Edmund Halley: Biography, Discoveries & Contributions

Instructor: Nicholas Pieri

Nicholas holds a BS in Geology and a master's degree in education. He has taught secondary Earth space science.

In this article we learn about Edmond Halley, one of the greatest scientific minds of his time. We look at his life and discuss some of his many discoveries and contributions to science.

Fireballs in the Sky

For thousands of years, humanity has kept a record of the night sky. Looking upward, foregone civilizations sought meaning in the cosmos. From ancient Chinese sightings in 240 BC to medieval accounts in 1222 AD, appearances of fireballs in the sky (now known as comets) have been precursors of death, disease, and disaster. In fact, the word disaster is derived from the Greek 'dus' meaning bad and 'aster' meaning star; bad star.

Bayeux Tapestry depicting Haleys Comet
Bayeux Tapestry depicting Haleys Comet

Not until the beginning of the 18th century did one man discover many of these separate sightings were of the same celestial object; a comet which would later bare his name returning to Earth every 76 years. Known as one of the greatest scientific minds in astronomy, his name was Edmund Halley.

Biography

Early Life

Born November 8th, 1656 in Haggerston, England to a prosperous family, young Edmund Halley received a private education before enrolling in St. Paul's school. While in school, Edmund excelled in mathematics and astronomy. At the young age of 17, he enrolled at The Queen's College, Oxford to study under the Astronomer Royal of the time John Flamsteed.

Adult Life

By 1676, Halley had dropped out of university to begin making his own contributions to the field of astronomy. After publishing his star chart of the southern oceans in 1678, he was granted a Master of Arts from Oxford by decree of King Charles II. Anchoring his position as a great astronomer, Halley was also elected fellow of the Royal Society as one of the youngest members.

Edmund Halley
Edmund Halley

Over the next six decades Edmund Halley would shape the field of astronomy and the scientific world. In 1704 Halley was appointed Savilian Professor of Geometry and in 1720 he assumed the role of Astronomer Royal from of his early mentor; John Flamsteed. Edmund Halley held this position until his death at the age of 85 in 1742.

Discoveries

Edmund Halley made several discoveries throughout his life. He is of course most famous for discovering that comets orbit the sun in a predictable way. He reasoned that comet sightings in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were made by one single comet returning every 76 years. So confident in his calculations was he, that Halley publicly predicted it would return at the end of 1758, including where it would appear in the night sky. This comet later became known as Halley's Comet.

Halleys Comet
Halleys Comet

At the young age of 22, he sailed to St. Helena where he discovered a star cluster in Centaurus and mapped the stars of the southern hemisphere, allowing sailors to navigate the world's oceans. Halley devised a clever way to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun. By carefully timing how long it took Venus to cross the Sun's disk, he was able to give a real distance to the astronomical unit; about 93 million miles. He used this newfound information to accurately calculate the size of the solar system for the first time.

Pouring over ancient Greek recordings of stars, Halley compared their observations to what he saw in the night sky some 1800 years later. He discovered that the stars the Greeks had cataloged were not in the same position as the stars he observed, but had moved. Halley concluded that the stars are not fixed in one position as once thought, their motion only apparent to the observer after many centuries.

Contributions

A man of many scientific endeavors, Edmund Halley made contributions in various fields.

  • He created the first maps of the Earth's magnetic field.
  • He perfected the diving bell, using them to run a thriving underwater salvage business.
  • Halley mapped the Earth's prevailing winds by using arrows to indicate their direction, arrows still used in meteorology today.

Diving Bell
Diving Bell

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