Thomas Harriot’s Inventions, Early Life, Education and History
Thomas Harriot, born around 1560, was a Renaissance polymath renowned for his contributions in mathematics, astronomy, physics, navigation, and linguistics. Despite limited information about his family, his intellectual achievements would shape the course of scientific history.
Personal Life and Education
Harriot’s birth marked the dawning of a new era, where exploration and scientific inquiry flourished. His exact family details remain obscure, but his thirst for knowledge led him to the University of Oxford in 1577, where he spent three years immersing himself in education and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1580.
Walter Raleigh and Exploration
After completing his studies, Harriot’s exceptional mathematical and astronomical skills captured the attention of Walter Raleigh, a renowned explorer. In 1583, Raleigh enlisted Harriot’s talents, employing him to aid in ship design, navigation, and financial management. Harriot even lived in Raleigh’s home for a period, sharing his mathematical prowess with Raleigh and lecturing ship officers on navigation techniques.
Encounters in the New World
During Raleigh’s expedition to the New World in 1585, Harriot embarked on a journey that would shape his legacy. He immersed himself in the Algonquian language, translating it into English and contributing to cross-cultural understanding. Living among the Algonquian people on Roanoke Island, Harriot’s linguistic skills deepened, and he documented Native American customs and tobacco-smoking practices.
Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy
Harriot’s genius extended across diverse fields, even though he chose not to formally publish his findings. His correspondence with prominent scientists of his time, like Johannes Kepler, revealed some of his remarkable discoveries. In 1601, he unveiled the sine law of light refraction, later known as Snell’s Law, a groundbreaking contribution to optics.
Projectile Motion and Lunar Mapping
Harriot’s expertise in mathematics played a role in shaping ship cannons’ accuracy, offering insights into projectile motion. In 1609, he achieved another milestone, becoming the first person to draw the moon after observing it through a telescope. This feat predates similar achievements by Galileo Galilei.
In 1610, Harriot independently observed sunspots through his telescope, a feat achieved separately from Galileo’s efforts. His extensive observations enabled him to calculate the sun’s rotational rate, adding to his accolades in the realm of astronomy.
Harriot’s profound impact extended to mathematics. His work “The Practice of the Analytical Art” brought a transformative shift to algebra. By employing mathematical symbols instead of word equations, he revolutionized the clarity and speed of algebraic problem-solving. Published a decade after his death, this work accelerated the development of algebra.
Legacy and Passing
Harriot’s legacy remains a testament to his genius, although many of his written works have been lost to time. He became associated with individuals suspected of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and while he faced temporary imprisonment, no further actions were taken against him.
In his final years, Harriot grappled with painful cancerous ulcers on his lips and nose. He passed away on July 2, 1621, around the age of 60 or 61, most likely due to skin cancer. His contributions left an indelible mark on the scientific landscape, and his legacy endures through his pioneering work.
Harriot never married nor had children. He found his resting place in St. Catherine’s Church in London, but the church and a monument dedicated to him were lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Today, the site is occupied by the Bank of England, a reflection of the transformative impact of a brilliant polymath’s life and work.