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Harriot, Thomas

Thomas Harriot (c. 1560 – 1621) was an English astronomer. He was also a mathematician, ethnographer, and a translator. He is sometimes credited for introducing the potato to Great Britain and Ireland. He was also the first person to make an accurate drawing of the moon through a telescope. His drawing (July 26, 1609) was accomplished nearly four months before Galileo’s. Harriot’s surname is sometimes spelled Harriott, Hariot, or Heriot by different sources.

Harriot was born in 1560 in Oxford, England. He attended St Mary Hall school in Oxford. His name appears in the registry dating from 1977. He graduated in 1580, and was soon hired by Sir Walter Raleigh as a mathematics tutor. He was knowledgeable in astronomy and astrology. Harriot was involved in the design of Raleigh’s ships and was also his personal accountant. Harriot also wrote an treatise (paper/essay) on the navigation prior to his expedition with Raleigh. His expeditions took him to the Americas, and on his return he worked for the 9th Earl of Northumberland. Harriot became a productive mathematician and astronomer while at the Earl’s house. The theory of refraction is attributed to Harriot.

He only made one expedition to the Americas (1585-1586). He spent time in the New World visiting Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. He studied the Algonquian language there. His report of the voyage was published in 1588. The report contained information of the Native American culture that his expedition encountered. The findings proved beneficial to later voyages to the Americas. His views on the Native Americans’ capacity to learn were largely ignored, however, as explorers were more interested in the minerals and resources explained in his report.

In his later years, Harriot dedicated his work to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, who later (in 1605) was imprisoned for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot as he was the second cousin of one of the conspirators, Thomas Percy. Harriot was also imprisoned briefly, but soon released as he had no connections to the conspiracy.

Harriot turned his attention toward astronomy when Halley’s Comet made its appearance over the skies in 1607. He bought his first telescope (called a Dutch trunke, ca. 1608) in 1609. His observations were among the first astronomical visions in astronomy. Harriot is now credited as the first astronomer to draw a celestial object after viewing it by telescope. He also was the first to discover sunspots on the Sun in 1610.

In 1616, Harriot wrote to an unknown friend for medical advise. He pondered as to what may have been the cause of a cancerous ulcer to appear on his lip. The tumor progressed until 1621, when he died at the home of a close friend, Thomas Buckner. It was cited by many sources that he died from cancer of the nose. It is certain that he apparently died from skin cancer. He died on July 2, 1621, three days after writing his will. His paper, Artis Analyticae Praxis, on algebra was published in 1631. The paper was only a small compendium of his works. It is believed that there may have been more than 400 sheets of unpublished writing left behind.

Harriot studied optics and refraction and perhaps discovered Snell’s Law 20 years before Snellius did. Although, like much of his work, remained unpublished. He founded the English School of Algebra, and he is also credited with the discovery of Girard’s theorem (the formula bears Girard’s name, as he was the first to publish it). Harriot’s only published work, Artis Analyticae Praxis (posthumously), was not understood properly by the editors and much of his work with equations and complex roots was left out. The translation of Harriot’s work was not completed until 2007.

The first biography of Harriot was written in 1876 by Henry Stevens of Vermont. It was not published until 1900, fourteen years after his death. The publication was not widely known until 1972 when the work came into reprint. John W. Shirley published A Sourcebook for the Study of Thomas Harriot in 1981, and his Harriot biography in 1983. Most of Harriot’s original work that has been recovered is stored at the British Museum and in the archives of the Percy family at Petworth House (Sussex) and Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

On July 26, 2009 there will be a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Harriot’s first observation of the moon. The event, Telescope400, will include the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate Harriot. The event will be sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society of UK, and will also be a part of the International Year of Astronomy. Displays will include Harriot’s original moon map, observations of Jupiter’s moons/satellites, and the discoveries of sunspots. The displays will be held at the Science Museum of London from July 23, 2009 until the end of the Astronomy Year.

A crater on the Moon was named in honor of Harriot in 1970. The crater is located on the Moon’s far side and is unobservable from Earth. The observatory at the College of William and Mary is named in Harriot’s honor. Harriot is also recognized for his scientific contributions and is honored by name with the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. His work, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia has also instituted a lecture series at the university known as the Harriot Voyages of Discovery Lecture Series.

Harriot Thomas


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