Every Stamp Pictures the official Halley's Comet Trademarked Logo.
it not been for the comet he did not discover, Edmond Halley likely
would have been lost to history. A mathematician and astronomer of the
very first rank, Halleys contributions to science were overshadowed
by the work of his associate and friend, the towering Sir Isaac Newton,
whose laws of gravitation and motion are the keystone of modern physics.
In fact, Halley had only a peripheral
interest in comets. His studies were primarily directed to a more practical
end: to devise an accurate means of determining longitude at sea, a
matter of vital interest to England, whose leaders knew even then that
the countrys future lay upon the largely unknown and uncharted
Still, comets captured the public
imagination then as now, and Halley devoted time to them, computing
the orbits of a score of these flamboyant travelers across the outer
darkness. Employing his friend Sir Issacs mechanics along with
his own studies, Halley concluded that the comet observed in 1531, 1607
and 1682, the latter of which he had seen himself, were actually the
same comet, one that hurtled through space in an orbit that brought
it within sight of man every seventy-five years or so.
He predicted it would return in
1758. It did, sixteen years after his death, and has done so since,
more or less on time, though subject to certain cosmic delays in its
long, never-ending journey. Its last appearance, in 1985-1986, was something
less than spectacular; a far distant pass.
It was a media event nonetheless,
and brought out the cultist and doomsayers that its appearances always
have. Even the cynical and agnostic Mark Twain confessed a superstitious
tie to Halleys comet.; he was born during its 1835 visit, and
predicted he would die upon its return in 1910. he did, thus bolstering
the idiocies of the cometologists.
To Edmond Halley, the comet named
for him was of little moment. His objective was a workable method of
finding longitude, and the rewards for solving the problem were great:
honors. Of course, and a rich prize from the British crown, which he
neither cared about nor needed ( he was the indulged son of a wealthy
businessman, born in Shoreditch, near London, on Nov. 8, 1656). There
was an even greater reward, one that he could not foresee: Britains
eventual dominance of that immensity of ocean that Ferdinand Magellan
had discovered in 1520 named the Pacific.
In Halleys day, the Pacific
was as beckoning and mysterious as outer space is in ours. Magellan
had crossed it and the gold seeking Spanish had found their was to the
Philippines, but the untracked vastness of the South Sea, as it was
generally called, daunted all but the stoutest seagoing hears. No one
knew what might be found in its mighty sweep-11,000 miles from
east to west, 7,000 miles from north to south though theories
abounded. One, widely held, was that another continent lay at its extreme
southern end.Halleys work was so widely recognized by this time
that the British Admiralty put him in command of the sloop-of war
Paramour Pink on the first voyage ever undertaken, in 1698-1700, solely
for scientific purposed. This two-year cruise took him to many places,
among them St. Helena, the island 1,200 miles west of Africa in the
South Atlantic, where the British exiled Napoleon in 1815. On this and
other voyages Halley compiled magnetic charts of the heavens and data
on the prevailing winds and currents in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
He published them in 1701, to great acclaim.
His charts were of priceless value
to the navigators of that day and later; because of them a sort of sp-ace
race ensued, space in this instance being the wide Pacific. But,
unlike the space race of modern times, there were more entrants and
the rivalry was fiercer.
Englandss interest was largely
commercial, a search for possible new markets for British wares and
safe harbors to provision and repair its ships. France looked for la
gloire and dreamed of an empire to challenge Britains. the Dutch
were already established in the East Indies through the explorations
of Abel Tasman, who circumnavigated Australia and Tasmania, discovered
New Zealand, which he called Van Diemans Land and found the Tongan
Islands. Spains presence in the Pacific was in decline, thanks
to the depredations inflicted on the fleet, including the Armada, by
that gentle man freebooter/explorer/adventurer Sir Frances Drake, who,
while sailing around the world, plundered every Spanish port he could
find on the Pacific coast of South America. His mission was simple:
gold to fill Queen Elizabeth Is coffers.
Halleys monumental work put
a different hue on the exploration of the Pacific. It was an age of
a revolution in science, and the avowed purpose of subsequent explorers
was scientific. In some measure this was true, though the captains kept
an eye out for promising islands to claim for their homelands. Ships
were specially built and provisioned for long voyagessome as long
as three or four years and staffed with astronomers, naturalists
and what we now call anthropologists, as well as artists to record the
peoples, plants and animals that might be discovered on the Pacificss
Of these later voyages, all disciples
of Halley, two stand out: Capt. James Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville,
both skilled navigators and intense but meticulously polite rivals in
their quest of prestige for their respective countries, Britain and
Cooks attainments as a navigator
were such that they propelled him to and officers commission from
the enlisted ranks, an almost unheard-of promotion in the Royal Navy
of those days. He was also a superb seaman whose firm but fair discipline
brought volunteers flocking to serve under him, also almost unheard-of
; crews for long voyages usually were shanghaied from water-front dives.
In addition, he was an untaught but able astronomer and something of
an anthropologist with a deep interest in the manners and mores of the
Indians, as the islanders were called at that time.
Cook made three voyages around the world in ten years1768-1771,
1772-1775 and 1776-1779. He ventured as far north in the Pacific as
the Bering Sea and as far south as the pack ice of the polar sea would
permit him; this latter voyage dispelled for all time the belief that
a habitable continent lay at the bottom of the world.
Cook charted the east coast of
Australia, all the New Zealand coast, the shores of the northern California,
Canada and Alaska. He found and accurately positioned dozens of unknown
islands, including remote Easter, whose still-unexplained monolithic
stone heads fascinated todays few visitors there.
He is best
known for his discovery of the Hawaiian islands, which he named for
his patron and friend, the wealthy Earl of Sandwich Island. Ironically,
the earl is not remembered for the Sandwich Islands but for the snack
we call a sandwich. An addictive card player, the earl is said to have
told a servant one evening to bring him something to eat at the table
so he would not have to interrupt his game for a formal dinner. The
servant brought a slab of roast beef between two pieces of bread.
discovery of Hawaii cost him his life. His was stoned and stabbed to
death on the shore of Kealakekua Bay in 1779 in a sudden encounter with
the natives over a theft. If Cook was Edmond Halleys most assiduous
student, and he seems to have been, his officiers were equally assiduous
students of Cook. Among them were tow whose names have come down through
the years George Vancouver, for whom the Canadian city is named, and
none other than the famous, or infamous, Capt. Williams Bligh, victim
or villain depending on your point of view of the most
celebrated mutiny in seafaring history: that on the Bounty. The navigational
skills he learned through Cook from Halley enabled him to sail an open
boat 1,300 miles to Timor in the Dutch East Indies when his masters
mate, Fletcher Christian, put him and a few loyal crewman over the side.
Cooks rival, Bougainville, won less
renown, though he too sailed around the world and charted and charted
the Pacific. He rediscovered the Solomon Islands (the charts had been
lost), the largest of which bears his name, visited Tahiti, Samoa and
the New Hebrides, and established an ill-fated settlement on the lonely,
cold and windswept Falkland Islands. He is virtually forgotten today,
recalled only by an exotic plant named for him, the brilliant, purple-flowered
vine called bougainvillea.
Edmond Halleys name lives
on, though it comes to public attention only once every seventy-five
years, when the comet he tracked sweeps near enough for forgetful earthlings
to see and be awed by it. Still, if it were not for the comet, Halleys
magnificent other scientific achievements would be an asterisk in history,
unknown to scholars. He died in 1742.