Vol. 18, No. 9Oct. 29, 1998

New book highlights work of Thomas Harriot

In the world of academia, a select group of scholars is known as the Harrioteers. The focus of this group is Thomas Harriot, a Renaissance scholar whose scientific and mathematical contributions laid the foundation for future discoveries and are still relevant today.

Among the Harrioteers is Ralph Staiger, who recently wrote a book for young people (although adults would enjoy it as well), entitled Thomas Harriot: Science Pioneer. Staiger, executive director emeritus of the International Reading Association, taught at the University and currently heads the University of Delaware Association of Retired Faculty. Although an expert on children and reading, this is first venture into writing a children's book.

Staiger said he became interested in Harriot through the late John Shirley, former UD provost. Shirley encouraged Staiger to write the book, and Staiger has dedicated Thomas Harriot to Shirley, calling him an "extraordinary Harrioteer who spent his scholarly career unveiling clues to the life and scientific contributions of Thomas Harriot."

"Shirley wrote the definitive book about Harriot, Thomas Harriot: A Biography," Staiger said. "Each summer, he would go to England to research the book, which was not easy as Harriot did not leave much of a paper trail. He was careful to avoid controversy that might lead to prison, as it did for other thinkers of the day, so his papers were undated and sparse."

Shirley was fortunate in his search, however, according to Staiger. The ninth earl of Northumberland had been Harriot's patron at one time, and Shirley was at his castle searching for anything connected with Harriot. One of the current earl's employees said, "I think I know of some material that would interest you," and took him down to the dungeon where there was leather bag containing some of Harriot's papers. It was a find, but the earl refused to allow him to copy the papers. Shirley went to the British Museum and told them of his discovery, and they got permission to photocopy the papers, which were then made available to Shirley.

Staiger's book is divided into chronological chapters, along with sections describing Harriot's work in mathematics, optics and astronomy. Described as the "father of English algebra," Harriot also made maps of the moon and recorded sunspots. His observations are used by astronomers today for comparative and historical purposes.

At the beginning of each chapter, Staiger lists events that were happening elsewhere to put Harriot's life in a historical context, such as the first use of forks in the French Court (1589), the establishment of Jamestown in the New World (1607) and Galileo's first appearance before the Inquisition (1615).

Although Harriot left few accounts, fortunately his friend, Thomas Buckner, kept a diary. When Harriot made a voyage to the New World for the second time under the patronage of Sir Walter Raleigh, Buckner, a mercer by trade, dealing with textiles, accompanied and assisted him.

Navigation was very crude at that time. Before and during the voyage, Harriot was involved in developing more accurate methods and instruments for navigation.

The British ships anchored at Roanoke Island in 1585. Maps and charts were crude or nonexistent, and Harriot took depth soundings along the coast while John White, an artist, drew the coastline. Harriot recorded the flora and fauna of the region, interacted with the Algonquins and made exploratory trips inland while White recorded what they observed in his drawings and watercolors, many of which are in Staiger's book.

After the voyage, Harriot wrote A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, the first accurate description of the New World. It dealt with everything from "turkie hennes" to "weapons of the Virginiens." At Roanoke Island today there is a Thomas Harriot Nature Walk where visitors can see the trees and shrubs he listed in his report.

Raleigh's fortunes began to decline although Harriot remained loyal to him until his death. The earl of Northumberland became Harriot's new patron until Harriot died in 1621, as recorded by the loyal Buckner.

Translated from Latin, a memorial eulogizes Harriot calling him

An Oxonian

Who cultivated all the sciences

And excelled in all

In Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Theology

A Most studious searcher after truth....

Staiger's book, Thomas Harriot: Science Pioneer is available at the University Bookstore.

-Sue Swyers Moncure
Photo by Jack Buxbaum