Thomas Harriot Lecture
The Thomas Harriot Lecture
The college’s annual Thomas Harriot Lecture was inaugurated in 1990. Revised versions of the lectures delivered between 1990 and 1999 were published in Robert Fox (ed.), Thomas Harriot. An Elizabethan man of science (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000). Revised versions of those delivered between 2000 and 2009, with the exception of Stephen Johnston’s lecture of 2007, have appeared in Robert Fox (ed.), Thomas Harriot. Mathematics, exploration, and natural philosophy in early modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). Since 2009, lectures have been delivered in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Thomas Harriot, mathematician and natural philosopher, was born in Oxfordshire; matriculated at Oxford in 1577 as a member of St Mary Hall (which united with Oriel College in 1902), and was awarded a BA degree at Easter 1580.
Harriot developed the skills of astronomical navigation, and was employed by Sir Walter Raleigh (another member of Oriel) to teach Raleigh and his sea captains about navigation and prepare him for his journey to establish a settlement in America, although in the end, Raleigh himself was not part of that expedition.
Thomas Harriot was a member of the colony which landed on Roanoke Island in June 1585 and returned to England with Sir Francis Drake a year later. This was the land called ‘Virginia’ at that time, but later renamed North Carolina. Harriot published a summary of his survey of this land and its people in 1588, entitled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.
Harriot was an extremely skillful astronomer and mathematician, and never tired of searching for answers to questions which had puzzled scientists up until that time. Amongst other things, Harriot observed the moon with his telescope in 1609, several months ahead of Galileo, and drew a map of it. In 1614, Harriot constructed a table which allowed a navigator to set a fixed compass course when sailing between two points—offering a solution to the so-called ‘Mercator problem’.
*Information taken from the article about Thomas Harriot by J J Roche from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, January 2011, and the article by Stephen Pumfrey entitled Harriot’s maps of the Moon in Notes & Records of the Royal. Soc. 2009 63, 163-168 first published online April 15, 2009.
*Pictured is a portrait believed to be of Thomas Harriot from Trinity College, Oxford. A copy hangs in Oriel College Hall.