The end of Halley’s second voyage

Halley arrived back in Deptford from his second voyage on 10 September 1700 and he’ll return to sea for his third voyage in June 1701 (June 2015 by the life of this blog), so I thought I’d close this phase of my project by looking at some of the things that Edmond will be doing in the intervening months.

As we’ve seen (here and here), he began preparing his chart of magnetic variation as soon as he returned to London and there are periodic entries in the Royal Society minutes of his showing (what are assumed to be) manuscript drafts of his chart at their meetings. He presented a copy formally to the Society on 4 June 1701, when the minutes record:

Mr Halley presented the Society with a Map of his late Voiage to the South. He was thanked for it, & it was order’d to be hung in the Meeting room. [1]

The exact publication date of the chart isn’t known but is assumed to have been during the second quarter of 1701 (given its presentation date to the RS), and it occurs to me that a letter dated 6 May 1701 from the Admiralty to the Navy Board, awarding a bonus of £200 to Halley on the order of the king, may have been prompted by the publication of his chart:

In obedience to his Mats. [Majesty’s] Commands signified to this Board, Wee do hereby desire and direct you to cause to be paid unto Captn. Edward [sic] Halley, out of the Money in the hands of the Trea[sure]r of the Navy upon Acct. of the Tenths of Prizes the sum of two Hundred Pounds, in consideration of his great Paines and care in a late Voyage he made for the discovering the Variation of the Needle. [2]

Halley resumed his attendance at Royal Society meetings when they reconvened after their summer recess, and, having resigned his Fellowship in 1686 to become the Society’s clerk, he was re-elected FRS at the General Meeting of 30 November 1700 and voted one of the auditors of their accounts on December 17. [3]

Halley was often referred to as “Capt Halley” in the Society’s minutes of this period, but it’s somewhat surprising how few references there are to his voyage; I assume Edmond mostly talked about his expedition in the coffeehouses.

Halley by Kneller (NMM Ref)

Halley, by Kneller (© NMM, BHC2734)

It was perhaps during this period that Halley had his portrait painted by Godfrey Kneller. The date of the portrait isn’t known, but has been estimated at around 20 years after his voyages because of a mezzotint version published after Halley became Astronomer Royal in 1720. However, Alan Cook says that Halley is wearing naval uniform and so suggests it may have been painted in 1702 after his third voyage, and this – or even 1701 – seems more likely to me, when Halley was famed for his voyages, and also because Halley appears younger in this portrait than in the one known to date before 1713. [4]

In between preparing his chart, attending Royal Society meetings, frequenting the coffeehouses, and perhaps having his portrait painted, Halley surely entertained his wife, Mary, and their three children with tales of adventures and of the people and animals he’d seen on his cruise. Perhaps he brought back curiosities as gifts for them?

I know he did bring back some items, and they’re partly what prompted me to speculate whether Halley had kept a private journal or notes during his voyage. Another reason is that one or both of his logs may initially have been written on loose pieces of paper and then written up later (and there is some doubt in my mind whether the fair copies were actually written up by his clerk(s)). I hope to do more research on the history of his logbooks and will perhaps write more about this at the end of his third voyage.

A further reason for my speculation is that there are extant papers besides his logbook surviving from the second voyage – namely, a series of sketches of fish! He presented these drawings (made by himself) to the Royal Society on 6 November 1700, along with some sketches of the Batavian Islands; the sketches of the Islands are seemingly lost but five sketches* of fish are safely stored in the Society’s archives and here’s perhaps the best of the set, with text written by Halley:

Fish (© Royal Society, Image)

“A Fish Taken in the Latitude of 36° NEbN from Bermodas following an old Mast overgrown with Barnacles.” (© Royal Society, RS.9360)

It was a great pleasure to see the originals in the Society’s library; they are more impressive ‘in the flesh’, and I particularly liked that they gave me a palpable sense of Edmond sitting down in his cabin and carefully sketching the fish on the table before him (you can really sense him at work on the fish’s scales towards the tail). The drawings may not display the talent of Hooke or Waller, but their ordinariness somehow serves to evoke the physical presence of Halley the man.

And so, having conjured his presence, we’ll leave him be for a while. His third voyage will start in June next year (2015 for us), and I’ll be back then to conclude this project to bring astronomer Edmond Halley’s seafaring adventures to wider attention.

* I couldn’t link to the page showing all the fish, so here are the individual links to the other four: Doctor fish, Tuna fish, Pilot fish, Flying fish. If only there’d been a sketch of his birds!


[1] Royal Society, JBO/10 p 219.

[2] National Archives, ADM 2/181 p125.

[3] Royal Society, JBO/10 pp 204 and 206.

[4] Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998) p xv.

Halley’s maritime experience, part 2: his diving bell

In my last post we looked at the maritime experience that Halley had accumulated as a passenger, surveyor, and diver before receiving his commission as Paramore’s master and commander, and in this post we’ll examine his diving career more closely and take a look at my favourite thing about Halley – his diving suit!

Halley first wrote about a method for working underwater in 1689, proposing a mobile bell built upon four wheels. He discussed the effect that the weight and pressure of water had on a diver, and how water would compress air inside a bell, and rise higher as the bell descended. He suggested that if a way could be found to send air down to the bell, this would drive out the water and allow the diver – if wearing fishermen’s boots – to remain safe and dry inside. [1]

Robert Hooke was unimpressed, declaring Halley’s paper “the Same wth what I Shewed ye Society 25 years Since”, but diving and diving equipment have had a long and interesting history and probably neither Halley nor Hooke was quite as original as each believed himself to be, though Halley does deserve great credit for being one of the few designers who went on to build a bell – and even to go down in it. [2]

His opportunity came during his involvement in the salvage operation on the “Guynie Friggott”, a Royal African Company ship which foundered on the south coast near Pagham around 1 April 1691, and from May of that year Halley was delivering regular reports of his activities to the Royal Society with escalating enthusiasm.

At the meeting on 26 August, he read a paper describing the bell he had built in detail:

The Diving tub [a truncate cone] was made 5 foot at Bottom where it was open, 3 foot at top and 5 foot deep… and under the bell by three ropes I fastned a stage about 2½ foot below to stand on… Within the bell I placed a bench about a foot from the bottom for the men below to sitt on when they should be cold and where a man might sett with all his clouths at any depth drie. I made likewise in the top of the bell a window to let in the light which was very thick and strong but as clear glass as could be gotten, and I placed a small Cock in the same crown of the bell to let out the hot & effete air unfitt for further respiration. [3]

Halley reported that the deeper the bell sank, the higher the water rose within it, which he countered by his “principall invention” of adapting cask to be sent down filled with air, having a bunghole underneath through which water would enter, and a cock at the top (later a flexible tube) to release the compressed air when the cask was drawn into the bell and raised above water, thereby replenishing the bell’s air and lowering the level of the water.

By this means I have kept 3 men 1¾ [hours] under water and in ten fathoms deep without any the least inconvenience and in as perfect freedom to act as if they had been above.

That sounds fantastic, but four weeks later Halley read another paper to the Society and this time he was so excited by his creation that he “desire[d] to conserve to my self the right of priority of Invention”: this was Edmond’s diving suit. [4] But before we read his description, let’s pause to examine a nineteenth-century illustration of his apparatus, which appeared in Rees’s Cyclopædia and is shown with the permission of the Science Museum:


Halley’s Diving Bell (© Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library, Image 10569667)

There are several depictions of Halley’s diving bell on the internet but this is the closest to Halley’s description. You can see it’s a truncate cone built of wood with a weighted stage beneath, attached by three strong ropes to the bell. Inside is a bench with a man sat “drie” in his “clouths”, and in the roof on the right is a cock to release the “effete air unfitt for further respiration”. To the right is a cask, delivering fresh air to the bell, and to the left is the diver, wearing a not entirely convincing version of Halley’s diving attire, topped off with… but let’s hear the description of that contrivance from Halley:

A Man having a suite of Leather fitted to his body, with a cap of Maintenance… cappable to hold 5 or 6 gallons [of air]… must have a pipe coming from the Diving bell to his Capp, to bring him Air, which will be returned by another pipe, which must go from the cap of Maintenance, to a small [receptacle] of Air ?placed above the Diver into which it is to return the air, that has been breathed; whilest the other brings it to the man… [5]

Well that’s splendid, but what precisely did this cap of maintenance look like? Halley describes it as a “small vessell on the head of the diver which from its shape and use I call a capp of maintenance”, which is a little puzzling as caps of maintenance sit on top of the head but this presumably fitted over the head and was akin to a small bell, as imagined in the illustration above. [6] In which case, the device seems unlikely to pass any health and safety assessment, as when the diver bent down to retrieve something or if he tripped, the cap would presumably have tilted and flooded with water!

But that’s a trifling objection and Halley was rightly undaunted, describing his own triumphant descent in the same paper:

Having fortified my self against cold by a double or triple flannel or knit woolen westcoat and excluded the water by a well liquored leather suit made fitt and close to the body, I make my self considerably heavier than water by adding a girdle of ledon shott… with this the diver can descend easily to the Diving tubb… [7]

I love that detail about the waistcoat. It’s a rare evocation of Edmond’s physical presence and it summons his wife Mary to mind. Did she knit the waistcoat? Did she help with the design and fit of his suit? Alas, we know nothing of Mary’s role or her view of his projects, but we do know more of the liquored suit as Halley later described the recipe for his waterproofing oil to the Royal Society. Here’s the relevant minute:

Halley’s Liquor for his Leather Suites was said by him to consist of equall parts Bees wax, Tallow, Turpentine, and as much Train oyle [whale oil] as all the rest, dipping therein, when all is scalding hott. [8]

Notice it’s now “Leather Suites”, plural, and I’m assuming that’s because he’s producing them for other divers engaged in the operation, rather than enlarging his private collection of niche-interest leatherwear. The suits seem to have been effective at keeping the divers dry and toasty as Halley – for one – was happy “to continu[e] there as long as I pleased”, while the glass window at the top admitted so much light into the bell that “I could see perfectly well to Write or Read” and “by the return of the Air-Barrels, I often sent up Orders, written with an Iron Pen on small Plates of Lead, directing how to move us from Place to Place as occasion required.” [9]

That was typical of Halley: when a subject caught his attention he explored it obsessively, and at Royal Society meetings throughout this period we find him reporting not just on improvements to his bell and attendant devices, but on the appearance of light below water, the strength of currents in streams, his experience of aural barotrauma (alleviated by “Oyle of Sweet Almonds”), and his idea for an instrument to measure the depth to which a diver had descended.

But it’s his diving suit that captured my own imagination: is it too fanciful to picture him donning his three waistcoats, his oiled leather suit, his fishermen’s boots, and his cap of maintenance, then lumbering downstairs to display himself to Mary, his servants and two young daughters? He must have been an impressive sight. Well, a sight, anyway.


[1] Royal Society, Halley Papers, Cl.P/21/28.

[2] Hooke, Diary, 6 March 1689, British Library, Sloane MS 4024. You can read a short history of diving here and here – or, if you simply want to see a picture of Alexander the Great in a diving tub, enlarge the second image shown here.

[3] RS, Cl.P/21/38.

[4] RS, Cl.P/21/39.

[5] Ibid.

[6] RS, Cl.P/21/40.

[7] Ibid.

[8] RS Minutes, 9 June 1692, JBO/9 p88.

[9] Halley, ‘The Art of Living under Water…’, Phil Trans (1714) Vol 29 pp 492-499. Well worth a read!

Halley falls ill

800px-Isaac_Sailmaker_-_The_Island_of_Barbados_-_Google_Art_Project - Version 2

The Island of Barbados by Isaac Sailmaker, c1694 (Wikimedia Commons)

On 21 May 1700, the Paramore arrives at “Barbadoes” and anchors in Carlisle Bay, but this will be no island paradise for Halley as disease is rampant and the governor, Ralph Grey, advises Edmond to leave quickly and prevent his men from going ashore – though as these log extracts show, that advice is already too late for Halley:

[21 May 1700, extract] Yesterday about 5h in the afternoone wee raised the Island of Barbadoes, the midle of it bearing West halfe South by Compass 10 Leagues off. Wee Stood in wth. it till midnight, then wee Stood off and on till day… About noon wee ankor’d in Carlisle Bay in 5 fathome Water. Here I found his Majesties Shipp the Speedwell under Sail for England.

[22 May 1700, extract] I went up into the Country to Wait on the Governour the Ralph Grey Esqr. who advised me to make no more Stay than was absolutely Necessary by reason the Island had not been knowne so Sickly as at present, the Bridge Towne Especially, and for that reason to take care to keep my Men on board.

[24 May 1700, extract] I weighed from Barbadoes this Morning and whilst busey getting under Sail I found my Selfe Seized wth the Barbadoes desease, wch in a litle time made me So weake I was forced to take [to] my Cabbin. I order’d my Mate to shape his Course for St. Cristophers.

This is one of the few occasions that Halley is known to have fallen ill. There is a reference to a “quotidian Ague wch held me for some time indisposed” in a 1696 letter, and elsewhere we learn that when “attacked with a slight fever on catching cold, he used to take…half an ounce of Jesuit’s bark in water-gruel, which he called his chocolate, and by which he was always relieved.” [1] “quotidian Ague”? “slight fever”? Clearly Halley was not the type to suffer that most alarming of ailments, the life-threatening ‘man-flu’.

Aside from the “Barbadoes desease”, his only known serious illness was a “paralytic disorder” he suffered about a year after his wife’s death, which left him with a paralysis in his right hand (he and Mary had been married for 54 years when she died in 1736). [2] Otherwise, he enjoyed good health and “preserved his memory and judgment to the last, as he did also that particular chearfulness [sic] of spirit for which he was remarkable.” [3] However, in his final year he was “wholly supported by such cordials as were ordered by his Physician [Richard Mead], till being tired with these he asked for a glass of wine, and having drank it presently expired as he sat in his chair without a groan” about three months after his 85th birthday. [4]

But what was the “Barbadoes desease” that Edmond fell prey to in May 1700? Norman Thrower sought the opinions of several specialists in tropical diseases during the preparation of his edition of Halley’s voyages, and their conjectures included a gastro-intestinal illness, yellow fever (endemic in the Caribbean), and typhoid fever (because of a remark Halley will make in his next letter about his skin). [5]

It seems unlikely the disease can now be diagnosed with certainty, given the near-absence of information from Halley regarding his symptoms, but if the conditions experienced by an earlier traveller to Barbados still obtained, then an infection spread via contaminated food and water seems highly probable.

In his 1657 work, A True & Exact History Of the Island of Barbadoes, Richard Ligon wrote that when he arrived at Barbados (1647) “the sickness raign’d so extreamly as the living could hardly bury the dead; and…they threw dead carcases into the bog, which infected so the water, as divers that drunk of it were absolutely poysoned, and dyed in a few hours after”, and later he noted that the Barbadians washed themselves and their linen in the pond water they used “to boyl their meat, to make their drink”, which he found “a little loathsome” and so took his own water from a nearby rivulet. [6]

We must hope that Halley too has refilled his cask from a less deadly source…


[1] Halley to ?Sloane, from Chester, Nov 1696, Royal Society EL/H3/51; Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757) p 2516, note bbbb.

[2] Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757) p 2516.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Halley died on 14 January 1741/2.

[5] NJW Thrower, The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley in the Paramore, 1698-1701 (Hakluyt Society: London, 1981) p 46, note 3.

[6] R Ligon, A True & Exact History Of the Island of Barbadoes (London, 1657; 2nd edn, 1673) pp 25 and 28.

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

Mrs Mary Halley

On the 6 April 1699 a baptism is taking place at the church of All Hallows on the Wall on the northern perimeter of the City of London. The child – a boy – is named Edmond after his father, but his father – Captain Edmond Halley – is unaware of his son’s existence…

Boundary mark for St James's Dukes Place, where Edmond and Mary were married in 1682

Boundary mark for St James’s Dukes Place, where Edmond and Mary were married in 1682 (© Kate Morant)

Edmond Halley married Mary Tooke on 20 April 1682 at St James’s Dukes Place, a short walk from his father’s house in Winchester Street. The marriage took place less than 3 months after Halley returned from his Grand Tour and it isn’t known whether he and Mary were acquainted before he left, or if the marriage was arranged while he was abroad, or after his return, or whether Edmond or Mary had any involvement in the decision.

What is known, is that the marriage was a great success. They were married for almost 54 years until Mary’s death in 1736, which Edmond described as “the saddest day of my life” and that he had lived “in great contentment” with Mary. [1]

At the time of Edmond’s departure, they had two daughters, Margaret, born 1685, and Catharine, born 1688. The Biographia Britannica says they had several children who did not survive, but I have only found a record for one, Katherine, born while they were living in Islington, where they’d set up home after their marriage. [2]

There are very few glimpses of Halley’s personal life but those few give the impression of a close and happy family. Flamsteed describes a visit in 1712 by the entire Halley family at a time when relations between Halley and Flamsteed were at their nadir, and one senses the cheery Halleys working together to make the visit less of an ordeal for Edmond (and Flamsteed).

Halley’s gravestone, now set into a wall at the Greenwich Observatory, was erected by his daughters (his son had already died) and dedicated to Edmond and Mary as the “best of parents” (optimis parentibus) and all four are buried together, along with Catharine’s second husband, Henry Price.

Yet despite their long and happy marriage, Mary hardly makes an appearance in the written records. The Biographia Britannica describes her as “a young lady equally amiable for the gracefulness of her person and the beauties of her mind” but we know nothing else about her character or personality. [3]

In spite of this, it’s Mary I most often think of when reading Halley’s logbook. I tend to think of her as being the type of person who was very supportive of Edmond’s various projects – that’s speculation but even if it’s correct, she must have been gravely apprehensive about his voyage.


St Benet Paul’s Wharf, where Halley’s daughter Margaret was baptised in 1685 (© Kate Morant)

Besides her concern for Edmond’s safety, she must have worried about what would happen to her and her two daughters if he didn’t return – and then shortly before Halley finally set sail, she found she was pregnant again – a hazardous event in itself.

We don’t know of any letters Edmond wrote to Mary from his ship, but he must surely have written at every opportunity to let her know he was safe and well. He was unable to write to the Admiralty between December and early April, and so presumably Mary had no word either and at the time of giving birth to their son, would not have known whether her husband was still alive. It must have been some sort of comfort to be able to name the child after Edmond.

And what of Halley’s own concerns for his family? We know he wrote a will shortly after the voyage was proposed and so was not blind to the fact he might not survive it, but I wonder how much consideration he gave to what would happen to his wife and young daughters if he didn’t return? I don’t doubt Halley would have been concerned for his family but I do wonder if his optimistic personality may have led him to underestimate the dangers of a long sea voyage.

Perhaps it’s more pleasing to reflect on the scene when Halley does return to his family: the relief of his wife, the joy of his daughters, his own delight at finding he has a son. For Mary, however, the relief will be short-lived as Halley will set off on his next voyage just two months after his return – and Mary Halley will have to spend another year wondering if she will ever see her husband again.


[1] The remarks by Halley about his wife are quoted in several books but I can’t locate the original source

[2] The spelling of Catharine’s name varies, ‘Catharine’ is used on the gravestone so I have opted for that. Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757) p 2517 note RR for the remark about his having several children. Catharine and Katherine were two different daughters as the latter was born before Margaret but Catharine is described as Halley’s younger daughter on the gravestone

[3] Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757) p 2500