Edmond Halley, 1656-1742, Astronomer Royal

(Updated, March 2014) A half-length portrait to the left, showing Halley in a brown velvet coat, white neck-cloth and periwig. Best known for the comet bearing his name, which returned as he predicted in 1758, Edmond Halley worked on a wide range of scientific problems before becoming Astronomer Royal in 1720, at the age of 64.

Halley began a degree at Queen's College, Oxford, but he left without graduating, having obtained a letter from the king, and financial backing from his father (a wealthy businessman), to sail with the East India Company to St Helena. It was on St Helena that he compiled his 341-star catalogue of the southern skies. He also made observations of the transit of Mercury and suggested how these observations might be used with others to calculate the distance of Mercury and the Sun from the Earth. From 1684 Halley persuaded Newton to publish his most important work, the 'Principia' (1687). He was made a captain in the Royal Navy in 1698 and set off in command of the ship 'Paramore' to investigate (unsuccessfully) using the angular difference between true and magnetic north to calculate longitude. He used the 'Paramore' once more in 1701 to perform investigations into tides in the English Channel, before becoming Professor of Geometry at Oxford in 1703. In 1715 Halley produced a pamphlet showing his predictions for the path of the forthcoming solar eclipse, creating public interest in the event. He used reports made form these numerous observers to refine his calculations and thus produced a more accurate map for the path of the 1724 eclipse which also passed across the UK. In 1720, after Flamsteed's death in 1719, he succeeded him as Astronomer Royal and re-equipped the Royal Observatory at Greenwich with a grant from the Board of Ordnance (since Flamsteed's widow had removed all the equipment and furniture there, regarding it as her late husband's property). Now that there was a good star catalogue, Halley saw his main task as improving the accuracy of the lunar tables. These measurements were, however, lacking in accuracy and, though they were eventually published, their limitations soon became obvious.

Halley is buried in St Margaret's churchyard, Lee, London, SE12. When it became necessary to replace his original (Latin-inscribed) tombstone there, it was restored and remounted in the wall of the east pavilion of Flamsteed House at the Observatory, where it can still be seen. This portrait has been reduced in size, but it is very likely that the mezzotint (see PAF3352) which G. White published in 1721, after Halley became Astronomer Royal, is based on it. The painting itself may be rather earlier and would originally have measured 30 x 25 inches (760 x 635 mm). It was purchased by the Museum from the Sabin Galleries, London, in 1968.

Object Details

ID: BHC2734
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Kneller, Godfrey
Date made: Before 1721
People: Halley, Edmond
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 535 mm x 430 mm; Frame: 635 mm x 532 mm x 50 mm

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