Thomas Harriot

Thomas Harriot (ca. 1560July 2 1621) was an English astronomer and mathematician. Some sources give his surname as Harriott or Hariot.

He attended Oxford University. He founded the "English school" of algebra.

He used his knowledge of astronomy to provide navigational expertise for Sir Walter Raleigh, and was also involved in designing Raleigh's ships and served as his accountant as well. He went on at least one expedition and spent time in the New World visiting Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. His account of the voyage, Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, was published in 1588. The Report contains an early account of the Native American population encountered by the expedition: its prejudicial attitudes were to influence later English explorers and colonists. He wrote: "Whereby it may be hoped, if means of good government be used, that they may in short time be brought to civility and the embracing of true religion." At the same time, his relatively sympathetic views of Native Americans' industry and capacity to learn were also later largely ignored in favor of the parts of the "Report" about extractable minerals and resources.

As scientific adviser during the voyage, Harriot was asked by Raleigh to find the most efficient way to stack cannon balls on the deck of the ship. His ensuing theory about the close-packing of spheres seems to be an early predecessor of later atomic theory. At times he was accused of believing in atomism; some people see a link. His correspondence about optics with Johannes Kepler, in which he described some of his ideas, later influenced Kepler's conjecture.

He also studied optics and refraction and apparently discovered Snell's law 20 years before Snell did, although, like so much of his work, this remained unpublished.

Raleigh later fell from favour, and Harriot's other patron Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland, was imprisoned in 1605 in connection with the Gunpowder Plot as he was the grandfather of one of the conspirators, Thomas Percy. Harriot himself was interrogated and briefly imprisoned but soon released.

The 1607 apparition of what later came to be known as Comet Halley caused him to turn his attention to astronomy. He was an early user of telescopes and was one of the first to observe sunspots.

Harriot's accomplishments remain relatively obscure because he did not publish any of his results and because many of his manuscripts have been lost; those that remain are in the British Museum and in the Percy family archives at Petworth House (Sussex) and Alnwick Castle (Northumberland). After his death in 1621, his executors published his "Artes Analytcae Praxis" on algebra in 1631.

External links

sl:Thomas Harriot


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