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.

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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.

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[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’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:

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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.

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[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’s maritime experience, part 1: Hally a Sayling

We looked at how Halley came to be given command of a Royal Navy ship during his first voyage and I said we’d examine the experience he had for that commission during his second, which we’ll do now in the first post of a two-part special.

In fact he had minimal maritime experience, though perhaps rather more than your average seventeenth-century natural philosopher, but the experience he did have was of 3 types: as a passenger, as a surveyor, and as a diver.

Halley was a passenger on three voyages as a young man, the first, as we have seen, when he abandoned his degree in 1676 to sail to St Helena to map the southern stars. The two-way voyage on an East Indiaman would have taken about 5 months, and as Halley seems to have had a life-long interest in maritime matters, it seems reasonable to assume he took the opportunity to observe how the ship was sailed, how the crew operated, and to pick up a smattering of nautical terminology.

One year after his return from St Helena, he was at sea again en route to visit the great astronomer, Johannes Hevelius, at Dantzick (Gdańsk) on the Baltic coast, and at the end of the following year, 1680, he crossed from Dover to Calais (and was apparently seasick) to begin his Grand Tour, returning to England from Holland in January 1682. [1] Again, it seems fair to expect that he paid at least some attention to the handling of the ships.

At the end of the decade, Halley progressed from maritime passenger to coastal surveyor, although his work as a surveyor is rather obscure, being largely inferred from his presentation of two charts to the Royal Society, the first of which appeared in the minutes for 3 July 1689:

Halley produced his Sea-draught of the Mouth of the River of Thames, wherein he saith, that He hath corrected severall very great, and considerable faults in all our Sea-Carts [sic] hitherto published. [2]

It isn’t known for sure when he undertook his survey of the Thames approaches but Robert Hooke recorded two entries in his diary – “Hally a Sayling” on 22 March 1689, and “Hally Returnd” on 3 April – which may relate to his surveying, although the previous summer Halley had made several references to towns near the Thames estuary which may indicate he had been surveying in the area at that time. [3]

His second survey, “of the West coast of Sussex between Selsey and Arundell”, was presented to the Society on 15 November 1693, [4] and this time we have rather more idea about the circumstances behind its production, as this chart was linked to his diving activities.

Halley first wrote about diving in a paper of 6 March 1689, perhaps prompted by his work on the Thames survey undertaken around that time. [5] Halley proposed a mobile diving bell built on four wheels, and while he didn’t build that particular bell, he did build another as part of his salvage work on the wreck of the Guynie frigate.

The Guynie was owned by the Royal African Company (RAC) and in early 1691 she returned from Africa to English waters, having collected “Bees Wax & Elephants Teeth” from Gambia and “Elephants Teeth & Redwood” from “Sereleon” (Sierra Leone). [6] On 23 February her commander, William Chantrell, wrote to the RAC from Falmouth requesting a convoy to accompany him back to London. The RAC instructed three of their most senior officers to “waite on the Lords of the Admiralty to gett a Man of Warr to Convoy the Guynie Friggott up from Falmouth”, which might seem a little excessive for beeswax and ivory, but the Guynie was carrying something much more valuable on board. [7]

Captain Chantrell had undertaken to deliver a large quantity of gold on behalf of the Portuguese in Africa, and it was on this account (presumably) that a convoy ship had been requested. [8] The Guynie sailed from Falmouth on 26 March, but on 4 April Captain Chantrell wrote from Chichester to advise the RAC that the ship had foundered. [9] It isn’t clear what happened to the ship, but there’s no mention of any lost men and the gold seems to have been saved as on 8 April the RAC ordered that “a Guard of Tenn Soldjers & an Officer be sent from hence to fetch the Gold (saved out of that Shipp) from Chichester”. [10]

The ivory, however, went down with the ship, and it’s in this regard that Halley now appears in the affair. The Deputy Governor of the RAC was Royal Society fellow, Abraham Hill, and it may have been he who brought Halley in to try to salvage the elephants’ tusks. Halley’s initial plan was certainly ambitious as on 13 May 1691 the Royal Society minutes record that “Halley shewed the Method he intended to use in raising the Ship”, but this plan was evidently modified as on 12 August, he was relating “the Success of his Experiments of going under water in his diving bell”.

Halley believed his diving bell had limitless possibilities, and on 15 September a government warrant was issued to prepare a bill granting Halley and three partners “sole use of their invention of a new engine never yet known”, and Letters Patent were issued on 15 October. On 17 November, the four patent-holders formed a joint-stock company with two other men, John Carter and Thomas Jett, who was a friend of Halley’s. [11]

Halley's signature on the agreement forming the joint-stock company (© National Archives, C 111/192)

Halley’s signature on the agreement forming the joint-stock company (© National Archives, C 111/192)

Thomas Jett, incidentally, is interesting because he is the “Jed” in Hooke’s Diary entry for 24 March 1693, “Hally & Jed Spys”, which offers a hint (there are one or two others) that Halley may have undertaken coastal surveys on behalf of the government. [12]

Halley and Jett appear periodically in the RAC minutes until about spring 1694, though their level of success in salvaging the tusks is unclear – and by that time Halley had become involved in the scheme with Benjamin Middleton to obtain a ship to sail around the world, which, when a scaled-down version finally got underway in late 1698, would see Halley drawing on all his modest maritime experience to serve as the Paramore‘s commander.

In part 2 of this post about Halley’s nautical experience, we’ll take a much closer look at his diving bell – and at my favourite thing about him!

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[1] Hooke to Halley, 1 March 1681, Royal Society, EL/H3/62; Hooke, Diary, 24 Jan 1682, London Metropolitan Archives.

[2] Royal Society, Journal Book Original, JBO/8 p 268.

[3] Hooke, Diary, 22 March 1689 and 3 April 1689, British Library, Sloane MS 4024; references to towns in RS, JBO/8.

[4] RS, JBO/9 p 141.

[5] For a fair copy of Halley’s paper, see RS, RBO/7/24.

[6] RAC Instructions to Captains, National Archives, T 70/61 ff87r-88v.

[7] RAC Minutes, NA, T 70/83.

[8] RAC Black Book, NA, T 70/1433 p 104.

[9] NA, T 70/83 f8r.

[10] Ibid.

[11] CSP, D, 1690-91; NA C111/192.

[12] BL, Sloane MS 4024. Many thanks to Hooke’s editor Dr Felicity Henderson for confirming this entry as it has hitherto appeared mistranscribed.