He didn’t publish and so he perished (historically).

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.


Portrait often claimed to be Thomas Harriot (1602), which hangs in Oriel College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.


Watercolor by John White of Roanoke Indians Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.


Harriet’s earliest telescopic moon drawing

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.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Optics, History of Physics, History of science, Renaissance Science

32 responses to “He didn’t publish and so he perished (historically).

  1. Michael Weiss

    Thomas Schemmel has written a comprehensive treatise on Harriot’s physics: The English Galileo: Thomas Harriot’s Work on Motion as an Example of Preclassical Mechanics. Can’t say that I’ve read most of it (761 pages! — but only 241 is discussion by Schemmel, the rest Harriot’s manuscripts).

    As to why Harriot didn’t publish, Schemmel devotes three pages of speculation to this. He quotes from a letter of Harriot’s to Kepler (July 13, 1608):

    The situation with us is such that it is still not possible for me to philosophize freely. We still stick in the mud. I hope God will soon put an end to these things.

    But beyond possible fear of persecution, Schemmel also notes that (referring to Galileo’s Discourses):

    had [Galileo] died at the same age as Harriot, he too would not
    have published anything on mechanics.

    reversing your title: Harriot perished too soon, and so he didn’t publish.

  2. Harriot was about 61 when he died. By the time he was 61, in 1625, Galileo had already published substantially and was already famous.

    The “…not possible for me to philosophize freely…” refers to atomism of which Harriot (like Galileo) was a strong advocate. It had no influence on his work in astronomy, physics, optics or mathematics.

  3. Michael Weiss

    Again quoting Schemmel, with regard to the “philosophize freely” quote:

    Harriot wrote these lines in connection with a discussion of refraction. In order to explain certain optical phenomena such as refraction Harriot drew upon atomism and the doctrine of the vacuum, which contradicted the Aristotelian world view.

    Now, would this sort of thing really have gotten you in trouble in Anglican England? I dunno, what do you think?

    Of course Galileo was already famous at 61, but scientifically his published claim to fame is the Discourses — or at least that’s the conventional wisdom.

    Schemmel also quotes H. Floris Cohen on the question of publication:

    Somehow we tend to take it for granted that the pattern we associate with science publishing nowadays — rush into print as soon as you believe you have made a discovery, or even before you have — applies equally well to the 17th century. We know of a great many individual exceptions to this rule, yet we tend to go on seeking individual explanations for every individual exception instead of calling into question whether there was such a rule in the first place.

    • Michael Weiss

      I wrote “but scientifically his published claim to fame is the Discourses” — bit of an overstatement. The scientifically most important of his published works, I should have said.

      • Harriot had already been official interrogated once on suspicion of atheism because of a reported discussion on atomism, so yes!

        Galileo’s first scientific claim to fame was the Sidereus Nuncius and even today it is the thing for which he is most well known. However, you are correct to assume that his most important scientific work was the Discorsi. It should however be pointed out that the work on which the Discorsi was based was conducted before he made his telescope discoveries,

  4. Michael Weiss

    even today it is the thing for which he is most well known.

    Not counting the Leaning Tower of Pizza, and the dust-up with the Roman Inquisition…

    Returning to Harriot vs. Galileo:

    his analysis of projectiles in flight is more advanced than Galileo’s.

    Schemmel spends quite a bit of time on this, much of which I have still to read. Still I was struck by three of his remarks.

    First, Schemmel notes that “the spate of practical manuals on gunnery that
    appeared in the course of the sixteenth century” was a key source and spur to both Galileo’s and Harriot’s work.

    Next, “for Harriot the asymmetry of the trajectory was an essential feature to be captured by theory, while for Galileo it merely represented an accidental feature.” Now, of course trajectories are asymmetric, because of air-friction. Point to Harriot.

    Schemmel doesn’t mention this, but Galileo proposes a semi-circular trajectory for a body falling “through the earth” (in the Dialogues). Yellow card to Galileo.

    Finally, Harriot gave a clear statement of the law of inertia: uniform and rectilinear in the absence of gravity and resistance from the medium. Galileo never quite achieved this.

  5. Tony Angel

    I think, but will stand corrected, that it was Patrick Moore who came across Harriot’s Moon drawings at Sion House. I remember reading a paper by him in a BAA Journal many, many years ago. Alan Chapman has given some very good talks on Harriot and has written about him.

    I will see if I can find the BAA Journal in my dusty archives 🙂

  6. Tony Angel

    Here is quite a nice paper on TH that was originally in the A&G Journal of the RAS http://www.telescope400.org.uk/aag_50127.pdf

  7. What was (science) publishing like in the 17th century? Would a publisher ask a respected mathematicus to write a book on a subject for a certain amount of money or was it basically just self-publishing: the author felt the urgent need to spread his ideas and invested time and money in writing them down and turning them into a book?

    • Both! There was a demand for books on practical mathematics, navigation, cartography, text books etc, and enterprising publishers would commission well known mathematical practitioners to write such volumes.

      On the other hand leading mathematicians wrote books and searched out publishers themselves.

      Harriot would have been in the market for both types of publishing and Percy would certainly have taken over any publishing costs.

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  9. A fascinating summary of TH. Interesting to compare him with da Vinci, both didn’t publish & the latter wasn’t known about until 19th century. Now everyone knows about da Vinci, but still very few know about TH.

    I knew of TH beating Galileo with telescope observations of moon & sun, but the rest was great to learn about. Thanks. Will look up some of those books listed.

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  11. bambax

    “the two of them comparing there results in a correspondence”: their results

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  23. Henri Mourant

    Shouldn’t the actual date of Harriot’s first telescopic moon observation be August 5th, 1609 rather then July 26th, 1609? He clearly wrote down July 26 but at the time the English were still using the Julian calendar (unlike the Catholic countries who had already adopted the Gregorian calendar). So for us (and mainland Catholic Europeans like Galileo) it actually happened on August 5th unless I am very much mistaken.

    • You are not at all mistaken

      • Tony Angel

        Can I make a Solomon type suggestion and say that both dates should be mentioned with explanation. Thony. I think you brought this date topic up a number of years ago in one of your Christmas posts in reference to Newton’s birthday.

      • I did indeed, and your suggestion is eminently sensible but unfortunately this disc an old post that I can no longer edit thanks to WordPress!

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