Thomas Harriot (1560-1621)

Thomas Harriot is regarded as one of the great polymaths of his age, with interests ranging from mathematics and astronomy to natural philosophy, translation and ethnography. He observed the moon with his telescope in 1609, several months before Galileo, and in 1614 he constructed a method that allowed a navigator to set a fixed compass course when sailing between two points.

Harriot matriculated at Oxford in 1577 as a member of St Mary Hall (which became part of Oriel College in 1902), and was awarded a BA degree in 1580.

Harriot made huge strides in developing new skills in astronomical navigation at a time when European countries were engaged in much global exploration and were in the early stages of colonizing North America. He was employed by Sir Walter Raleigh to teach him and his sea captains about navigation and to prepare him for his journey to establish a settlement in America. He was then a member of the colony which landed on Roanoke Island in June 1585 and returned to England with Sir Francis Drake a year later. Harriot published a summary of his survey of the land and its people in 1588, entitled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.

On his death, Harriot left several thousand pages of manuscripts which were never published during his lifetime. It is only in the past 50 years that Harriot’s importance has been fully recognized. His book on algebra, Artis Analyticae Praxis, was published posthumously (in Latin) in 1631.

Oriel holds an annual Thomas Harriot Lecture. Past lectures are collected in: Robert Fox (ed.), Thomas Harriot. An Elizabethan man of science (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000) and Robert Fox (ed.), Thomas Harriot. Mathematics, exploration, and natural philosophy in early modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).

More about Thomas Harriot: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography