Great Astronomers HTML version

Isaac Newton was just fourteen years of age when the birth of Edmund Halley, who was
destined in after years to become Newton's warmly attached friend, and one of his most
illustrious scientific contemporaries, took place. There can be little doubt that the fame as
an astronomer which Halley ultimately acquired, great as it certainly was, would have
been even greater still had it not been somewhat impaired by the misfortune that he had
to shine in the same sky as that which was illumined by the unparalleled genius of
Edmund Halley was born at Haggerston, in the Parish of St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, on
October 29th, 1656. His father, who bore the same name as his famous son, was a soap-
boiler in Winchester Street, London, and he had conducted his business with such success
that he accumulated an ample fortune. I have been unable to obtain more than a very few
particulars with respect to the early life of the future astronomer. It would, however,
appear that from boyhood he showed considerable aptitude for the acquisition of various
kinds of learning, and he also had some capacity for mechanical invention. Halley seems
to have received a sound education at St. Paul's School, then under the care of Dr.
Thomas Gale.
Here, the young philosopher rapidly distanced his competitors in the various branches of
ordinary school instruction. His superiority was, however, most conspicuous in
mathematical studies, and, as a natural development of such tastes, we learn that by the
time he had left school he had already made good progress in astronomy. At the age of
seventeen he was entered as a commoner at Queen's College, Oxford, and the reputation
that he brought with him to the University may be inferred from the remark of the writer
of "Athenae Oxonienses," that Halley came to Oxford with skill in Latin, Greek, and
Hebrew, and such a knowledge of geometry as to make a complete dial." Though his
studies were thus of a some-what multifarious nature, yet it is plain that from the first his
most favourite pursuit was astronomy. His earliest efforts in practical observation were
connected with an eclipse which he observed from his father's house in Winchester
Street. It also appears that he had studied theoretical branches of astronomy so far as to
be conversant with the application of mathematics to somewhat abstruse problems.
Up to the time of Kepler, philosophers had assumed almost as an axiom that the heavenly
bodies must revolve in circles and that the motion of the planet around the orbit which it
described must be uniform. We have already seen how that great philosopher, after very
persevering labour, succeeded in proving that the orbits of the planets were not circles,
but that they were ellipses of small eccentricity. Kepler was, however, unable to shake
himself free from the prevailing notion that the angular motion of the planet ought to be
of a uniform character around some point. He had indeed proved that the motion round
the focus of the ellipse in which the sun lies is not of this description. One of his most
important discoveries even related to the fact that at some parts of its orbit a planet
swings around the sun with greater angular velocity than at others. But it so happens that
in elliptic tracks which differ but little from circles, as is the case with all the more