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On this day in history in 1656, was born Edmond Halley.
Halley was a mathematician, meteorologist and astronomer noted for assisting Newton to publish his Principia Mathematica, and for calculating the orbit of his eponymous comet.
Halley was born in 1656, at Haggerston, east London, the son of an industrialist. He was educated at St Paul’s School and Queen’s College, Oxford, where he studied astronomy, publishing papers on the solar system and on sunspots. In 1676, Halley set out on an expedition to St Helena, in order to catalogue the star system as seen from the Southern hemisphere. He recorded a total of 341 stars with their celestial longitudes and latitudes, and observed that some of the stars had evidently grown dimmer since their observation in ancient times. Halley published his star register under the name of Catalogus Stellarum Australium. This publication earned Halley an M.A. degree and admission to the Royal Society.
In 1982, Halley married and settled in Islington, where made astrological observations and studied the motions of the planets. He became intrigued as to what forces kept the planets in motion and prevented them either flying off into space or falling into the sun. To investigate the matter further, together with Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, he visited Isaac Newton at Cambridge. It transpired that Newton had already solved the problem, their orbit was elliptical and sustained by gravity, but he had not published his results. Halley encouraged Newton to publish Principia Mathematica, even paying the production costs.
In 1698, Halley was commissioned by the Admiralty to undertake a sea voyage to investigate terrestrial magnetism, which hopefully would explain variations in compass readings. In 1701, he published a series of magnetic charts of the Atlantic and the Pacific, showing curved lines on the maps indicating the same level of compass readings.
In 1704, Halley was appointed Savilian professor of geometry at Oxford. He studied the orbits of 24 comets, which had been closely observed since 1337, and concluded that three of them were so alike that they must be taken as the same one and correctly predicted its return in 1758. When it did come back, it became known as Halley’s comet. It returns to earth every seventy-five or so years.
Also named for Halley are Halley Crater on the moon, Halley Crater on Mars and Halley Research Station in Antarctica. The rock singer Bill Haley called his backing group ‘The Comets’ after Halley’s comet. Halley died in 1742 and is buried in St Margaret’s old churchyard, London. [St Margaret’s Church, Lee High Road, Lee, London SE12 8BR]
Armitage, Angus. Edmond Halley. (British Men of Science Series)
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