyshire. As a young kid, Edmund Halley was quite interested in math and began his education at St Paul’s School. On the year 1673, he enrolled at the Oxford Queen’s College. During his undergraduate years in college, he spent a great deal of his time publishing papers based on sunspots and the Solar System.

One the year 1675, Edmund Halley nabbed the assistant spot and worked for John Flamsteed who was the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich Observatory. One of his many tasks was to assign numbers to stars using the Flamsteed numbers. A year after, he went on a journey to the Saint Helena in the south Atlantic and brought with him a sizeable sextant along with some telescopic sights so he could set up an observatory and study as well as catalogue the stars in the southern part of the world. It was during his time in St. Helena that he was able to carefully observe the transit of Mercury across the sky and this was also the time he realized that Venus, moving in the same way, could then be used to figure out the true size of the Solar System.

A couple of years after his stint at St. Helena he moved back to England in 1678 and a year after that he went to Danzig at the behest of the Royal Society so he could help resolve a dispute between Robert Hooke and Johannes Hevelius. The dispute was that since Hevelius did not utilize a telescope in his observations, Robert Hooke saw fit to question his findings. Halley stayed with Hevelius so he could observe his findings and verify whatever his conclusions were.

That same year, he published Cataogue Stellarum Australium which had details if his findings while in St. Helena. His publication was so extensive that it included details of 341 stars that could be viewed only in the Southern Hemisphere. It was because of this that Flamsteed saw fit to give him the title “The Southern Tycho” in reference to Tycho Brahe. Halley also got his Master’s Degree from Oxford and was then elected as a Royal Society Fellow.

In the year 1686, Halley was able to come up with a second publication which consisted of the second parts of his findings during his stay at St. Helena. This publication was a paper and some charts on monsoons and also trade winds. He was able to come up with the conclusion that solar heating was what was behind atmospheric motions and he also established that there was a close relationship between sea level height and barometric pressure. A lot of experts credit his charts for helping define the emerging field of information visualization.

A lot of his time was spend conducting lunar observations and this was true even when he got married to Mary Tooke in 1682 and they had three children together. Aside from his lunar studies, he was also quite taken with problems relating to gravity.one problem in particular that really got his attention was looking for proof about Kepler’s Law concerning planetary motions. He was so taken with it that in 1684,he travelled to Cambridge to talk to a certain Sir Isaac Newton- something that John Flamsteed also did a couple of years earlier. However, when he got to Cambridge, he found out that Newton already managed to solve the problem after Flamsteed’s visit. They figured out the orbit of the planet Kirch but never got around to publishing their results. Edmund Halley asked to see the Calculations Newton used but the latter wasn’t able to locate them although he did promise to show it to Halley at a later time. He kept his promise by way of a short treatise which was entitled on the motion of Bodies in an Orbit.

Halley first made calculations with comets that orbited Kirch and he was able to make use of Flamsteed’s observations. He was indeed able to calculate the orbit of the comet in 1682 however his calculations of the comet Kirch’s orbit weren’t too accurate. In the year 1691, Edmund Halley came up with the diving bell which he and his colleagues tested extensively. This was the reason Edmund Halley was known as one of the earliest cases for middle ear trauma since he would stay underwater for periods that lasted up to 4 hours. It was also in the same year that he came up with an early working model of a magnetic compass and introduced it to the Royal Society.


Halley was well-known as an atheist and this was why he wasn’t able to nab the spot of Savilian Professor of Astronomy. John Tillotson the Archbishop of Canterbury and another bishop opposed his bid for the post. Instead, the teaching spot was given to David Gregory who was backed by Isaac Newton.

In 1694, he was censured by the Royal Society for suggesting that the biblical Noah’s flood was more the result of a comment than some being in the sky. But he did get vindication 3 centuries after his death when evidence was found that a comet did crash during the time and split in two.


In the year 1698, he was given permission to take command of the Paramour so he could go on with his studies in the South Atlantic and find out more about the laws that govern variation of the compass. The expedition was cut short since there was unrest among the crew.

His death

He died on January 14, 1742 and sadly, did not live to see the return of the comet that was named in his honor.