Biography of Thomas Harriot: Mathematician, Astronomer and Researcher

Biography of Thomas Harriot: Mathematician, Astronomer and Researcher
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William Whewell, a writer of many different disciplines, Royal Society Fellow and polymath, in 1840 coined the word: scientist, but did not know of Thomas Harriot. For Harriot (sometimes referred to as Harriot, Hariot or Harriott) was born many years prior, in 1560 Oxfordshire, England, the son of an ordinary person with no rank or title.

Science in Elizabethan England could be a trap. Math and science were not openly taught because symbols and diagrams were believed to be tools of the devil. Whoever was lucky enough to be a scholar calculated what they needed to know with quill pens and homemade ink.

No one really knows how Thomas Harriot became educated at Oxford University since he was born of humble means. He went from an unsophisticated petty school to Latin grammar school, the language of “educated men.” Thomas had a propensity for dialect, read about the ancient Romans and studied the Greek culture through the writings of Aristotle. He often had questions about church doctrine and other studies, but it was a dangerous thing to do and he never got answers.

In 1577, Thomas Harriot entered St. Mary’s Hall, Oxford University, where he became friends with instructor Richard Hakluyt and Thomas Allen, an astrologer and mathematician, who had other intellectual networks. He graduated three years later with a Bachelor of Arts and people now called him, “Master Harriot.”

Famous Friends and the Times

Thomas’s friend Hakluyt wanted to become a geographer like his famous older cousin of the same name. He often complained about the navigation errors on English ships. Thomas Allen had been a popular professor but because of his interest in astrology, some people called him a conjurer. Thomas wasn’t surprised about any of this because there were strange beliefs among the commoners such as, the “blood of a goat makes diamonds soft” or “thunder and lightning create noxious spirits that make beer, wine and liquor poisonous.”

Even kings and emperors who needed money secretly coerced alchemists to convert anything into gold. In the ancient books, the conjurer’s found recipes for metal transformation, but, first, you needed a magical philosopher’s stone to do it!

Life’s Work and Ralegh

After university Harriot went to live with Walter Ralegh (often spelled Raleigh), another friend who was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. In essence, Harriot had found a patron. Their task was to learn more about the secrets of navigation because he was to teach the ship’s captains in London. The goal was to build England into a mighty, world sea power.

Ralegh was popular with the Queen and looked to her as a source of support. He was the younger son of a noble family, so inheritance of land or a title was never coming. He was a suave man, good with a sword, wrote poetry, dressed well and was highly regarded but he was also ambitious. (If you remember the romantic story of a gentleman throwing a cape over a puddle so the lady would not soil her shoes, he is the one they are talking about.)

Ralegh’s half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, was lost in a storm at sea, which convinced him they needed to solve the problems with navigation. One of the more treacherous times at sea, Spanish ships were often captured and the transfer of valuables or gold went to the victor. Although this was indeed pirating, no one called it that—it was just fair game. This reemphasized the need for captains to know where they were at sea. The Durham House was busy as Thomas Harriot helped conduct classes in captaining ships.

Thomas met seacoast sailors who left London for nearby ports, rarely losing sight of land. They employed drawings or woodcuts of dangerous rocks, and followed distances from one place to another made by other shipmasters called “rutters.” Sailors usually carried a compass, a moon almanac and lines for depth sounding and tide tables. Thomas learned their language by roaming the docks and became an expert on the lore of the sea.

He discovered the captains and sailors possessed inaccurate maps and charts, incorrect latitude markings, and misleading charts, created by their competitors, of course.

The New World Venture

Thomas had always studied the past and looked at how Ptolemy first catalogued the stars; he studied astronomical tables from the ninth century, and learned much about the Arabic number system. This intense study enabled Thomas to develop a textbook called the Arcticon, which had tables and instructions on using instruments to site the sun and the North Star for navigation.

In March 1584, Ralegh received permission from the government (called letters patent) for a voyage to the New World. Harriot and he invited Tom Buckner along because their friend knew everything about cloth and could detail the materials worn by the natives for study.

The queen knighted Walter Ralegh and named him Governor of Virginia, but would not allow her favorite to leave court for the journey. Sir Richard Grenville then, became admiral in charge of the seven ships bound for America, along with six hundred men to sail and colonize Virginia. In 1585, Harriot, now 25 years old, was a cartographer, surveyor, and man of records for the expedition.

Thomas’s packing list included:

  • Several compasses, along with instruments for measuring variations
  • Three good spring clocks
  • A universal dial
  • Cross staff and back staff
  • Almanac tables
  • Parchment, paper, quills, black powder for ink, colors for drawing, brushes and black lead, gum eraser, and brass compasses for scribing circles (to create his log, diary and drawings).

Discovering Virginia

On board the flagship, called the Tiger, Harriot was excited to observe a solar eclipse. He and Tom Buckner both worked hard to document their observations and navigational techniques; and his eclipse sighting, which some men thought was a bad omen, was so precise, there was never an equal.

John White, a naturalist and painter who would become governor of the colony Roanoke Island, was a great addition to the ensemble. He and “Master Harriot” created a beautiful chronicle called A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia—the first book in English about the New World. Inside was an exhaustive study including remarkable sketches of the native population, the flora and fauna, and topographical maps.

Harriot was a good ambassador and made contact and rapport with the Natives. He utilized science and technology throughout his stay, and even devised a system of recording the sounds of the Algonquian language and as such, created a phonetic alphabet.

Telescope and the Moon

Upon his return from the New World, Harriot was given an estate, the Abbey of Molanna on the island of Dair Inis in the Blackwater River. Ralegh also provided him living quarters at Durham House, Devon, Dorset and Ireland. John White returned to Roanoke heading up another group of settlers. His daughter Elinor married one of the settlers, Ananias Dare, and they had a daughter, the first child of English origin born in the colonies, Virginia Dare.

Thomas Harriot became friends with the ninth earl of Northumberland, young Henry Percy through his association with Ralegh. The earl offered Harriot a house of his own on the River Thames, Syon House, across from Kew Gardens. Thomas started working on lenses at Syon and the growing field of optics. Although his work concentrated on mathematics, he had moved from theoretical computation to navigation to optics, to astronomy to chemistry and physics.


Prior to the invasion of the Spanish Armada, Harriot devised the “behavior of shot” from cannons. He listed all the possible causes of error (canon was very inaccurate and not standardized). Using circular trajectory, he applied numerical ratios and described the nature of the flight of projectiles.

It is hard to say whether Harriot made a scientific discovery first, or whether it was developed from someone else’s work. He also introduced elementary algebra much as it is today, even though Descartes originated graphing algebraic equations and got credit for that.

Both atomic theory and the laws of motion led Harriot to study refraction. He wondered why light could be bent and experimented with various lenses, working together with Christopher Tooke, an expert lens grinder. This led him to create the Law of Sines of Refraction. Since a Dutch scientist, Snell, wrote a paper on it, he is credited with that discovery too.

Publish or Perish

Galileo Galilei logged astronomical observations, but Thomas Harriot was the pioneer who turned the lens and telescope to the stars and moon. The moon interested Thomas because of its influence on the tides. In fact, he made the first astronomical drawing of the moon with the aid of a telescope. His lack of interest in publicity and his noninterest in publication meant his name was not well known outside his country, as were the other scientists.

Harriot’s achievements, going unnoticed, meant his pioneering work on symbolic algebra, binary numbers, the sine law of refraction, detailed telescope observations, drawings of the Moon, the moons of Jupiter and discovering sunspots, never made it into the history books as his discoveries and, as such, were picked up by other men.

Last Illness

Thomas contracted a painful illness: cancer inside his nose; it first manifested itself in 1613. His work slowed because of it, and since people did not live long in Harriot’s day, he saw the loss of many friends (Ralegh was beheaded on October 21, 1618, with Harriot present at the public execution).

Thomas Harriot died on July 1, 1621 and was buried at St. Christopher’s Parish Church. As a legacy, near the entrance to an outdoor theater on Roanoke Island at Manteo, North Carolina, is a woodland trail called the Thomas Harriot Nature Walk.


  • Image Source: Wikipedia By Unknown Public Domain
  • Artis Analyticae Praxis: Cajori, Florian. “A Revaluation of Harriot’s Artis Analyticae Praxis.” Isis 11, no. 2 (1928): 316-24.
  • Staiger, Ralph C. Thomas Harriot: Science Pioneer. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.