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Misremembered Genius

Had 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, Halley’s 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 country’s future lay upon the largely unknown and uncharted oceans.

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 Issac’s 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 Halley’s 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: Britain’s eventual dominance of that immensity of ocean that Ferdinand Magellan had discovered in 1520 named the Pacific.

In Halley’s 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.Halley’s 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.

Englands’s 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 Britain’s. 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 Dieman’s Land and found the Tongan Islands. Spain’s 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 I’s coffers.

Halley’s 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 voyages–some 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 Pacifics’s far-flung islands.

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 France.

Cook’s attainments as a navigator were such that they propelled him to and officer’s 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 years–1768-1771, 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 today’s 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.

Cook’s 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 Halley’s 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 master’s mate, Fletcher Christian, put him and a few loyal crewman over the side.

Cook’s 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 Halley’s 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, Halley’s magnificent other scientific achievements would be an asterisk in history, unknown to scholars. He died in 1742.