chapter  6
26 Pages

Why Thomas Harriot Was Not the English Galileo

ByJohn Henry

Beginning with Baron von Zach (1754-1832) in the eighteenth century, Thomas Harriot has commonly been seen as an English Galileo. Reaffirmed in the late twentieth century by Jean Jacquot and other devotees of Harriot, this claim has most recently been defended by Matthias Schemmel.1 It is important to note, before going any further, that in many respects this claim is entirely justifiable. The title of ‘English Galileo’ is based on Harriot’s independent discovery of the parabolic trajectory of projectiles; studies of impact and force of percussion or collision which approached closer to the classical solution than Galileo managed; and the independent manufacture and use of telescopes to observe the surface of the moon and the phenomena of sunspots before Galileo.2 Like Galileo, Harriot also tried to develop an atomistic theory of matter, although for different reasons: in Galileo’s case, atomism was used chiefly as a means of explaining cohesion and the difference between liquid and solid states, while Harriot seems to have

1 F. Xaver von Zach, an Austrian mathematician and astronomer, rediscovered Harriot’s papers during a visit to Petworth House in 1784. For a full account of his attempts to establish Harriot as the English Galileo, see J.W. Shirley, Thomas Harriot. A biography (Oxford, 1983), pp. 13-23. See also J. Jacquot, ‘Harriot, Hill, Warner and the new philosophy’, in J.W. Shirley (ed.), Thomas Harriot, Renaissance scientist (Oxford, 1974), pp. 107-28 (p. 107). M. Schemmel, ‘Thomas Harriot as an English Galileo: the force of shared knowledge in early modern mechanics’, Bulletin of the Society for Renaissance Studies, 21 (2003), 1-9; expanded in ‘The English Galileo: Thomas Harriot and the force of shared knowledge in early modern mechanics’, Physics in perspective, 8 (2006), 36080. See also M. Schemmel, The English Galileo. Thomas Harriot’s work on motion as an example of preclassical mechanics, 2 vols (London, 2008).