See biography by M. Rukeyser (1971).
Thomas Harriot (c. 1560 – 2 July 1621) was an English astronomer, mathematician, ethnographer, and translator. Some sources give his surname as Harriott or Hariot. He is sometimes credited with the introduction of the potato to Great Britain and Ireland
After graduating from the Oxford University, Harriot traveled to the Americas on expeditions funded by Raleigh, and on his return he worked for the 9th Earl of Northumberland. At the Earl's house, he became a prolific mathematician and astronomer to whom the theory of refraction is attributed.
Born in 1560 in Oxford, England, Thomas Harriot attended St Mary Hall, Oxford. His name appears in the school's registry that dates back from 1577. After his graduation from Oxford (in 1580) was completed, Harriot was first hired by Sir Walter Raleigh as a mathematician tutor; he used his knowledge of astronomy/astrology to provide navigational expertise. Harriot was also involved in designing Raleigh's ships and served as his accountant as well. During this time he also wrote a treatise on navigation prior to his expedition with Raleigh.
He made only one expedition, around 1585-86, and spent some time in the New World visiting Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina expanding his knowledge by learning the Algonquian language. His account of the voyage, Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, was published in 1588 (probably written in 1587). The Report contains an early account of the Native American population encountered by the expedition; it proved very influential upon 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 views of Native Americans' industry and capacity to learn were later largely ignored in favor of the parts of the "Report" about extractable minerals and resources.
As a 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 shows a striking resemblance to atomism and modern atomic theory, which he was later accused of believing. His correspondence about optics with Johannes Kepler, in which he described some of his ideas, later influenced Kepler's conjecture.
Harriot's sponsors began to fall from favour: Raleigh 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 second cousin of one of the conspirators, Thomas Percy.
Harriot himself was interrogated and briefly imprisoned but soon released. Walter Warner, Robert Hues, William Lower and other scientific peers were present around the Earl of Northumberland's mansion as they worked and lent a hand in the teaching of the family's children.
Halley's Comet in 1607 turned Harriot's attention towards astronomy. His observations of August 1609 and subsequent observations may have been the first uses of a telescope for astronomy. He was the first man to attempt mapping of the Moon, and also to observe sunspots, in December 1610.
He died on 2 July 1621, three days after putting down his will on paper in black and white. His executors published his "Artis Analyticae Praxis" on algebra in 1631. It may be a compendium of some of his works but it doesn't represent all the unpublished work he had (more than 400 sheets of annotated writing) and it isn't directed in a way that it follows the manuscripts which fails to give full credit of the significance of Harriot's writings.
He also studied optics and refraction and apparently discovered Snell's law 20 years before Snell did, although, like so many of his works, this remained unpublished. In Virginia he learned the local Algonquin language, which may have had some effect on his mathematical thinking. He founded the "English school" of algebra.
Harriot's accomplishments remain relatively obscure because he did not publish any of his results and also because many of his manuscripts have gone lost; those that survived to this day are sheltered in the British Museum and in the archives of the Percy family at Petworth House (Sussex) and Alnwick Castle (Northumberland). Mathmatician guy The UK celebrations of the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 will focus on the work of Harriot, and will include a National Astronomy Week devoted to the event.
The Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC is named in recognition of this polymath's scientific contributions to the New World such as his work A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia and has instituted an eponimous lecture series in the liberal arts known as the Harriot Voyages of Discovery Lecture Series