Thomas Harriot


A few days back I noted that this year is the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope for astronomical observation (and his subsequent publication of The Starry Messenger). I forgot to note that he was preceded by an Englishman, Thomas Harriot (1560 – 1621) in the use of the telescope to study both the moon and the sun. The image above is of Harriot’s drawing – from August 5th 1609 (July 26th Julian) – of the moon. In December 1610 he observed sunspots and – as with his lunar drawings and much of his work – he unfortunately never published his observations.

Harriot is an interesting character – he served with Sir Walter Raleigh (both as a math tutor and cartographer), travelled to the Colonies, was briefly imprisoned as a result of the Gunpowder Plot, corresponded with Kepler, discovered Snell’s Law in 1602, and perhaps introduced the potato to Ireland. It is interesting to contemplate how Irish history would have unfolded had the latter not happened.

(This article notes that he also introduced tobacco and “wrote the earliest publicity blurb for smoking, a habit that killed him – the first recorded death from tobacco-related cancer.”)


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