The Correspondence of Edmond Halley

Primary Contributors:

Cultures of Knowledge

Edmond Halley, attributed to Isaac Whood. c. 1720. Oil on canvas. (Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 6377)

Edmond Halley (1656–1742)

Edmond Halley was born and grew up in London, where his father owned a soap-boiling business. At St Paul’s School he excelled in classics and mathematics, his talents fostered by the writing master who was none other than the mathematical author Edward Cocker.

In 1673, he matriculated at The Queen’s College, Oxford, but within two years he was to be found conducting observations of a lunar eclipse with John Flamsteed and Jonas Moore from the latter’s rooms in the Tower of London. Just three years later, in October 1676, Halley set out on a voyage to St Helena with the task of observing the southern stars and producing a catalogue of their positions. The island was owned by the East India Company and, in the wake of interventions by both Flamsteed and Joseph Williamson, the king had requested that the trading company enable this scientific mission to take place.

After his triumphal return from St Helena, in 1678, Halley was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. The following year saw the publication of his Catalogus stellarum australium, as well as his next important engagement, when he was sent by the Royal Society to Danzig (Gdańsk) in order to mend relations with the astronomer Johannes Hevelius who had recently been publically attacked by Robert Hooke for his refusal to use telescopic sights in positional astronomy. Halley’s restless life continued in 1680 when he journeyed to Paris and from there on to Rome. Along the way he observed the Great Comet of 1680. Having met Newton in 1682 and been elected to the Council of the Royal Society in the following year, Halley spent most of 1684–5 assisting with the publication of the Principia. Indeed, many of the observations which were used in Book III, specifically of the Great Comet, were made by him. In effect, Halley was the publisher of the Principia, paying many of the costs incurred, but also receiving income from the book’s sale.

In later years Halley undertook further voyages, some across the Atlantic, one to the Adriatic, in which he put his extensive knowledge of navigational techniques into practice. Unsurprisingly, one of his main scientific concerns at the time was to find a way to solve the longitude problem at sea. Furthermore, he undertook official tasks for government offices, including surveying the Thames approaches and the English Channel. He also devised a diving bell and other equipment to salvage a ship off the Sussex coast. There was more ostensibly scientific work, too: studies on the winds and tides, optical investigations, extensive writings on mathematics and demographics. In 1691, Halley failed to be elected Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford amidst accusations of intemperance and irreligion, the latter no doubt based on his latitudinarianism. However, there was no mention of his religious views twelve years later when he was elected Savilian professor of geometry in succession to John Wallis. In fact, if one looks deeper, this was just one of many mysteries surrounding Halley’s life.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for Halley’s correspondence published by Eugene Fairfield MacPike was entered into the union catalogue by EMLO’s Assistant Editor Charlotte Marique with specific funding from Oxford’s John Fell Fund. In partnership with Oxford University Press, links have been inserted to the texts of the letters that are available both on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online and within the Electronic Enlightenment database. EMLO is grateful to Dr Philip Beeley for his contribution of this introductory text.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Correspondence and Papers of Edmond Halley, ed. Eugene Fairfield MacPike (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932).


Of the 245 letters listed in this inventory, the 100 letters transcribed and published in the MacPike edition have been made available digitally (through subscribing institutions) on both Oxford Scholarly Editions Online and the Electronic Enlightenment database. Alongside the metadata for these letters, EMLO has set out details for Halley’s correspondence was calendared in the edition and which has not been transcribed hitherto.

Further resources


Angus Armitage, Edmond Halley (London: Nelson, 1966).

Alan Cook, Edmond Halley. Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

Eugene Fairfield MacPike, ed., Correspondence and Papers of Edmond Halley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932). This edition is available on both Oxford Scholarly Editions Online and the Electronic Enlightenment database, although both require access via a subscribing institution.

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