On 2nd July 1621 Thomas Harriot died of cancer of the nose in London. As he had learnt to smoke from the Indians, in what would later become Virginia, he is possibly the first recorded death caused by smoking. This would naturally give him a small footnote in the history of science but he deserves much, much more than a footnote.
Readers of this blog should by now be well aware that I think that expressions such as ‘the greatest’ should be banned forever out of the history of science. If people, as they do, ponder who was the greatest scientist in the seventeenth century (ignoring the anachronistic use of the term scientist for the moment) they invariably discuss the respective merits of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and Newton just possibly adding Huygens to the mix. I personally think that Thomas Harriot is a serious candidate for such a discussion. Now I can already hear one or the other of my readers thinking, if Harriot is so important for the history of seventeenth century science how come I’ve never even heard of him? The answer is quite simple; although the good Thomas made starting contributions to many branches of knowledge in the early years of the seventeenth century he published almost nothing, thus depriving himself of the fame and historical recognition that went to others. As the title of this post says, he didn’t publish and so he perished.
Little is known about Harriot’s origins other than the fact that he was born in Oxfordshire around 1560 and entered Oxford University in 1577; graduating in 1580 whence he is thought to have moved to London. In 1583 he entered the service of Sir Walter Raleigh, who had been his contemporary at Oxford. He seems to have been a promising mathematician at university as is confirmed by his friendship there with Thomas Allen (1542 – 1632) and Richard Hakluyt (c.1552 – 1616) both acknowledged as leading mathematical practitioners of the age. Harriot served as house mathematicus to Raleigh, teaching his master mariners the then comparatively new arts of mathematical navigation and cartography for their expeditions, as well as helping to design his ships and serving as his accountant. During his instruction Harriot wrote a manual on mathematical navigation, which included the correct mathematical method for the construction of the Mercator projection but this manual like nearly all of his scientific work was to remain unpublished. However Harriot’s work was not just theoretical he possibly sailed on Raleigh’s 1584 exploratory voyage to Roanoke Island fore the coast of North America and definitely took part in the 1585 – 1586 attempt to establish a colony on Roanoke. This second voyage gives Harriot the distinction of being the first natural philosopher/natural historian/mathematician of North America. During his time in the failed colony Harriot carried out cartographical surveys, studied the flora and fauna and made an anthropological study of the natives even starting to learn the Algonquian language; inventing a phonetic alphabet to record it and writing a grammar of the language.
The attempt to establish a colony ended in disaster and the colonists, including Harriot had to be rescued by Francis Drake, on his way back from harassing the Spanish in Middle America, Raleigh having sailed back to England to fetch more supplies and settlers. This adventure was to provide Harriot’s one and only publication during his lifetime entitled A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia; an advertising pamphlet published in 1588 designed to help Raleigh find new sponsors for a renewed attempt at establishing a colony. This pamphlet, the first English language publication on North America, was reprinted in Latin in a collection of literature about the America’s published in Frankfurt and became known throughout Europe.
Back in England Harriot became involved in another scheme of Raleigh’s to establish a colony in Ireland, serving for a number of years as his surveyor and general factotum. In the 1590s he left Raleigh’s service and became a pensioner of Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland. Percy gave Harriot a very generous pension as well as title to some land in the North of England and a house on his estate of Syon House near London. It appears that Percy required nothing in return from Harriot and had given him what amounted to an extremely generous research grant for life, allowing him to become what we would now call a research scientist. Quite why Percy should choose to take this course of action with Harriot is not known, other than his own interest in the sciences. It was during his time in Percy’s service that Harriot did most of the scientific work that should by rights have made him famous.
Harriot was already, by necessity, a working astronomer during his time as Raleigh’s mathematicus but that his knowledge was wider and deeper than that required for cartography and navigation is obvious from a comment in one of his manuscripts. He complains about the inaccuracies of the Alfonsine Tables based on Ptolemaeus’ Syntaxis Mathematiké and then goes on to state that the Prutenic Tables based on Copernicus’ De revolutionibus are, in the specific case under consideration, even worse. However he’s sure the situation will improve in the future because of the work being carried out by Wilhelm IV and his astronomers in Kassel and Tycho Brahe in Hven. Harriot was obviously well connected and well informed as this before either group had published any of their results.
Now freed of obligations by Percy’s generosity Harriot took up serious astronomical research. In 1607 he and his pupil Sir William Lower (1570 – 1615) made accurate observations of Comet Halley. This led Lower to become the first to suggest in 1610 after they had both read Kepler’s Astronomia Nova that the paths of comets orbits, a hot topic of discussion in the astronomical community of the times, were Keplerian ellipses. Harriot and Lower are considered to be the earliest Keplerian astronomers, accepting Kepler’s theories almost immediately on publication. In 1609 Harriot became probably the first practicing astronomer to make systematic observations of the heavens with the new Dutch instrument invented in the previous year, the telescope. On 26 July 1609 he made a sketch of the moon using a telescope with a magnification of 6.
This was several weeks before Galileo first turned a telescope towards the heavens. It should in fairness be pointed out that, unlike Galileo, Harriot did not recognise the three dimensionality of the moons surface. However after seeing a copy of Sidereus Nuncius he drew maps of the moon that were much more complete and accurate than those of his Tuscan rival.
He also made the first systematic telescopic study of sunspots, which had he published would have spared Scheiner and Galileo their dispute over which of them had first observed sunspots. Harriot constructed very good telescopes and together with Lower, using one of Harriot’s instruments, continued a programme of observation. Harriot observing in London and Lower in Wales; the two of them comparing
there their results in a correspondence parts of which still exist. Harriot also observed the phases of Venus independently of Galileo. Had he published his astronomical work his impact would have been at least as great as that of the Tuscan mathematicus.
It should not be thought that being set up as he was by a rich benefactor that life was just plain sailing for Harriot. In 1603 Raleigh, with whom he was still in close contact, was imprisoned in the Tower of London for treason. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to imprisonment and he remained in the Tower until 1616. In 1605 he was joined in the Tower by Harriot’s new patron, Henry Percy, together with Harriot himself. Percy had been arrested on suspicion because his second cousin, Thomas Percy, who was also the manager of his Syon estate, was one of the principals in the Gunpowder Plot. Harriot it seems was arrested simply because of his connections to Henry Percy and was released without charge within a couple of months. Percy was also never charged, although he was fined a fortune for his cousin’s involvement and remained imprisoned in the Tower until 1621. Percy was an immensely rich man and rented Martin Tower where he set up home even installing a bowling alley. Over the years Harriot regularly visited his two patrons in their stately prison where the three of them discussed scientific problems even conducting some experiments. This was certainly one of the most peculiar scientific societies ever.
Like most astronomers of the time Harriot was also very interested in physical optics because of the role that atmospheric refraction plays in astronomical observations. Harriot discovered the sine law of refraction twenty years before Willebrord Snel after whom the law is usually named. Although Harriot corresponded with Kepler on this very subject, after he had discovered the law, he never revealed his discovery again missing the chance to enter the history of science hall of fame.
Like his contemporaries Galileo and Stevin Harriot was very interested in dynamics and although he failed to abandon the Aristotelian concept that heavier bodies fall faster than lighter ones, his analysis of projectiles in flight is more advanced than Galileo’s. Harriot separately analysed the vertical and horizontal components of the projectiles’ flight and came very close to inventing vector analysis. One historian of science places Harriot’s achievements in dynamics between those of Galileo and Newton but once again he failed to publish.
Harriot’s greatest achievement was probably his algebra book, which was without doubt the most advanced work on the subject produced in the first half of the sixteenth century. It was superior to Viète’s work on the subject although there are some questions as to how much exchange took place between the two men’s efforts, as Nathaniel Torporley an associate of Harriot’s who would become one of his mathematical executors had earlier been Viète’s amanuensis. Harriot gave a complete analysis of the solution of simple algebraic equations that was well in advance of anything previously published. His algebra book was the only one of his works other than his Virginia pamphlet that was actually published if only posthumously. Unfortunately his mathematical executors Torporley and Walter Warner did not understand his innovations and removed them before publication. Even in its castrated form the book was very impressive. The real nature of his work in algebra was obviously known to his near contemporaries leading to John Wallis accusing Descartes of having plagiarised Harriot in his Géométrie. An accusation that probably had more to do with Wallis’ dislike of the French than any real intellectual theft, although Harriot’s work is certainly on a level with the Frenchman’s.
Mathematician, cartographer, navigator, anthropologist, linguist, astronomer, optical physicist, natural philosopher Thomas Harriot was a polymath of astounding breadth and in almost all that he attempted of significant depth. However, for reasons that are still not clear today he chose to publish next to nothing of a life’s work devoted to science. Had he published he would without doubt now be considered a member of the pantheon of gods of the so-called scientific revolution but because he chose not to he suffered the fate of all academics who don’t publish, he perished.