James Cook was born on October 27, 1728, in the village of Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire. His father was an agricultural day-labourer, and Cook received basic village schooling, which was paid for by his father’s employer. He entered an apprenticeship to a grocer at the age of 17, but left to take up another apprenticeship, this time to a coal shipper in Whitby. He began sailing in the North Sea as part of the coal trade, learning quickly in the rough waters. Cook’s future expedition vessels would be colliers built in Whitby, demonstrating his confidence in the ships of the coal trade.
In 1755, Cook volunteered for naval service as an able seaman and became a master’s mate after just one month. He continued to serve in the Royal Navy throughout the Seven Years War, which was fought in Europe and in North America; Cook was at the siege of Louisburg and surveyed the St. Lawrence River. He continued to develop his mathematical and astronomical knowledge to use in hydrographic survey, and he worked along the coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Labrador. In 1766, Cook came to the attention of the Royal Society and the Admiralty after he followed a solar eclipse and recorded his observations, helping to determine Newfoundland’s longitude.
In 1768, Cook was selected to command the Endeavour on a scientific and exploratory expedition to the South Pacific. Upon his return, he was promoted to the naval rank of commander, a promotion both on the ships and in on-shore society. He led his second expedition to the southern hemisphere in 1772, tested a model of the chronometer (an instrument used to determine longitude) in long-distance sea trials, and was promoted to post-captain. He retired, taking an appointment at the Greenwich Hospital for Mariners, and was unanimously elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in February of 1776. Anxious to be back at sea, he left retirement, his wife and six children and launched his final voyage in 1776. He was killed on February 14, 1779 while on expedition. His writings and the expedition charts were published posthumously.