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Thomas Harriot: English Renaissance Polymath

We’ve all heard the expression “publish or perish” when applied to an academic career. Many universities, for example, require a certain level of publication in scholarly journals in order for an instructor to get tenure. Although Thomas Harriot was not affiliated with an academic institution, his not receiving credit for his many important discoveries is the result of his failure to publish. This essay will take a look at some of his major discoveries and the reasons why he hesitated to publicize his work.

Living from 1560 to 1621, Harriot was a contemporary of Galileo Galilei, Johanes Kepler and other well- known scientists. Although he did similar scientific work and independently made many of the same discoveries as Galileo, whereas Galileo published extensively and became famous, Harriot remained virtually unknown for many years. It is only because that over 8,000 pages of his notes were accidentally found in a trunk in a castle in Sussex, England in the 1770s that he was finally recognized as one of the most prolific scientists and ethnologist of his era, a true Renaissance Man.

Few details are known about Harriot’s early years other than he was born in Oxford, England and graduated from St. Mary Hall, Oxford University with a degree in mathematics. Apparently, his superior skill in mathematics blossomed early for soon after graduation he went to work for Walter Ralegh (as he himself spelled his name) in working out navigation problems for Ralegh’s planned voyages to America.

Following an unsuccessful voyage with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert to North America seeking a northwest passage to China, Ralegh planned several other voyages and had procured financing from a number of investors and the backing of Queen Elizabeth I, who granted Ralegh a royal charter to explore areas north of Spanish Florida. In 1584 he sent Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe in two ships to explore along the coast of what is now Virginia and North Carolina. On reaching Pamlico Sound in July 1584, they met friendly Indians who guided them to Roanoke Island which they determined would be a suitable place for an English colony. After a few weeks, Amadas and Barlowe returned to England in September and brought two Algonquin Indians, Manteo and Wanchese, with them to London where they lived in Ralegh’s home. Ralegh named the newly explored land Virginia after Queen Elizabeth, the virgin queen.

The fact that two Indians came back with Amadas and Barlowe was an auspicious event for Thomas Harriot, who was living in Ralegh’s home at the time, in that it gave him a chance to communicate with the Native Americans and learn their Carolina Algonquin language. To facilitate learning the language, he invented a type of phonetic alphabet to help him translate Algonquin sounds into English words. It turns out that he was the first Englishman to learn this North American language. The skill proved to be valuable the next year when Harriot went on Ralegh’s next voyage of exploration.

The next voyage of eight ships and about 500 men, including the 25-year-old Harriot, left England on April 9, 1585 with Richard Grenville as commander of the fleet and Ralph Lane as governor. Along the way, Harriot helped the sailors determine their latitude by the position of stars. After a voyage of almost three months, which included Grenville capturing a Spanish ship laden with gold and silver, the group arrived at Roanoke in late June. They had returned Manteo and Wanchese to their home and were welcomed by the local Chief Granganimeo who offered them Roanoke Island as a settlement site.

With Harriot as translator, relations between the Indians and English were at first cordial and productive. Harriot and metallurgist, Joachim Gans, set up a laboratory, that four centuries later archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume called America’s first science center. While Gans studied the soil for evidence of copper, gold, silver, and other minerals, Harriot did extensive studies of the flora and fauna of the area and helped maintain good relations with the Indians. Also on the voyage was artist John White whose seventy watercolor paintings depicted the Indians as a strong and handsome people. Together the three explorers learned a great deal about the Native American’s habits and way of life.

But in spite of Harriot’s efforts, problems began to arise in the colony. The group had arrived too late to do spring planting for a garden. And as Harriot would relate later, many of the men considered themselves gentlemen who were not willing to hunt or fish or help procure food. They had come to enrich themselves with gold and silver as the Spanish had done in South America. Their idea was to depend on the Indians to provide food in exchange for pots, pans, mirrors, knives, hatchets and other trade items. This arrangement worked for a while, but feeding 500 colonists stretched the amount of food the Indians were able to provide. Also, Gans had been able to find only small amounts of iron, copper, and silver in the area, but no gold.

The result was that a number of the colonist became discontented. Grenville had sailed to England to bring back more food and supplies, but after several weeks had not returned. It turned out that at that time Francis Drake was leading an expedition of some 25 ships and harassing Spanish towns in Florida. After attacking St. Augustine, Drake sailed north. He knew of the English colony but was not exactly sure where it was. Fortunately, as he sailed along what is now the coast of North Carolina, his men spotted smoke in the area of Roanoke and found the colony.

By the time Drake arrived at Roanoke and Grenville had still not returned, many of the colonists were ready to go back to their comfortable homes and English cities. All but 15 of them, including Harriot, Gans, and White boarded the ships and sailed back to England.

Upon returning to England in 1586, Harriot resumed his scientific work under the patronage of Walter Ralegh and also took the time to write about the voyage he had just been on. In his book A Brief and True Report of the Newfound Land of Virginia, published in 1588, Harriot combined his journal entries with John White’s drawings and produced a highly detailed document that proved valuable for future English colonists as well as later historians.

Apparently, Harriot had enjoyed his adventure in Virginia and seemed to be upset that it ended so abruptly due to a few malcontents who, once they realized they were not going to enrich themselves with gold, saw no reason to do the work necessary to help the colony survive and prosper. It was said of Harriot that he had a sharp tongue and did not tolerate laziness. This seems to be the case when he wrote about some of the dandies who had come on the voyage who he said: “…had little or no care of any other thing but to pamper their bellies; or of that many which had little understanding, less discretion, and more tongue than was needed or requisite.”

For the next few years with Walter Ralegh as his patron, Harriot did extensive work in mathematics. In his book entitled Artis Analyticae Praxis or The Analytical Arts Applied To Solving Algebraic Equations he was one of the first mathematicians to work in symbols instead of numbers, setting the important groundwork for algebra and other types of math that uses symbols. Unfortunately, the book was not published until ten years after his death so he got little credit for the work during his lifetime.

In the early 1590s events unfolded that he had no part in but that affected his relationship with Ralegh. In 1591 Ralegh secretly married one of Queen Elizabeth’s maids in waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton. The queen was furious and had the couple put in prison for three months. They were released, but Ralegh’s favored relationship with Queen Elizabeth was never quite the same.

Then, perhaps because Ralegh became busy with his wife and growing family, in 1595, Harriot came under the patronage of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, one of the wealthiest men in England at the time. Percy, who owned one of the largest libraries in England, allowed Harriot the use of Syon House, one of Percy’s properties near London where Harriot set up a laboratory to pursue his many scientific projects.

In the next few years Harriot did experiments in such diverse fields as astronomy, meteorology, optics, the study of rhumb lines on sailing charts, and a number of other fields. He came to believe that everything was made of atoms, and used that knowledge to work out how light is refracted or bent in water and other mediums. He formulated a ‘law of refraction’ in 1601 but did not publish his work and received no credit for the discovery. It turns out that twenty years later Dutch scientist Willebrord Snellius also developed the same law of refraction and got the credit for what came to be known as Snell’s Law.

Although Harriot was paid well and lived comfortably under the patronage of Percy, his life was not without political intrigue. Queen Elizabeth I died in March 1603 and her successor James I accused Walter Ralegh of plotting against him. After enduring a trial that seemed to be biased against him from the beginning, Ralegh was found guilty and put in prison for treason and given a death sentence. Then in 1605 Percy also was put in prison when his cousin Thomas Percy became involved in the “Gunpowder Plot”, a conspiracy to assassinate the king. Henry Percy was not directly involved in the plot but was accused of knowing about it and not informing the king’s authorities. Percy wound up spending sixteen years in the Tower of London. Harriot visited both men while they were imprisoned.

After fourteen years in prison Ralegh was pardoned by James I and released under the condition that he did not cause trouble with other nations, especially Spain. In 1617 Ralegh led a voyage to Spanish Guiana seeking gold. He was careful to avoid a confrontation with the Spanish, but one of his men attacked a small village in which people were killed. Although Ralegh had not sanctioned the attack and was not involved in it, when he returned to England he was arrested. He was kept in prison for several months and beheaded in October 1618.

The death of Ralegh saddened Harriot and Henry Percy, who was still in the Tower at that time. Percy was imprisoned from 1605 to 1621 but fortunately kept up his patronage of Harriot.

In 1609 Thomas Harriot acquired a “Dutch Trunke” a telescope probably made by Dutch spectacles maker Hans Lippershey. He immediately put the new instrument to good use and on June 26, 1609 made a detailed drawing of the moon, some four months before the celebrated drawing done by Galileo. Harriot went on to make several other drawings of the moon with features and craters depicted with a high degree of accuracy. He also followed the movement of sunspots, making several dozen drawings of them and worked out a fairly accurate radius of the sun. Working with a lens maker, he designed a 50- power telescope, which was powerful for that time.

It is interesting that while Harriot unfortunately did not publish his many astronomical findings, Galileo was busy making sure his discoveries were made available to the public, even at the peril of offending the Pope and other Catholic Church officials who still insisted that the sun and stars revolved around the Earth. Over the years, Galileo’s fame grew while Harriot, making many of the same discoveries, remained generally unnoticed.

Another project Harriot was involved in was helping Walter Ralegh write his History of the World. It was an ambitious undertaking that Ralegh started in 1607 while he was in prison. Apparently, Harriot helped with some of the research and wording. Over 1300 pages were written but the five long volumes Ralegh had in mind were never finished. For years, the book was popular in England and sold several copies.

There are a couple of theories concerning the reasons Harriot did not publish his discoveries and for many years remained virtually unknown outside of England. One of these is that through his patronages under Walter Ralegh and Henry Percy, he was living comfortably and was paid a good income, so he did not need to publish for financial reasons. Unlike Galileo, who lived more modestly, he did not have to worry about earning money from his work.

But most scientists, in Harriot’s time and today, possess a desire to generally further human knowledge by their discoveries. The money they make is important and necessary to their well-being, but to many scientists, the money is secondary to achieving recognition for their contributions, or perhaps a moral obligation to add meaningfully to the store of human knowledge.

Perhaps a more feasible excuse for Harriot’s reluctance to stand out in the public eye was more a result of the idiosyncrasies of the English culture of his day. The unfortunate tribulations that Galileo suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church are well known. We’ll never know what further contributions this towering genius could have made if he had not been become a victim of the Church’s shortsighted dogmas.

Although England was not quite as tightly controlled by religious misunderstandings as Italy, the fact that he advocated that everything in the universe is made of atoms was considered to be contrary to the biblical story in Genisis which states that God created everything. Several religious people accused him of atheism which was a serious offence at that time.

Ironically, his two great patrons, while assuring him of comfortable dwellings and a good income, contributed to his caution to keep a low profile. Harriot’s career got off to a good start with Ralegh. As a young Oxford graduate, he was able to meet Native Americans and become the first in England to learn their Carolina Algonquin language. Then on the voyage to Virginia he was able to put to practical use his knowledge, based on trigonometric calculations, of how to use the positions of stars to determine latitude. And it turned out that the account of his year spent in Virginia led to the only book under his name that he published during his lifetime.

But then Ralegh’s marriage in 1591 seemed to have started a series of events that changed Harriot’s course in life to a certain extent. He left Ralegh’s home in 1595 and acquired Henry Percy as a new patron. This worked out well for him financially and allowed him to work on a number of important projects. Yet, it is possible that since Ralegh had fallen out of favor with Elizabeth I, Harriot decided he would wait until a more auspicious time to publish some of his work.

But a more auspicious time did not come. The situation seemed become even worse when James I came to power in 1603 after the death of Elizabeth. James did not like Ralegh, and after an unpleasant trial he had Ralegh arrested for treason and given a death sentence. Then Percy’s arrest in 1605 convinced Harriot that perhaps his personal safety should take precedence over his public recognition. It is unfortunate that Harriot wrote few letters that have survived and had no family to compile and publish his work. All that was left were his notes which were preserved but lost for several decades.

Once his thousands of pages of notes were found and analyzed, people realized what an important person he was in the history of science. Most historians believe today that had he published his discoveries he could have been as influential as his contemporaries Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler.

By the time Walter Ralegh was executed in October 1618, Harriot, who had been a heavy pipe smoker since his voyage to Virginia, was experiencing poor health mainly due to cancerous growths on his lip and nose. As his condition worsened there was not much the physicians at that time could do for him. His mind was still active and he continued to work as best he could, accumulating pages of notes but still not publishing.

Harriot wrote an extensive and detailed will leaving his telescope and other belongings to a close group of friends. He directed that his papers be put in a trunk and put in Henry Percy’s library at Syon house. This apparently was the same trunk that was discovered in Sussex several years later. He continued to visit Percy in the Tower of London and their relationship remained strong until he passed away on July 2, 1621.

Although not well known outside of England, those who knew him had a great deal of respect for him and his work. Like Kepler, Galileo, Tycho Bache, Nicolas Copernicus, and others, Harriot was part of the group of scientists who Isaac Newton spoke of as the giants whose shoulders he stood on to work out his theory of gravity and other scientific achievements. The discoveries these people made in astronomy, physics, mathematics and other fields laid the foundation for today’s many scientific endeavors.

Two weeks after Harriot’s death, Henry Percy was released from his imprisonment in the Tower of London. To show his respect and admiration for Harriot, he had an ornate headstone erected at Harriot’s grave in the chancel of St. Christopher Church in London. Percy wrote this for Harriot’s epitaph:

Stay traveler, tread lightly; Near this spot lies what was mortal of that most celebrated man, Thomas Harriot. He was very learned, Harriot of Sion on Thames; by birth and education an Oxonian, who cultivated all the sciences, and excelled in all, in Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Theology. A most studious investigator of truth, a most pious worshipper of the Triune God. At the age of sixty or thereabouts, he bade farewell to mortality, not to life,

July 2d, A.D. 1621.

It is fitting that so great a mind as Thomas Harriot finally be recognized for his important contribution to science and human relations.

Ted McCormack

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