A salute to Thomas Harriott

Thomas Harriott (c. 1560-1621) was an English mathematician, navigator, explorer, linguist, writer, and astronomer.  As was the case at that time, he worked in various branches of physics and chemistry, and he was probably the first modern European to learn a native American language.  (As far as I have been able to discover, this language was Pamlico (Carolinian Algonquian), a member of the Eastern Algonquian sub-family, now sadly extinct.)  He was among those brave sailors and scientists who traversed the Atlantic, in at least one journey in 1585-1586, during the early days of the modern European settlement of North America.  Because of his mathematical and navigational skills, he was employed variously by Sir Walter Raleigh and by Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, both of whom were rumoured to have interests in the occult and in the hermetic sciences.   Harriott was the first person to use a symbol to represent the less-than relationship (“<“), a feat which may seem trivial, until you realize this was not something that Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Islamic, Indian, or Chinese mathematicians ever did; none of these cultures were slouches, mathematically.
Yesterday, 26 July 2009, was the 400th anniversary of Harriott’s drawing of the moon using a telescope, the first such drawing known.  In doing this, he beat Galileo Galilei by a year.   The Observer newspaper yesterday honoured him with a brief editorial.
Interestingly, Harriott was born about the same year as the poet Robert Southwell, although I don’t know if they ever met.     Southwell spent most of his teenage years and early adulthood abroad, and upon his return to England was either living in hiding or in prison.  So a meeting between the two was probably unlikely.  But they would have each known of each other.
Previous posts  in this series are here.   An index to posts about the Matherati is here.

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