On leaving Oxford, in 1676, Halley visited the south Atlantic island of St. Helena with the intention of studying stars from the Southern Hemisphere. He returned to England in November 1678. In the following year he went to Danzig (Gdańsk) on behalf of the Royal Society to help resolve a dispute. Because astronomer Johannes Hevelius did not use a telescope, his observations had been questioned by Robert Hooke. Halley stayed with Hevelius and he observed and verified the quality of Hevelius' observations. The same year, Halley published Catalogus Stellarum Australium which included details of 341 southern stars. These additions to present-day star maps earned him comparison with Tycho Brahe. Halley was awarded his M.A. degree at Oxford and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
In 1686 Halley published the second part of the results from his St. Helena expedition, being a paper and chart on trade winds and monsoons. In this he identified solar heating as the cause of atmospheric motions. He also established the relationship between barometric pressure and height above sea level. His charts were an important contribution to the emerging field of information visualization.
Halley married Mary Tooke in 1682 and settled in Islington and the couple had three children. He spent most of his time on lunar observations, but was also interested in the problems of gravity. One problem that attracted his attention was the proof of Kepler's laws of planetary motion. In August 1684 he went to Cambridge to discuss this with Sir Isaac Newton, only to find that Newton had solved the problem, but published nothing. Halley convinced him to write the Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis (1687), which was published at Halley's expense.
In 1690, Halley built a diving bell, a device in which the atmosphere was replenished by way of weighted barrels of air sent down from the surface. In a demonstration, Halley and five companions dived to 60 feet in the River Thames, and remained there for over an hour and a half. Halley's bell was of little use for practical salvage work, as it was very heavy, but he did make improvements to it over time, later extending his underwater exposure time to over 4 hours.
In 1691 Halley sought the post of Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, but, due to his well-known atheism, was opposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson and Bishop Stillingfleet. The post went instead to David Gregory, who had the support of Isaac Newton.
In 1693 Halley published an article on life annuities, which featured an analysis of age-at-death on the basis of the Breslau statistics Caspar Neumann had been able to provide. This article allowed the British government to sell life annuities at an appropriate price based on the age of the purchaser. Halley's work strongly influenced the development of actuarial science. The construction of the life-table for Breslau, which followed more primitive work by John Graunt, is now seen as a major event in the history of demography.
In 1698, Halley was given the command of the 52 foot pink, Paramour (a pink was a form of small unrated vessel, akin to a sloop), so that he could carry out investigations in the South Atlantic into the laws governing the variation of the compass. On 19 August 1698, he took command of the vessel and, in November 1698, sailed on what was the first purely scientific voyage by an English naval vessel. Unfortunately problems of insubordination arose, allegedly by officers resentful of being under a civilian's command. The Paramour returned to England in July 1699. Halley thereupon received a commission as a temporary Captain in the Royal Navy, recommissioned the Paramour on 24 August 1699 and sailed again in September 1699 to make extensive observations on the conditions of terrestrial magnetism. This task he accomplished in a second Atlantic voyage which lasted until 6 September 1700, and extended from 52 degrees north to 52 degrees south. The results were published in General Chart of the Variation of the Compass (1701). This was the first such chart to be published and the first on which isogonic, or Halleyan, lines appeared.
In November 1703 Halley was appointed Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford University, his theological enemies, John Tillotson and Bishop Stillingfleet having passed away, and received an honorary degree of doctor of laws in 1710. In 1705, applying historical astronomy methods, he published Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae, which stated his belief that the comet sightings of 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 related to the same comet, which he predicted would return in 1758. When it did it became generally known as Halley's Comet.
In 1716 Halley suggested a high-precision measurement of the distance between the Earth and the Sun by timing the transit of Venus. In doing so he was following the method described by James Gregory in Optica Promota (in which the design of the Gregorian telescope is also described). It is reasonable to assume Halley possessed and had read this book given that the Gregorian design was the principal telescope design used in astronomy in Halley's day. It is not to Halley's credit that he failed to acknowledge Gregory's priority in this matter. In 1718 he discovered the proper motion of the "fixed" stars by comparing his astrometric measurements with those given in Ptolemy's Almagest. Arcturus and Sirius were two noted to have moved significantly, the latter having progressed 30 arc minutes (about the diameter of the moon) southwards in 1800 years.
In 1720, Halley succeeded John Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal, a position which Halley held until his death in Greenwich, at the age of 85. He was buried in the graveyard of the old church of St. Margaret, Lee, (now ruined), which sits at the junction of Lee Terrace and Brandram Road, across from the Victorian Parish Church of St. Margaret which replaced it, in the same vault as Astronomer Royal John Pond; the unmarked grave of Astronomer Royal Nathaniel Bliss is nearby. It is about 30 minutes walk from the Greenwich Observatory.
Also in 1720, together with his friend the antiquarian William Stukeley he participated in the first attempt to scientifically date Stonehenge. Stukeley had drawn attention to the fact that the entrance to Stonehenge approximated to the midsummer sunrise. Assuming that the monument had been laid out by the use of a magnetic compass they attempted to calculate the perceived deviation introducing corrections from exiting magnetic records, and suggested three dates (AD 920, AD 220 and 460 BC). The earliest being the one accepted. The dates were wrong by thousands of years, but the idea that scientific methods could be used to date ancient monuments was revolutionary in its day.
These are generally either , rhyming with valley, or /ˈheɪli/ "Hailey", though some people will use Halley's pronunciation of his own name, /ˈhɔːli/ "Hawley". The "Hailey" pronunciation led rock and roll singer Bill Haley to punningly call his backing band his "Comets" after Halley's Comet.