Halley writes from Bermuda

The Paramore anchored in St George’s Harbour, Bermuda, on Friday 21 June 1700 and Halley and his crew remained there for nearly three weeks. They were busy during that time, the crew careening the ship in order to clean her, and Halley taking the latitude and longitude of the island, observing the tides and coastal dangers, and buying a new stream anchor to replace the one they had lost at Barbados.


Bermuda, C17 (Wikimedia Commons)

Before leaving the island on 11 July, Halley wrote an informative letter to the Admiralty in London, describing his progress during the last few months:

(Halley to ?Burchett, dated 8 July 1700 from “Bermudas”, National Archives ADM 1/1871 (not autograph))

Honourd Sr

My last from St: Hellena, gave your Honour an Account of my Southern cruise, wherin I endeavoured to see the bounds of this Ocean on that side, but in Lattd. of 52°½ was intercepted with Ice cold and foggs Scarce credible at that time of the Year. haveing spent a Month to the Southwards of 40 degrees, and Winter comeing on, I stood to the Norwards Again and fell with the three Islands of Tristan da Cunha which yeilding us noe hope of refreshment, I went to St: Helena, where the continued rains, made the water soe thick with a brackish mudd, that when it settled it was scarce fitt to be drunke; all other necesarys that Island furnishes a Bundantley. at Trinidad we found excellent good water, but nothing else. Soe here I changed as much of my St Hellena water as I could, and proceeded to Fernambouc in Brassile, being desirous to hear if all were at peace in Europe, haveing had noe sort of Advice for near eight months, here one Mr. Hardwyck that calls himselfe English consull, shewed himselfe very desirous to make prize of me, as a pyrate and kept me under a guard in his house, whilst he went A Board to examine, notwithstanding I shewed him both my commisions and the smallness of my force for such a purpose, from hence in sixteen days I arrived at Barbados on the 21st of May, where I found the Island afflicted with a Severe pestilentiall dissease, which scarce spares any one and had it been as mortall as common would in a great measure have Depeopled the Island, I staied theire but three days, yet my selfe and many of my men were seazed with it, and tho it used me gently and I was soon up again yet it cost me my skin, my ships company by the extraordenary care of my Doctor all did well of it, and at present we are a very healthy ship: to morrow I goe from hence to coast alongst the North America and hope to waite on their Lordsps: my selfe within a month after the arrivall of this, being in great hopes, that the account I bring them of the variations and other matters may appear soe much for the publick benefitt as to give their Lordsps. intire satisfaction:

I am Your Hon:rs most

Obed:t Servant:

Edmond Halley

We’ve looked before at Halley’s encounter with icebergs, his stay on St Helena and his visit to Trinidad (modern Trindade), and read how Halley himself described being environed by “Islands of Ice” in the South Atlantic, but we can look now at some additional information concerning his arrest at Pernambuco and his illness at Barbados.

During his stay at Pernambuco Halley recorded In his logbook that:

Mr. Hardwick…desired me to call on him at his house this afternoon, where instead of Business he caused me to be Arrested, and a Portuguese Guard Sett over me … and I was given to understand that Mr. Hardwick had Acted in my Affair wth.out Authority being only impower’d to Act for the Affrican Company, and the Owners of the Shipp Hanniball wch. had been seized there as a Pirate and had no Commission of Consul

This “Mr. Hardwick” was one Joseph Hardwick who held the title of vice-consul in the city of Lisbon, from where the British envoy extraordinary, Paul Methuen, had given him authority to sail to Pernambuco “in Order to the takeing posession and remitting hither whatsoever remains there belonging to the ships Hanniball and Eagle which were Seized there last year [1697] by the Governours Order”. [1]

I haven’t had time to uncover the full story of the seizure of these ships but I noticed that Hardwick was specifically warned not to exceed his written authority, and so unless that authority had been extended in the two intervening years, I think that Halley was right to object that “Mr. Hardwick had Acted in my Affair wth.out Authority”.

The pestilential disease contracted by Halley and some of his crew at Barbados has not been identified, but a gastro-intestinal illness, yellow fever, and typhoid fever have all been proposed, the latter suggested by Halley’s remark in this letter that it “cost me my skin”. It’s interesting that he says that “it used me gently and I was soon up again”, because his log entries show that he was ill for quite some time, falling ill on 24 May and remarking that his strength was returning “but Slowly” on 5 June, which sounds like a lengthy illness to me. [2]

His doctor on both voyages was George Alfrey, whom Halley seems to have known before the first voyage as he specifically requested that the Admiralty warrant Alfrey to be his “Chirurgeon”, observing that Alfrey had “served in severall of his Ma:ties shipps for some years last past.” [3] And though not a fellow of the Royal Society himself, Alfrey apparently knew some of the fellows as he was in communication (as we shall see) with Hans Sloane and James Petiver. It’s possible that Alfrey died less than three years after this voyage ended, as there’s a George Alfrey, “Chirurgeon of Woolwich”, who died in 1703. I’m not sure it’s the same man, but two surgeons named George Alfrey in a maritime location seems fairly unlikely. [4]

In any event, Halley’s belief in Alfrey’s abilities seems to have been well-judged and it’s pleasing to read that “we are a very healthy ship” as Halley and his crew prepare for the homeward passage to England.


[1] Instructions to Joseph Hardwick, dated Lisbon 7 Feb 1698, National Archives, SP 89/17 Part 2, ff273r-27v.

[2] Norman Thrower mistranscribes this as “tho it used me greatly”, but the word is definitely “gently”. See Thrower, The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley in the Paramore 1698-1701, (Hakluyt Society: London, 1980) p 308.

[3] Halley to the Lords of the Admiralty, 21 Sept 1698, National Archives, ADM 106/519/365.

[4] The contents of the will of the George Alfrey who died in 1703 (NA PROB 11/471/222) don’t settle whether he was/was not Halley’s doctor and I have some slight doubt that it’s the same man as this one may only have been 22 at the start of Halley’s first voyage, which seems rather young for a surgeon who had served for “some years last past”.

Halley and the Principia

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 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] 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 obsessed 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 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, though Halley also had children to support), and that his interest in the position probably derived more from his interest in the Society and its activities than in the attendant salary. [3]

So 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 which 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, and at the next Council meeting on June 2 we read:

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 improbable that Halley could 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) following the one 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. The challenge was dismissed by the Council since the Society had chosen to dispense with that requirement at the time of his election in January.

This attempt to remove him may have been because he was considered to have overreached himself in apparently bouncing a regular meeting of the Society into agreeing to print Newton’s book – or it may 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 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 behaviour 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”. Though happily 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 – although he did fail in one undertaking as he had no time to publish the Philosophical Transactions, which at that time provided a source of income for Halley.

So did Edmond 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


[1] It should be noted that this was my early impression of Halley and I have encountered some less impressive behaviour since then (mostly relating to Flamsteed, their early friendship having turned quickly sour – well, toxic).

[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)

Halley in London

The last time we saw Captain Edmond Halley was on July 11, 1699 when he moored his ship Paramore at Deptford and brought his first voyage as master and commander to a close: but what has he been getting up to since then?

He kept no diary and so we must look for him in other documents, such as correspondence and minutes, and though these don’t offer any glimpses of his domestic life, it’s surely not too fanciful to picture him entertaining his wife Mary and daughters, Margaret and Catharine, with seafaring tales, and getting to know his three-month-old son.

Ficus citrifolia: is this Halley's Barbados fig tree? (Photo by Riba, Wikimedia Commons)

Ficus citrifolia: is this Halley’s Barbados fig tree? (Photo by Riba, Wikimedia Commons)

We do see him at several meetings of his erstwhile employer, the Royal Society; he didn’t make the meeting held the day after he arrived at Deptford but he was there a week later on July 19 when he entertained the Fellows by showing a “Branch of a Barbados fig tree, which having many nerves or long fibres, which falling downwards, hang so yt they touch ye Ground, where they take root, and so grow up again”. [1]

He followed this up at the next meeting by presenting “part of a viviparous plant as he called it, which grows by the salt water side, called [?]Guapaiaira ye Mangrave; Dr Sloane said it is mentioned and figured in ye Hortus Malabaricus.” [2]

He seems not to have attended the August 2 meeting but on August 9 he was back again with another specimen, this time showing the seed of his “viviparous plant” (a mangrove brought back from Brazil) and Hans Sloane again informed the Fellows that it was “very well described and figured in ye hortus Malabaricus.” [3]

On the 16 August, Halley enlivened the final meeting before the summer recess by showing “Several Variations of the Needle he had observed in his Voyage, set out in a Sea chart, as also he shewed yt Brazile was ill placed in ye common Maps, and he shewed some Barnacles, which he observed to be of quick growth.” [4]

Robert Hooke’s diary has ended by this date and so we have no recorded sightings of Halley in London coffeehouses, but it’s a safe bet that he spent time there, hearing the news and catching up with his friends – and perhaps passing round his botanical exotica.

He was apparently spoken of in wider London society as Narcissus Luttrell mentions his voyage and the court martial of his Lieutenant, though Luttrell’s account is largely erroneous, wrongly reporting the crew were minded to turn pirate and that Harrison was declared “uncapable for ever of serving his majestie by sea or land”, when Harrison was actually found not guilty. [5]

But Halley is most visible in the Admiralty records, where we learn he attended the Lords of the Admiralty on July 21 to ask that he “may be a second time sent out, for the perfecting his designe of discovering the variation of the Compass” and that their Lordships were “inclinable to allow [it]”, given the “good that may thereby accrue to ye Publique”. [6]

There was evidently some (unjust?) criticism of Halley by their Lordships after Harrison was found not guilty at the court martial and so you might think that Halley would have been happy just to obtain a second commission, but he in fact went on to complain about the sailing qualities of Paramore and asked for another ship!

The Admiralty ordered Deptford to survey the Paramore and report on her condition, and the dockyard advised that they could make alterations to settle her more in the water and help find her trim and then “here is noe Vessell … more fitting then she is for that Service”. [7]

So whatever Halley’s wishes, he’s not to be parted from his Paramore just yet.


[1] Royal Society, JBO/10, pp 139-140

[2] Ibid, p 141. The Hortus Malabaricus is well worth a look: here’s a short introduction to the work, with a selection of illustrations

[3] Ibid, p 143

[4] Ibid, p 145

[5] Narcissus Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs, Vol IV, pp 532 & 538

[6] National Archives, ADM 2/397, pp 153-4

[7] National Archives, ADM 106/3292, f.100v

Harrison’s book

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know I’m an admirer of Halley and expect that I side with him in his difficulties with his lieutenant – yet when I first read about Edward Harrison and his book, I did have some sympathy and respect for the lieutenant.

Harrison described himself as “sea-bred”, indicating he’d been at sea from an early age, but he was evidently a man of some, if limited, education. These facts suggest someone of modest background and resources, and so it seemed to me rather impressive that he had written a book, got it printed, and circulated it to the Royal Society and the Admiralty – and I could feel some sympathy for his dismay when Halley then dismissed his enterprising efforts.

But then I read his book and that sympathy disappeared. The book, Idea Longitudinis, was published by Harrison in 1696; he’d submitted a paper of his ideas to the Royal Society about 2 years earlier but received no encouragement and so he decided to “appear on the Publick Stage”. [1]

The book includes a dedication to the Lords of the Admiralty, a preface, and 8 chapters including a conclusion, the whole about 97 pages long. The first 3 chapters cover: where to set a first meridian, a definition of longitude, a definition of time (solar, sidereal year), and chapters 4-7 consider the different methods of finding longitude: horological, magnetic variation, lunar, and Jovian.

The book seems not without merit as a handbook for his “Brother Tar”, and some of his remarks about the problems that would be encountered (refraction, parallax, impossibility of using a long telescope (for the Jovian method) on a rolling ship) are helpful – but this was all commonplace to the fellows of the Royal Society, and I would guess that that was the opinion Halley gave to their Lordships.

What Halley actually said about the book doesn’t seem to be extant, but a slightly later review of another paper of Harrison’s may give us some indication. While Halley was away on his second voyage, Harrison submitted another paper to the Royal Society on tides and winds, and this was reviewed by Richard Waller, who ends his 2-page review with “between you and me [he’s writing to Hans Sloane] I see nothing in the Paper but what is better explained in the places I have above quoted”. [2]

The opening lines of Harrison's Chapter V are taken from Halley's 1683 paper

The opening lines of Harrison’s Chapter V are taken from Halley’s 1683 paper

Perhaps Halley gave a similar assessment – that it contained nothing new – an opinion that would be reinforced when he found that the opening lines of Harrison’s chapter on magnetic variation (see image) were copied almost verbatim from his 1683 paper on the same subject (there’s at least one other section copied directly from Halley’s paper).

Alan Cook describes Harrison’s book as “[s]cientifically and technically… poor, second-hand, and ill-digested. It is shot through with aspersions on mathematicians, the manner is aggressive, and it shows a deep inferiority complex”, and possibly the most interesting aspect of the book is what it reveals about Harrison himself, giving us some idea of what Halley had to deal with on board his ship. [3]

Harrison comes across as having a rather inflated view of himself. He twice compares himself to Columbus as being someone who “shewed the way”, and warns us that some “ordinary Mathematicians may hate to be out-done by a Tarpolin, if they have ought to say against him, its because his Practice and Experience may prove him to be a more Competent Artist in Navigation then [sic] themselves”. [4]

Hindsight makes the opening lines of the dedication seem ironic: “It is a saying in the Navy, He that knows not how to obey Command, is not worthy to bear Command”. As, too, does this sentence, given he’d lifted passages from Halley and then gone on to despise him for dismissing his book: “If any Envious Person pretend I have borrowed most of my Book, may he be obliged to Quote the Authors, where I have not”. [5]

The passages that revealed most about his personality were also the most unexpected:

“…if I know more than others, it is by Divine Authority, by Industry and Experience, by an Inborn Idea, and Instinct in Nature; it was ordained for me by God Almighty, from my Mother’s Womb.” [6]

And when considering the location of a first meridian:

“I could Bafle and Impose on the World as our Predecessors have, false Arguments for other places, from whence they might account their first Meridian. God forbid I should be so wicked, Honour and Glory, and beginning of Good, belongs to God; a first Meridian may be represented, and if the Heads of our Church and State, think it good, let there be made a Figure, representing a first Meridian, and Erected over St. Pauls Church in London, with this Inscription, Glory be to God, good Will towards Men…” [7]

Harrison's Idea Longitudinis, preface

Harrison’s Idea Longitudinis, preface

Blimey. These passages took me by surprise, as it had never occurred to me that Harrison might be religious, and they perhaps provide another reason why Harrison was so hostile towards Halley, as Halley had something of a reputation for being irreligious. I think Halley must have had a hard time dealing with Lieutenant Harrison, and yet, as he tells us, he “endeavoured all I could to oblige him”. [8]

My feeling is that Halley gave an honest critique of Harrison’s book, but that Harrison was not the type of person who could accept criticism and so nursed a grievance towards Halley (whom perhaps he had once admired, given his imitation of his works) and seized the opportunity to wreak his revenge when chance put them together on board the same ship.

I suspect that Harrison was rather fortunate in the court’s verdict

This post was originally published on 10 July 2013 and revised in July 2017.


[1] Edward Harrison, Idea Longitudinis (London, 1696), preface

[2] Richard Waller to Hans Sloane, dated 4 Dec 1699, Royal Society, EL/W3/68

[3] Alan Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998) p 264

[4] Harrison, preface

[5] Harrison, preface

[6] Harrison, preface

[7] Harrison, pp 3-4

[8] Captains’ Letter Book, National Archives, ADM 1/1871

What’s in a name 1: Edmond or Edmund?

Since I became interested in Halley, I’ve been astonished at the number of basic errors I’ve seen about him, especially in regard to his name and title.

I frequently see him referred to as ‘Sir Edmond’ (he wasn’t) and even on one occasion as ‘Reverend Halley’, which is particularly inappropriate as Halley had a reputation for being irreligious and once failed to obtain an important position on that account.

He was plain Mr Halley until embarking on his first voyage in 1698, then Captain or Mr Halley until 1710 when he received his honorary doctorate, and then Dr Halley until his death in 1742.

His first name is unequivocally Edmond. Confusion arises because Halley rarely signed his first name in full but usually abbreviated it to ‘Edm.’. He also often used the Latin form ‘Edmundus’, which in turn was abbreviated to ‘Edmund.’. So even people who knew him would rarely have seen his first name written in full and would no doubt have tended to assume the more common spelling, Edmund, which would be reinforced by seeing the Latinised form in many of his published papers – but when he did sign his name in full, it was always ‘Edmond’, as can be seen in this 1696 letter addressed to Hans Sloane from Chester:


Halley to Hans Sloane 12 Oct 1696 (© The Royal Society, EL/H3/48)

The pronunciation of his surname is more difficult to settle. I’ve come across the spellings: Halley, Hally, Hailey, Haley, Hawley – and seen it suggested that this last spelling probably indicates the way it was pronounced by his contemporaries. Perhaps, but then why the Hailey/Haley spelling, which seems to suggest a completely different pronunciation?

Myself, I pronounce it to rhyme with valley – but the best argument for this pronunciation is that it allows you to join in with this rousing Royal Astronomical Society drinking song, dating from 1910*:

Of all the comets in the sky

There’s none like Comet Halley.

We see it with the naked eye,

And periodic-ally.

The first to see it was not he,

But still we call it Halley.

The notion that it would return

Was his origin-ally.

Cheers, Captain Edmond Halley!

* © Royal Astronomical Society. Apparently the song once had four verses. I found three reproduced in an online extract from volume 33 of The Observatory magazine with this preceding note: “It originally contained four verses, but as the last one mentions names in a manner which might be deemed invidious, I have ventured to suppress it”. Interesting. I’ll return to this delightful song in a future post if I track down the fourth verse (and the identity of its suppressor!).