Halley and the Principia

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Aboard the Paramore today, it’s Halley’s 43rd birthday* and I thought I would celebrate it this year by writing about how I became interested in Edmond and the qualities that I like about him.

My interest began in the summer of 2010 when I visited the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary exhibition. I very much enjoyed the exhibition and it inspired me to read a couple of biographies of Isaac Newton, about whom I then knew very little – but while I found Newton a fascinating character, it was Halley who stood out for me, because among such complex and difficult men as Newton, Hooke and Flamsteed, Halley shone out as well-balanced, well-adjusted and nice. [1]

His kindness and lack of envy at the achievements of others are, I think, most apparent in the part he played in the publication of Newton’s Principia and it’s that role that I’ll try to sketch today.

The story begins in January 1684 when the 27-year-old Halley met up with Robert Hooke and Sir Christopher Wren and discussed the nature of celestial motions. Halley said he’d concluded that “the centripetall force decreased in the proportion of the squares of the distances reciprocally” (the inverse square law**) but that he’d been unable to prove it; Hooke affirmed the law and claimed that he had proved it, but Wren apparently didn’t believe him and so offered a book of 40 shillings to whoever was able to give him a convincing demonstration within the next two months.

The prize was never claimed, and in Halley’s case he may have given it little further consideration as he was shortly afterwards beset by several domestic crises. First, his younger brother Humphrey died abroad, then on March 5 his father went missing and five weeks later was found murdered on the banks of the Medway, then about the middle of March, Halley’s wife Mary gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, who was not to survive. [2] And if all that wasn’t enough, Halley’s father died intestate and a legal war immediately broke out between Halley and his stepmother that would rumble on for almost fifteen years. In the circumstances, it was unlikely that Wren’s challenge was at the forefront of Halley’s mind.

However, in August 1684, while probably engaged on family business in the area, Halley remembered the celestial problem and decided to visit Isaac Newton in Cambridge, whom he’d met once before in London. After some pleasantries, he asked Newton what type of curve he thought would be described by the planets orbiting under the inverse square law, and Newton immediately replied it would be an ellipse – and that he had proved it. An astonished Halley asked to see the proof, but Newton said he couldn’t find it but would redo the demonstration and send it to him.

Halley resumed his attendance at Royal Society meetings in November, having been absent during his domestic tribulations, and on December 10 reported that he’d seen Newton again in Cambridge, who had “shewed him a curious treatise, De Motu, which, upon Mr Halley’s desire, was, he said, promised to be sent to the Society to be entered upon their register.” This paper would develop into the three-book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica over the next 18 months, a period during which the Society was preoccupied with the publication of De Historia Piscium (History of Fishes), an impressive but poorly-selling book by Willughby and Ray, and Edmond and Mary welcomed a new daughter, Margaret, into their world (April 1685).

On 27 January 1686 Halley was elected to the new post of clerk to the Royal Society, defeating 3 other candidates (including Hans Sloane) despite not meeting some of the specified criteria (he was not a single man without children, and didn’t reside in Gresham College where the Society met) but the Society had reserved the right to waive any of the qualifications should they wish to do so.

Now it used to be thought that Halley was in severe financial difficulties after the death of his father and that that was why he’d sought the subordinate post of clerk with a salary of just £50pa, but Alan Cook has shown that Halley had a moderate private income of about £150-200pa from his father’s estate, (Flamsteed’s salary as Astronomer Royal was £100 and Pepys’s £350 as Clerk of the Acts, although Halley also had children to support), and so his interest in the position probably derived more from his interest in the Society and its activities than in the attendant salary. [3]

With Halley now employed as the Society’s clerk, the next we hear of the Principia is on 28 April 1686 when Dr Nathaniel Vincent presented “a manuscript treatise intitled, Philosophiae Naturalis principia mathematica” to the weekly meeting, where the Fellows agreed to refer consideration of printing the book to the next Council meeting. But the Council didn’t meet again when expected and so at a regular weekly meeting on May 19, the Fellows agreed to go ahead and print the Principia at the Society’s charge – a decision that may have been pushed through by Halley. This didn’t go down well with the Council, not least because the Society’s finances were reeling from the cost of De Historia Piscium, so at the next Council meeting on June 2:

It was ordered, that Mr Newton’s book be printed, and that Mr. Halley undertake the business of looking after it, and printing it at his own charge, which he engaged to do.

So the ‘lowly’ clerk has to foot the bill!

It says much about Halley’s admiration for Newton’s work and his recognition of its importance that he agreed to pay the cost of publication (and edit, print and promote it), especially as it meant neglecting his own concerns and jeopardising his employment at the Royal Society. One wonders what Mary Halley thought about the matter? I said in a previous post that I tend to think of Mary as being very supportive of Edmond and it’s these events I had in mind as it strikes me as unlikely that Halley would have acted as he did without Mary’s support.

In any event, Halley’s troubles had barely begun. In April, his stepmother had taken him back to court over the settlement of his father’s estate, and at the Council meeting on June 16 (the one following that where he was ordered to pay the cost of printing the Principia) his employment as clerk was challenged on the grounds that he didn’t meet the qualification that the clerk be single and without children. However, the challenge was dismissed by the Council, since the Society had chosen to dispense with those requirements at the time of his election in January.

This attempt to remove him might have arisen because he was deemed to have overreached himself in apparently bouncing a regular meeting of the Society into agreeing to print Newton’s book – or it might have been launched by Robert Hooke as the Newton-Hooke priority dispute was by now well underway, and Hooke would have been unhappy with Halley’s support of Newton.

The priority dispute and handling the temperamental Newton (and Hooke) was another problem that Halley had to contend with. After the presentation of the Principia to the Society in April, the Fellows adjourned to a coffeehouse where Hooke claimed that Newton had taken the idea of the inverse square law from him. Halley, who seems to have grasped Newton’s personality very early on, was concerned that he might hear an overly dramatic account of Hooke’s claim from another source, and so wrote himself to Newton on May 22 giving a diplomatic report of the situation. Newton replied quite calmly on May 27 setting out what he recalled of his correspondence with Hooke, and then wrote again with further particulars on June 20.

But the ink was barely dry on that letter when what Halley had most dreaded now occurred, and another Fellow gave Newton an incendiary account of Hooke’s claim – and Newton duly exploded. He returned to his June 20 letter and added a postscript lambasting Hooke and threatening to suppress the third book of the Principia, its most important section and principal selling-point. Halley then wrote a masterly reply, judiciously constructed to pacify Newton and save the third book, which so far achieved its intention that Newton “wish[ed] I had spared ye Postscript in my last [letter]”.

Back at the Royal Society, Halley still wasn’t safe in his job. The June attempt to remove him had failed, but on 29 November 1686 we read that:

It was resolved, that there is a necessity of a new election of a clerk in the place of Mr Halley, and that it be put to the ballot, whether he be continued or not.

And at the next Council meeting of 5 January 1687, a committee was selected to examine the books and Halley’s performance – which reported on 9 February that the books and papers were “in a very good condition, and the entries made according to order”.

Shortly afterwards, Halley received a letter from Newton saying that he’d been “told (thô not truly) that upon new differences in ye R. Society you had left your secretaries place”, and Halley replied that all was well (!) but that “6 of 38, last generall Election day, did their endeavour to have put me by”. Halley then promised to do nothing else until Newton’s book was finished and on March 7 he wrote to say he now had a second printer at work on book 2 and that he would engage a third to print book 3 “being resolved to engage upon no other business till such time as all is done: desiring herby to clear my self from all imputations of negligence, in a business, wherin I am much rejoyced to be any wais concerned in handing to the world that that all future ages will admire”. However, his first printer was able to print book 3, having finished book 1 by that time, and on 5 July 1687 Halley wrote to inform Newton that the Principia was finally ready.

But Halley’s contribution didn’t stop there: he promoted the book to his correspondents in advance of publication; he composed an introductory Latin ode to the work; he reviewed it (anonymously) in the Philosophical Transactions; he distributed presentation copies (at his own cost) to key individuals; and he sent a presentation copy to King James II, accompanied by an essay written by himself on Newton’s theory of the tides, a subject carefully chosen by Halley to appeal to James, a former Lord High Admiral.

With his family misfortunes, his legal disputes, his work as clerk, his fight to retain his employment, his reading, editing and overseeing the printing of the Principia, and his management of the volatile Newton, Halley must have been under great strain throughout this period, yet he betrays no hint of that in his correspondence.

So did Halley receive any reward from the Royal Society for his hard work and the credit accruing to them from his publication of the Principia? After several applications by him to have his salary confirmed and paid (he’d received nothing after 18 months), on the 6 July – the day after the Principia was completed – the Council agreed to pay Halley a bonus of £20 in addition to the promised annual salary of £50, the whole amount to be paid to him … in the form of 70 unsold copies of De Historia Piscium, the very book that had prevented the Society from publishing Newton’s book in the first place. I doubt that Halley appreciated the irony.

Happy birthday, Edmond!

RS_9284 copy

Edmond Halley in his early 30s (the inscription is a later addition). This is how Halley would have looked around the time he was publishing Newton’s Principia. (© The Royal Society Image RS.9284)

* Halley’s birthday is 29 October (OS) or 8 November (NS)

** In essence, if two bodies move apart by 3 units the gravitational attractive force between them decreases by 9, if by 4, then by 16

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[1] This was my early impression of Halley and I have encountered some less impressive behaviour since then.

[2] The date of Humphrey’s death isn’t known but is generally given as 1684 as Halley applied for administration of his estate in autumn of that year, and he is known to have died before their father. Katherine was baptised on 27 March 1684 but again the date of her death isn’t known, though she had certainly died by 1688 when the name was used for another daughter. If she died shortly after birth, it may be that Halley lost his brother, father and daughter in the space of a few weeks.

[3] The assessment of Halley’s income from his father’s estate can be found in: Alan Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998), Appendix 3.

All references to Royal Society minutes are taken from: Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London…, Vol IV (ECCO print edition).

All quotations from Newton-Halley correspondence are taken from: HW Turnbull (ed), The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, Vol II (CUP, 2008 edition).

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Halley Redux

I recently completed my MA at Birkbeck, after submitting my (delayed) dissertation on Halley’s maritime science. The dissertation looked at Halley’s work on oceanography and meteorology, navigation and cartography, and diving and salvage, as well as his legacy and reputation in maritime affairs. One of the things I concluded was that while Halley’s maritime activities were well known in the eighteenth century, they became lost from sight in the nineteenth, when the dispute between Newton and Halley (on the one side) and Flamsteed (on the other) dominated the history of science. There was renewed interest among academics during the twentieth century – in his cartography and geomagnetic theories in particular – but these studies were not aimed at the general reader, and so his voyages and important cartographic work remain largely unknown.

This seems regrettable, given that Halley’s voyages have a strong claim to being the first government-funded expeditions for purely scientific purposes, and that they predated the ever-popular Cook voyages by almost 70 years (and Cook’s first voyage was prompted by a paper of Halley’s!). So I’ve decided to continue my own attempts to raise awareness of Halley’s voyages with a repeat run of his logbooks on Twitter.

As on the first run, Halley will tweet his ship’s journals from his account @HalleysLog around 9.00pm London time (though he doesn’t make an entry every day). If you’re not on Twitter, you can still follow the logs via the Twitter widget on the Home page of this blog, and he’ll weigh from Deptford on 20 October (1698). During the first run (2012-2015), I published posts on the blog to elucidate events in the logbooks and these will remain visible throughout the repeat run, but I will set each entry as a featured post on the Home page as it arises in the narrative and Halley will tweet a link to it from his account. I don’t intend to make many changes to the posts, but I will probably revise one or two.

I’m due to start a PhD on Halley in January 2017 (on his social and cultural world), and I’m preparing a new blog to run in tandem with that – but I’ll say more about that project next year. In the meantime, thank you for your interest in Edmond Halley and for reading this blog!

'...Being a Relation of their Perils and Dangers, and of the extraordinary Hazards they undergo in their noble Adventures...' (© National Library of Scotland-Crawford 1399, EBBA ID 33925)

‘Neptune’s Raging Fury’, a broadside ballad about mariners dating from the mid-1690s, ‘Being a Relation of their Perils and Dangers, and of the extraordinary Hazards they undergo in their noble Adventures…’ (© National Library of Scotland-Crawford 1399, EBBA ID 33925)

The end of Halley’s third voyage

Halley arrived back at Deptford on 10 October 1701 and immediately began to prepare his data for publication. He had undertaken the voyage with the aim of identifying a general rule for the complex tides of the Channel, and before he returned he had written to Josiah Burchett, Secretary to the Admiralty, to tell him that he had “discovered, beyond my expectation, the generall rule of the Tides in the Channell; and in many things corrected the Charts therof”.[1]

Halley had observed the tides and depths in the Channel, and surveyed the coastline and hazards, such as sandbanks and shoals. He again chose to publish his data in the form of a chart, and by mid-November he had a draught ready to show to a meeting of the Royal Society. Some time later, the chart was published by Mount & Page under the title, ‘A NEW and CORRECT CHART of the CHANNEL between ENGLAND & FRANCE: with considerable Improvements not extant in any Draughts hitherto Publish’d; shewing the Sands, shoals, depths of Water and Anchorage, with ye flowing of the Tydes, and the setting of the Current’, which left the prospective buyer in little doubt as to what he was purchasing.[2]

Western section of Halley's Channel Chart (© Royal Geographical Society with IBG, Image No S0015918)

Western section of Halley’s Channel Chart (the inset maps appear on the eastern section). The original chart was probably published in 1702, and this version is no earlier than 1710, when Halley received his honorary doctorate (© Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (£), Image No S0015918)

Halley’s chart resembles a portolan chart with its radiating lines, but it was an improvement on existing maps because Halley surveyed by taking angles from the rising or setting sun, rather than the more usual (but less accurate) magnetic compass. The chart has inset maps of the Isle of Wight and Plymouth Sound, and it records depths in fathoms around the Channel and ‘ye Hour of High-Water, or rather ye End of the Stream that setts to ye Eastward, on ye Day of ye New & Full Moon’ was indicated by roman numerals. Halley gave instructions to seamen on how they could use these figures to estimate the height of tides around the Channel, and he included his customary call to mariners to send him new data that could be added to future editions of the chart. The Admiralty were evidently pleased with Halley’s work as they again paid a bonus of £200 “as a reward to him for his Extraordinary pains and care he lately tooke, in observing and setting down the Ebbing, and Flowing, and setting of the Tydes in the Channell”.[3]

Manuscript version of the inset map of Plymouth Sound. The handwriting isn't Halley's hand, so was presumably made by another under his direction (@ Biblithèque Nationale de France, Image No xx)

Manuscript version of the inset map of Plymouth Sound. The handwriting isn’t Halley’s, so it was presumably drawn by another under Halley’s direction (© Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Image No GESH18PF23DIV5P16D)

The chart was incorporated into pilot books and reprinted many times throughout the eighteenth century, both in England and on the continent (you can view several examples on the BNF’s Gallica website here), although Halley isn’t always credited as the source in later editions. Halley’s performance probably secured him the mission to the Adriatic, where he was sent by Queen Anne to survey the Imperial coast for the purpose of identifying a harbour where English ships could overwinter during the War of the Spanish Succession. Halley made two trips to the area in 1702 and 1703, and not only identified a suitable harbour, but also directed its fortification. Ultimately the Royal Navy did not need to overwinter in the area, but Halley’s work was rewarded by the support of the Secretary of State in the election for the Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, where success brought Halley’s seafaring days to a close.

'Carte de la Manche' by the Chevalier de Beaurain 'd'Après les Observations du Scavant Capitaine Haley', 1778 (© Biblithèque National de France, Image No GESH18PF30P23)

‘Carte de la Manche’ by the Chevalier de Beaurain ‘d’Après les Observations du Scavant Capitaine Haley’, 1778. Beaurain has added a number of insets on astronomical and navigational instruments (© Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Image No GESH18PF30P23)

This final post has been horribly delayed by what Halley would call “Domestick Occasions”, but there’ll be another post with news about the project in mid-October.

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[1] TNA, ADM 1/1872, 13 Sept 1701.

[2] In fact, this may not have been the title when it was first published: I’ve looked at several versions of the chart and they all seem to have a slightly different title and it isn’t clear which one was Halley’s original.

[3] Thrower, Three Voyages of Edmond Halley, p. 345.

Back in the Thames

On 2 October, Halley wrote a short letter to Josiah Burchett, advising that he had arrived back in the Thames and requesting permission to come up to London to give the Lords of the Admiralty a report of his Channel voyage.

In the next post – which will probably appear in November* – we’ll conclude the third voyage by looking at Halley’s results. 

Paramore Pink in Long reach

Octob 2. 1701

Honoured Sr

Finding the season of the year too far lapsed to ride at anchor in the Channell; in persuance of their Lopps orders, I came into the River of Thames last night, and am at present moored in this place, where I waite their Lopps farther pleasure, hoping they please to allow me the Liberty to waite on them to render them an account of my Summers Expedition.

I am

Your Honours most obed:t Serv:t

Edm: Halley

River_Thames_Reaches

C19 image of Thames reaches from the sea to Woolwich (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

* Postscript: In fact, the concluding post for this voyage will probably be delayed until after I’ve finished my dissertation in January as I’m very pressed for time at present.

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[1] Halley to Burchett, 2 Oct 1701, TNA, ADM 1/1872

Halley’s third logbook

I said at the start of this Channel voyage that I wouldn’t be live-tweeting the logbook as I’d done for Halley’s two Atlantic voyages, as I felt the high proportion of technical data would be of little interest to the general reader. That was a pity as the third logbook is the only one handwritten by Halley, and so from that point of view it’s an interesting document.

In fact I did tweet a few entries at the start of the voyage and I’m doing so again now at the end as these entries contain more general information – but to give you a flavour of the main substance of the log, here’s a typical entry in which Halley records soundings and the times and lunar positions of the tides:

[Sat, June 21] about 9h in the Morn I weighd and stood off to Sea, with a gentle gale of ENE wind, and about One after noon came to an anker in 18 fath. the Ness Light baring NNW; and Calis cliff ENE. here the westward tide was done at 5h.35′, or three hours and half before the Moons Southing. whence I concluded the course of the Tides here the same as at the Ness. viz that a II½ Moon ends the Eastern Tide. at 6h I weighd and stood to the eastward with a small gale of SSW wind, and about 9h fell with the West end of the Riprapps which is a narrow rigd of soft sand. I crost it severall times in 9, 8 and 7 fath and the Eastern tide being near done, I came to an anker in that depth the Ness light baring WNW and that of the South Foreland NbE p[er] Compass. here I rode two tides and found the Eastern tide done on a SW or NE Moon nearest. that it flowed about three fath. that it runs half tide here as by the Shore and that the Sett of the Stream is nearest NE and SW.

We’ll consider the purpose of this data when we look at the results of the voyage, but in this post I want to focus on what I like to call The Mystery of Halley’s Clerks.

Now that remark may excite expectations that this post will struggle to satisfy for this is not a tale of clerks going to sea and mysteriously disappearing, but rather a puzzle about what exactly the clerks did on the voyages – why, for example, was the third logbook written up by Halley and not by his clerk?

The clerk on the third voyage was one Richard Pinfold, who was the only person besides Halley to sail on all three voyages. On the two Atlantic voyages Pinfold was listed as captain’s servant, but on the third voyage he was said to have been captain’s clerk, and so I wondered whether he might have been a servant in Halley’s own household and been promoted to clerk as a ‘reward’ for going on the first two voyages, with Halley effectively covering the job himself. However, the manuscript pay and muster books show that Pinfold was actually entered as gunner’s mate and that the post of captain’s clerk was later interposed in the pay book beneath gunner’s mate. Pinfold was paid a salary as both gunner’s mate (£5 8s 6d) and captain’s clerk (£1 12s 11d), and the small wage paid to him as clerk suggests he performed that job for only a short time, and we know he wrote neither the logbook nor Halley’s letters.

The logs of the two Atlantic voyages weren’t written up by Halley, so they must’ve been written up by his clerks… well, possibly, but possibly not. There’s no immediate reason to doubt that the log of the first voyage was written by the clerk, Caleb Harmon, but the log of the second voyage is more of a puzzle. Halley wrote all his own letters to the Admiralty on both voyages, except for two on the second, and you might expect these to have been written by the clerk, William Curtiss, but they are in a different hand from that of the logbook. My first thought was that Curtiss perhaps fell ill with the “Barbadoes desease” at the same time as Halley, and so another crew member wrote them – but the two rogue letters (which are in the same hand) were written on 30 March and 8 July, either side of the period of sickness in late May, and the July letter states specifically that “we are a very healthy ship” at present. Why then did someone else write the letters, more than three months apart, and why did that person not receive extra pay as Pinfold did on the third voyage? Or why did Curtiss write the letters but not then the logbook?

The person who wrote the first logbook isn’t straightforward either. From the start of this project I’d been surprised at how neat and uniform the logs were and wondered whether they’d actually been written during the voyage or after the ship’s return to London, but then found that other logbooks were similarly neat and so thought that clerks might make draft notes and then write them up neatly while at anchor or in calm seas.

The idea of draft notes fits with a comment made by Alexander Dalrymple in an advertisement for his 1773 publication of Halley’s two Atlantic logs that

The Journal of Dr. Halley’s first Voyage is written on sundry scraps of paper, and some parts repeated in different places, and so blended that it was a very difficult matter to make it out intelligibly…

Dalrymple, who borrowed (and seemingly failed to return) these “scraps of paper” from the Board of Longitude, doesn’t mention whether the handwriting on the scraps was Halley’s or someone else’s, which is a pity as that might tell us something about how that logbook was compiled. A further curiosity is that Dalrymple seems to have been unaware of the existence of fair copies of the two logbooks (now in the British Library), and his published version of the second log was evidently compiled from another source, as there are discrepancies between the two. So what was the source for the second log used by Dalrymple, and who wrote it? And when were the fair copies of the two journals written?

These “sundry scraps of paper” also suggest a new spin on the warning given to Halley by Josiah Burchett at the end of the second voyage. Burchett wrote to Halley in Deptford, giving him permission to leave his ship to call on their lordships in London, “only lett mee give you this Caution, To have ye Books in readinesse”. Now I’d previously assumed this warning was intended to help Halley overcome the misgivings felt by some of their lordships about his handling of the prematurely-terminated first voyage* by making sure he was properly prepared when he met them, but now I wonder if it instead implies that Halley had previously displeased their lordships by returning from that voyage with only “scraps of paper” for his journal, and only had it written up on his return.

So while I think the mysteries surrounding Halley’s clerks might not rival And Then There Were None for excitement, they certainly seem to form a Problem at Sea.

* If you didn’t follow the first voyage, click on the tag for Edward Harrison to read about Halley’s problems with Lt Harrison and other officers.

Paramore pink at Spithead

On 13 September 1701, Halley wrote again to Josiah Burchett, Secretary to the Admiralty, advising that he had arrived in Spithead two days earlier to “recruite” new provisions from the Victualling Office at Portsmouth, and claiming with characteristic optimism that he had succeeded in his project “beyond my expectation”.

To_the_right_honorable_the_master,_wardens_&_elder_brethren_of_the_Trinity_House,_this_chart_of_Spithead_is_..._dedicated_(8249820033)

Chart of Spithead by William Heather, 1797; Spithead is the channel north-east of the Isle of Wight (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Paramore pink at Spithead Sept 13 1701

 Honoured Sr

These may serve to acquaint you that having observed the Course of the Tides in the Western part of the Channell, and my provision being almost spent, I came in here on the 11th Instant to recruite, and yesterday I received a months provision, with which I am going this morning to saile, to observe some particulars, which the circonstances of the Winds would not suffer me to do as I past down. I am in hopes I shall be so fortunate as to please their Lopps in this Summers Expedition, wherin I have discovered, beyond my expectation, the generall rule of the Tides in the Channell; and in many things corrected the Charts therof. Before this Months provision expires the winter season will oblige me to return, hoping from Yr Honour a favourable acceptance of the endeavours of

Honr:d Sr

Your most obedt Servt

Edm. Halley

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[1] Halley to Burchett, 13 Sept 1701, TNA, ADM 1/1872

Halley writes from Dartmouth

On 23 August, Halley followed up his 29 July letter informing Burchett of his activities in the eastern part of the Channel with a report of his work in the western section. We learn that Halley continued to be hampered by the weather, but what I particularly like is that the letter provides another instance of Halley showing concern for his men by noting that the continual weighing of anchor was hard physical labour for an under-manned crew.

The south-east coast of England showing Lizard Point (red pin) and Start Point (purple), with Halley’s location at Dartmouth further along the coast at north-west.

The south-east coast of England showing Lizard Point (red pin) and Start Point (purple), with Halley’s location at Dartmouth further along the coast to the north-west.

Paramore pink at Dartmouth

Aug 23 1701

Honoured Sr

By my last of July 29 from Spitthead I gave you an account that I had carefully observed the Course of the Tides in the Eastern part of the Channell of England; Since then I have lost no opportunity, in order to do the like for the Western part, and I have ankered all along the English Coast in the Offing as far as the Lizard, and from thence inn the midd Channell, and over to Ushant, where I was the last week. The frequent weighing ankers in so deep water has been very hard service to my small company, but the greatest difficulty I find, is from the frequent gales of Wind, which, (especially without the Start) raise the Sea to that degree that there is no riding, and which, in this month of August, have forced me four severall times into Harbour. I waite here for an opportunity of smooth weather, to anker in severall places between the Start and the Sept Isles; wherby I shall be able to compleat the Sett of observations necessary to the description of the Tides in the Offing; of which I cannot find any of our books to give a tollerable account. When I return from the French coast, I entend to putt in to Spitthead, to receive any farther orders their Lopps may think proper for me. With my humble duty to their Lopps I remain

Your Honrs most obed:t servant

Edm. Halley

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[1] Halley to Burchett, 23 Aug 1701, TNA, ADM 1/1872

Instructions for Halley’s third voyage

In a previous post, we read Halley’s letter to the Lords of the Admiralty proposing a new voyage to make “an exact account of the Course of the Tides on and about the Coast of England”, which he claimed would be “a work of generall Use to all Shipping”. Their lordships quickly approved his proposal, and Halley set sail on his third voyage on 14 June 1701 – but what exactly was he doing? Here’re the Admiralty’s instructions:

Whereas his Maj[es]ties Pink the Paramour, is particularly fitted out and Putt under your Command that you may proceed with her, and observe the Course of the Tydes in the Channell of England, and other things remarkable, You are therefore hereby required and directed to proceed with the Said Vessell, and use your utmost care and Diligence in observing the Course of the Tydes accordingly, as well in the Midsea as on both shores; As alsoe the Precise times of High and Low Water of the Sett and Strength of the Flood and Ebb, and how many feet it flows, in as many, and at such certaine places, as may Suffice to describe the whole. And whereas in many places in the Channell there are Irregular and halfe Tydes you are in a particular Manner to be very carefull in observing them.

And you are alsoe to take the true bearings of the Princip[a]l head Lands on the English Coast one from another, and to continue the Meridian as often as conveniently you can from side to side of the Channell, in ord[e]r to lay downe both Coast truly against one another.

And in case dureing your being employed on this Service, any other Matters may Occur unto you, the observing and Publishing whereof may tend towards the Security of the Navigation of the Subjects of his Maj[es]tie or other Princes tradeing into the Channell you are to be very carefull in the takeing notice thereof: And when you Shall have p[er]formed what Service you can, with relation to the particulars before menc[i]o[n]ed, you are to returne with the Ship you Command into the River of Thames, giving Us from time to time an Account of your Proceedings Dated this 12° June 1701 [1]

These instructions can be summarised as:

  • to make observations of the behaviour of the tides in the Channel and along the English and French coasts
  • to take bearings that will allow the French and English coasts to be correctly situated north-south from one another
  • to take note of anything else that might lead to safer navigation in the Channel for traders

The first two points were copied almost verbatim from a letter of Halley’s dated the previous day (11 June), but the third point was added by the Admiralty, and it’s been suggested that it might represent an order for Halley to gather intelligence from French waters as the two countries slid towards war. [2] That idea has been given ballast by a 1693 diary entry made by Hooke, when Halley and business partner Thomas Jett were engaged in a salvage operation, that “Hally and Jed [were] Spys”. [3]

Now I have to admit that I’m far from indifferent to this notion of Halley as a secret agent but, like Alan Cook, I’m not wholly convinced by the idea in respect to his present voyage: the Admiralty instructions clearly refer to publishing Halley’s information and they express a concern with the safety of traders of all nations operating in the Channel.

A philosophical James Bond? (© Royal Society, ID xxx)

A philosophical James Bond? (© Royal Society, Image ID RS.9284)

That said, Halley’s earlier surveying activities do seem rather surprising, for example, he was apparently surveying the Thames approaches in early 1689, during the politically-sensitive aftermath of the so-called Glorious Revolution. I’ve started to trawl through the government archives to see if I can unearth anything that indicates whether he was ever employed on intelligence work, but I’ve encountered nothing as yet – though I’ll be sure to reveal such state secrets here if I do!

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[1] National Archives, ADM 2/27, pp 131-2.

[2] See Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998) pp 285-6, but note that Cook refers to a published mistranscription of Hooke’s remark.

[3] Hooke, Diary, 24 March 1693, British Library, Sloane MS 4024.