The famous astronomer and mathematician, Edmond Halley (1656-1742), was the first to identify the periodicity of the comet now known as Halley’s Comet in 1705. Visible to the naked eye, it appears every 75 or 76 years (it last appeared in 1986). But in 1676, only 20 years old, Halley arrived at the South Atlantic island of St. Helena (yes, the same as Napoleon’s site of exile) where he set up an observatory with a 24-foot long aerial telescope and cataloged 341 southern stars, and where he wrote the 1677 letter shown here.
While a full transcription is available to anyone who asks, due to its length, only one especially interesting portion is transcribed here (all spelling and punctuation preserved; the Latin in the second line means “uninhabitable because of the heat”).
St Helena Novemb 21 1677
… The Island lies in the Torrid Zone as it pleased the ancients to call it, but I assure you it is not inhabitabilis estu but even under the line the heat doth not exceed temperature; and had I the company and accommodations here that England affords, I should prefer a habitation here where neither heat nor cold infest us, I find no fault with the Island, but only that it is not favourable to my purpose for we are almost continually covered with clouds, which hinder us from the sight of the starrs, sometimes for six weeks together, so that I am almost persuaded, I must returne without the full accomplishment of my intents, wch will be the greatest trouble to me, that can possibly happen, by reason I shall give the world cause to judg hardly, and censure me for failing in a thing I had undertaken, but all those that know me, I have the confidence to think, that it will not be attributed either to want of skill or endeavor that I am so unfortunate;
In 1946, one of Haverford’s august alumni, Christopher Morley (class of 1910) presented the college with this extraordinary letter. He was moved to make this generous donation upon seeing it offered in a Goodspeed’s Bookshop (Boston) catalog. He wrote to the dealer “…we used to look off over the open campus northeast of Barclay Hall at Haverford College, spring of 1910, and regard old Halley’s comet streaming in the firmament as an omen for approaching graduation.” Indeed, 1910 was one of the periodic appearances of the comet.
The letter is a part of the Charles Roberts Autograph Letters Collection, replete with many fine letters by scientists such as Halley, as well as from all other areas the human mind can imagine. This and any other of the letters in the collection is available for study.