Scientific Endeavours

Scientific Endeavours

Harriot’s interests were wide and his principal biographer, J.W. Shirley quoted on the “Thomas Harriot’s manuscripts” website states:
“…in his time he was England’s most profound mathematician…Most imaginative and methodical experimental scientist and first of all Englishmen to make a telescope and turn it on the heavens.”

His study and correspondence was varied and eclectic, his unwillingness to publish the fruits of his work led, as illustrated in an essential letter from Sir William Lower Mathematician to Hariot preserved at Syon dated February 6th 1610 to, the position and reputation of Hariot being largely ignored even in his own time:

“Do you not here startle, to see every day some of your inventions taken from you; for I remember long since you told me as much, that the motions of the planets were not perfect circles…Let your countrie and frinds injoye the comforts they would have in the true and greate honor you would purchase your selfe by publishing some of your choice workes…”

In the field of Mathematics he wrote “Artis Analyticiae Praxis ad Aequationes Algebraicas” which was only published after his death.  His work was central to the creation of an English school of algebra and he was described by Fauvel and Golding as “the greatest mathematician that Oxford has produced.”  His contribution was central to the development of a simplified notation for algebra and he:

“believed that the densest packing of spheres would be attained if in each layer the centres of the spheres were above the holes in the layer below.  This seems intuitively obvious, but resisted proof until 1998…”

He “undertook a study of ballistics and ship design for Raleigh in advance of the Spanish Armada’s arrival”  and in the area of ballistics:
“At this time ideas of the trajectory taken by a projectile were still dominated by Aristotle’s thinking.  Harriot resolved the forces acting on the projectile into horizontal and vertical components.  He understood that air resistance acted throughout the whole flight, and that gravity acted on the vertical component.  He came very close to a vector analysis solution of the problem of finding the velocity of the projectile and, certainly by 1607, he came to the conclusion that the path of the projectile was a tilted parabola.”

It is in the fields of astronomy and navigation that the work of Hariot is outstanding.  He observed a comet in 1607 and his calculations were so accurate that this was later identified as Halley’s Comet.  He made sketches of the moon in 1609 and by April 1611 had developed a lens with a magnification of 32.  With his 12 foot telescope set up on the roof of Durham House, the first in England “went on to make the earliest telescopic observations in England.”   Observing Jupiter he discovered “sunspots” and following further observations he calculated the “sun’s period of rotation.”
In a preface dedicated to Raleigh in 1587 Hakluyt speaking of navigation stated “you have maintained in your household Thomas Harriot, a man pre-eminent in those studies, at a most liberal salary, in order that by his aid you might acquire those noble sciences in your leisure hours…”  Pepper writing of the advances in navigational techniques made by Harriot by the time of Articon states:

“he solved the problem of reconciling the sun and pole star observations for determining latitude, introduced the idea of using solar amplitude to determine magnetic variation and: as well as improving methods and devices for observation of solar or stellar altitudes, he recalculated tables for the sun’s declination on the basis of his own astronomical observations…he produced a practical numerical solution of the Mercator problem, most probably by the addition of secants…”

He was also involved in chemistry but made no discoveries of note.  His study of optics and the refraction of light is however significant.  Harriot and his circle appeared to hold atomistic views which were anathema to the church of his time and are interesting in view of the later work of Robert Boyle. 
He was involved in the evolution of logic and how it was expressed on paper using logical Kabbalah.   Like most of the scientists of his time Harriot had little difficulty in crossing and re-crossing from “science” to the occult and thus “influenced the theory of inductive reasoning reported by Francis Bacon, but at the same time influenced Kepler’s 1596 theory of matching planetary orbits to ‘vibrations’ of regular polytopes.”   He evolved a pattern of logical expression through the addition of “meta-meaning within each variable and their combinations” which was central to abstractive expression for centuries.


Thomas Harriot can best be described as a “Renaissance Man.”  He was an explorer, a scientist, an astronomer, a mathematician, an engineer, a philosopher a theologian, an accountant and an economist and finally and perhaps most importantly a Librarian.  His work in the field of mathematics would suffice as an illustration of his genius:

“He invented the radical sign and popularised the equals signs and the forms of expressing equations (left side/ right side) which is second nature today.”

In navigation he “greatly advanced spherical trigonometry and devised new navigation instruments.”   In astronomical studies he was the first to map of moon and was the first real student of Jupiter’s moons.
The arrival of tobacco in England and Ireland, certainly not a blessing, as well as the first planting of the potato in Ireland, were, if not personally carried out by Harriet, certainly hugely influenced by him.  His reputation has only recently being established following the rediscovery of his papers.  These had disappeared until 1784 when they were found in Henry Percy’s country estate and given to Franz Xaver Zach who passed them on to the Oxford University Press.  Further work on these will undoubtedly enhance the reputation of this unique scientist.

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