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Introduction: The Many Worlds of Thomas Harriot

ByRobert Fox

In the words of the memorial plaque on his tomb in the church of St Christopher le Stocks in London, Thomas Harriot ‘excelled in all things mathematical, philosophical, theological’. The praise was not exaggerated. Indeed, the list of Harriot’s attainments could well have been extended. As a mathematician, he engaged with some of the leading problems of his age: in the theory of equations as well as the intensely practical world of ballistics. In optics, he arrived at the sine law of refraction more than 20 years before Willebrord Snell. As an astronomer, he developed a ‘perspective glass’, with his assistant Christopher Tooke, and is known to have used it to observe the moon in late July 1609, almost three weeks before Galileo presented his telescope to the Venetian Senate, and to have drawn a remarkably accurate map of the moon’s surface.1 In the history of exploration, he is remembered for his Briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588), the earliest detailed account of America in English, and for his remarkably accurate mapping of the coastal area of what is now North Carolina, close to where he landed on a voyage promoted by Sir Walter Ralegh in 1585. And along the way he moved, generally with ease though at times precariously, in the socially elevated circles of his two great patrons, first Ralegh and then, from the mid1590s, Henry Percy, the ninth Earl of Northumberland, while also maintaining contact with some of the leading men of science in England and abroad.