Thomas Harriot (Oxford, c. 1560 – London, 2 July 1621) — or
spelled Harriott, Hariot, or Heriot — was an English astronomer,
mathematician, ethnographer, and translator who made advances within
the scientific field. He is sometimes credited with the introduction
of the potato to the British Isles. Harriot was the first person to
make a drawing of the
Moon through a telescope, on 26 July 1609, over
four months before Galileo.
After graduating from St Mary Hall, Oxford, Harriot travelled to the
Americas, accompanying the 1585 expedition to Roanoke island funded by
Walter Raleigh and led by Sir Ralph Lane. Harriot was a vital
member of the venture, having learned and translating the Carolina
Algonquian language from two Native Americans, Wanchese and Manteo. On
his return to
England he worked for the 9th Earl of Northumberland. At
the Earl's house, he became a prolific mathematician and astronomer to
whom the theory of refraction is attributed.
1.1 Early life and education
1.3 Later years
3 See also
7 External links
7.1 Works by Thomas Harriot
7.2 Works or sites about Thomas Harriot
Early life and education
Born in 1560 in Oxford, England,
Thomas Harriot attended St Mary Hall,
Oxford. His name appears in the hall's registry dating from 1577.
Watercolor by John White of Roanoke Indians
After his graduation from
Oxford in 1580, Harriot was first hired by
Walter Raleigh as a mathematics tutor; he used his knowledge of
astronomy/astrology to provide navigational expertise, help design
Raleigh's ships, and serve as his accountant. Prior to his expedition
with Raleigh, Harriot wrote a treatise on navigation. In addition,
he made efforts to communicate with Manteo and Wanchese, two Native
Americans who had been brought to England. Harriot devised a phonetic
alphabet to transcribe their
Carolina Algonquian language.
Harriot and Manteo spent many days in one another's company; Harriot
interrogated Manteo closely about life in the New World and learned
much that was to the advantage of the English settlers. In
addition, he recorded the sense of awe with which the Native Americans
viewed European technology:
"Many things they sawe with us...as mathematical instruments, sea
compasses...[and] spring clocks that seemed to goe of themselves - and
many other things we had - were so strange unto them, and so farre
exceeded their capacities to comprehend the reason and meanes how they
should be made and done, that they thought they were rather the works
of gods than men."
He made only one expedition, around 1585-86, and spent some time in
the New World visiting
Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina,
expanding his knowledge by improving his understanding of the Carolina
Algonquian language. As the only Englishman who had learned Algonquin
prior to the voyage, Harriot was vital to the success of the
expedition. Hariot smoked tobacco before Raleigh, and may have
taught him to do so.
His account of the voyage, named A Briefe and True Report of the New
Found Land of Virginia, was published in 1588 (probably written a year
before). The True Report contains an early account of the Native
American population encountered by the expedition; it proved very
influential upon later English explorers and colonists. He wrote:
"Whereby it may be hoped, if means of good government be used, that
they may in short time be brought to civility and the embracing of
true religion." At the same time, his views of Native Americans'
industry and capacity to learn were later largely ignored in favour of
the parts of the "True Report" about extractable minerals and
As a scientific adviser during the voyage, Harriot was asked by
Raleigh to find the most efficient way to stack cannonballs on the
deck of the ship. His ensuing theory about the close-packing of
spheres shows a striking resemblance to atomism and modern atomic
theory, which he was later accused of believing. His correspondence
about optics with Johannes Kepler, in which he described some of his
ideas, later influenced Kepler's conjecture.
Harriot was employed for many years by Henry Percy, 9th Earl of
Northumberland, with whom he resided at Syon House, which was run by
Henry Percy's cousin Thomas Percy.
Harriot's sponsors began to fall from favour: Raleigh was the first,
and Harriot's other patron Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland,
was imprisoned in 1605 in connection with the
Gunpowder Plot as he was
closely connected to one of the conspirators, Thomas Percy.
Harriot himself was interrogated and briefly imprisoned but was soon
released. Walter Warner, Robert Hues, William Lower, and other
scientists were present around the Earl of Northumberland's mansion as
they worked for him and assisted in the teaching of the family's
Halley's Comet in 1607 turned Harriot's attention towards astronomy.
In early 1609 he bought a "Dutch trunke" (telescope), invented in
1608, and his observations were among the first uses of a telescope
for astronomy. Harriot is now credited as the first astronomer to draw
an astronomical object after viewing it through a telescope: he drew a
map of the
Moon on 26 July 1609, preceding Galileo by several
months. He also observed sunspots in December 1610.
In 1615 or 1616, Harriot wrote to an unknown friend with medical
expertise, describing what would have been the reason for the eruption
of a cancerous ulcer on his lip. This progressed until 1621, when he
was living with a friend named Thomas Buckner on Threadneedle Street,
where he died. Sources cited below are among several that describe his
condition as a cancer of the nose. In either case, Harriot apparently
died from skin cancer.
He died on 2 July 1621, three days after writing his will (discovered
by Henry Stevens). His executors posthumously published his Artis
Analyticae Praxis on algebra in 1631;
Nathaniel Torporley was the
intended executor of Harriot's wishes, but
Walter Warner in the end
pulled the book into shape. It may be a compendium of some of his
works but does not represent all that he left unpublished (more than
400 sheets of annotated writing). It is not directed in a way that
follows the manuscripts and it fails to give the full significance of
Thomas Harriot was buried in the church of
St Christopher le Stocks
St Christopher le Stocks in
Threadneedle Street, near where he died. The church was subsequently
damaged in the Great Fire of London, and demolished in 1781 to enable
expansion of the Bank of England.
He also studied optics and refraction, and apparently discovered
Snell's law 20 years before Snellius did, although it was previously
discovered by Ibn Sahl; like so many of his works, this remained
Virginia he learned the local Algonquian language,
which may have had some effect on his mathematical thinking.[citation
needed] He founded the "English school" of algebra. He is also
credited with discovering Girard's theorem, although the formula bears
Girard's name as he was the first to publish it.
Lord Egremont unveils a Plaque commemorating
Thomas Harriot at Syon
London (July 2009)
His algebra book Artis Analyticae Praxis (1631) was published
posthumously in Latin. Unfortunately the editors did not understand
much of his reasoning and removed the parts they did not comprehend
such as the negative and complex roots of equations. Because of the
dispersion of Harriot's writings the full annotated English
translation of the Praxis was not completed until 2007.
The first biography of Harriot was written in 1876 by Henry Stevens of
Vermont but not published until 1900 fourteen years after his
death. The publication was limited to 167 copies and so the work was
not widely known until 1972 when a reprint edition appeared.
Prominent American poet, novelist and biographer
Muriel Rukeyser wrote
an extended literary inquiry into the life and significance of Hariot
(her preferred spelling), The Traces of Thomas Hariot (1970, 1971).
Interest in Harriot continued to revive with the convening of a
symposium at the University of Delaware in April, 1971 with the
proceedings published by the
Oxford University Press in 1974. John
W. Shirley the editor (1908-1988) went on to publish A Sourcebook for
the Study of
Thomas Harriot (1981) and his Harriot biography
(1983). The papers of John Shirley have been deposited in the
University of Delaware Library.
Harriot's accomplishments remain relatively obscure because he did not
publish any of his results and also because many of his manuscripts
have been lost; those that survive are in the
British Museum and in
the archives of the Percy family at
Petworth House (Sussex) and
Alnwick Castle (Northumberland).
Thomas Harriot Plaque in the grounds of
Syon House (W. London).
An event was held at Syon House, West London, to celebrate the 400th
anniversary of Harriot's first observations of the moon on 26 July
2009. This event, Telescope400, included the unveiling of a plaque
to commemorate Harriot by Lord Egremont. The plaque can now be seen by
visitors to Syon House, the location of Harriot's historic
observations. His drawing made 400 years earlier is believed to be
based on the first ever observations of the moon through a telescope.
The event (sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society) was run as
part of the International Year of
The original documents showing Harriot's moon map of c. 1611,
observations of Jupiter's satellites, and first observations of
sunspots were on display at the Science Museum, London, from 23 July
2009 until the end of the IYA.
The observatory in the campus of the College of William & Mary is
named in Harriot's honour. A crater on the
Moon was belatedly named
after him in 1970; it is on the Moon's far side and hence unobservable
In July 2014 the
International Astronomical Union
International Astronomical Union launched a process
for giving proper names to certain exoplanets and their host stars.
The process involved public nomination and voting for the new names.
In December 2015, the IAU announced the winning name was Harriot for
this planet. (55 Cancri in the constellation Cancer). The winning name
was submitted by the Royal
Netherlands Association for Meteorology and
Astronomy of the Netherlands. It honors the astronomer.
Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina
University in Greenville, NC is named in recognition of this Harriot's
scientific contributions to the New World such as his work A Briefe
and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.
The School of Night
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Indians and English: Facing Off in Early
America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.
Mancall, Peter C. Hakluyt's Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obsession for
an English America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Milton, Giles, Big Chief Elizabeth - How England's Adventurers Gambled
and Won the New World, Hodder & Stoughton,
Muriel Rukeyser The Traces of Thomas Hariot. NY: Random House, 1971.
Biography of Thomas Hariot.
Vaughan, Alden T. "Sir Walter Raleigh's Indian Interpreters,
1584-1618." The William and Mary Quarterly 59.2 (2002): 341-376.
Walter Raleigh - American colonies". Archived from the original
on 26 May 2012.
^ "Celebrating Thomas Harriot, the world's first telescopic astronomer
(RAS PN 09/47)". ras.org.uk. 2011. Retrieved 4 March 2011.
^ a b c Stedall, Jacqueline (2003) The Greate Invention of Algebra,
Oxford University Press. p.3, ISBN 0-19-852602-4.
^ Jehlen, Myra & Michael Warner (1997) The English Literatures of
America, 1500-1800, Routledge (UK) p.64, ISBN 0-415-91903-7.
^ a b c Milton, p.73
^ Milton, p.89
^ Ley, Willy (December 1965). "The Healthfull Aromatick Herbe". For
Your Information. Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 88–98.
^ By 1613 Harriot had created two maps of the whole moon, with many
identifiable features such as lunar craters depicted in their correct
relative positions that were not to be improved upon for several
^ History Corrected by 400 Year Old
Moon Map Live Science 14 January
^ Christine McGourty, English Galileo' maps on display, 14 January
^ The Galileo Project: Thomas Harriot, Thomas Harriot's
^ The Galileo Project:
Thomas Harriot (1560-1621)
^ a b Stevens, Henry. (1900) Thomas Hariot, the Mathematician, the
Philosopher and the Scholar, Privately printed at the Chiswick press
^ Helena Mary Pycior, Symbols, Impossible Numbers, and Geometric
Entanglements (1997), pp. 55-6.
^ Richeson, David. (2008) Euler's Gem, Princeton University Press,
^ Artis analyticae praxis (1631)
^ Thomas Harriot’s Artis analyticae praxis, New York: Springer, 2007
^ Thomas Harriot, the mathematician, the philosopher, and the scholar
^ Thomas Harriot; Renaissance scientist (1974), edited by John W.
^ A Sourcebook for the Study of
Thomas Harriot (1981) by John W.
^ Thomas Harriot, a Biography by John W. Shirley (1983)
^ John Shirley Papers related to
Thomas Harriot (22 linear feet)
^ Telescope400 – celebrating Thomas Harriot's first ever use of the
Telescope in Astronomy
^ Hannah Devlin, Galileo was beaten to the
Moon by a shy Englishman,
The Times, 24 July 2009
Thomas Harriot: Trumpeter of Roanoke
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
Works by Thomas Harriot
Thomas Harriot at Project Gutenberg
Works by or about
Thomas Harriot at Internet Archive
A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of
Virginia on the
A Brief and True Report online pdf text edition
A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of
American Studies at the University of Virginia.
Annotated Translation of Harriot's Praxis by Ian Bruce
Artis analyticae praxis: an English translation with commentary /
Muriel Seltman, Robert Goulding, editors and translators, New York:
Works or sites about Thomas Harriot
O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Thomas Harriot", MacTutor
Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews .
The first full biography of Thomas Hariot by Henry Stevens of Vermont
1900 Thomas Hariot, the Mathematician, the Philosopher and the Scholar
Henry Stevens The first biographer of Thomas Hariot (1900)
The Englishman who beat Galileo
The Soft Logic of Thomas Harriot
Thomas Harriot Seminar
Searching for the Lost Colony Blog
UK Telescope400 Event (26 July 2009)
The Harriot Voyages of Discovery Lecture Series at East Carolina
Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina
University, Greenville, NC
Thomas Harriot Quintessential Renaissance Scholar
Account of the Roanoke settlements Retrieved April 2011
ISNI: 0000 0001 2140 1530
BNF: cb12215671c (data)