Thomas Harriot was the quintessential Renaissance Scholar.
Harriot (variously spelled as Harriot, Hariot or Harriott) was born in Oxfordshire, England, about 1560, the son of a commoner. In 1577 he entered St. Mary's Hall, Oxford University, where he became friends with Richard Hakluyt and Thomas Allen.
After receiving his B.A. in 1580, Harriot moved to London and by 1583 had joined the household of Sir Walter Raleigh, serving as accountant, ship designer and navigational instructor to Raleigh's seamen. When two of his trainees, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, returned from their 1584 exploration voyage to Virginia with two captured natives, Manteo and Wanchese, Harriot attempted to learn the Algonkian language from them, even devising a phonetic alphabet for the language.
In 1585, the 25-year-old Harriot served as cartographer [staff scientist], historian and surveyor for Raleigh's second expedition to Virginia, which sailed from England on April 9 under the command of Sir Richard Grenville. On board the Tiger, Harriot observed and recorded a solar eclipse with such precision that today scholars and navigators can determine the ship's exact position on that day.
The group of 109 Englishmen arrived on June 26 at what is now North Carolina's Pamlico Sound and settled on Roanoke Island. After two months, Grenville returned to England, leaving Ralph Lane as governor of the small colony. During the following year, Hariot wrote his Chronicle or Discourse of Virginia, a detailed survey of the area's natural resources and native inhabitants.
On June 7, 1586, a fleet of 23 ships commanded by Sir Francis Drake stopped to resupply the English colony. A violent hurricane convinced the colonists that they should return to England and on June 19 they joined Drake's fleet for the journey back to England
In 1588 Harriot published an abstract of his extensive Chronicle [now lost] as A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia--the first book in English about the New World, still considered the cornerstone of North American natural history. It detailed the flora, fauna, and land resources, and its exhaustive study of native populations makes it an English-language landmark in ethnography and anthropology.
John White, a painter who later became governor of the 1587 colony on Roanoke Island, worked with Harriot throughout the region to make a visual record that complemented Harriot's written account of the environment and its inhabitants. White created probably hundreds of drawings of the area's indigenous peoples, as well as of plants, animals, and birds, of which only seventy-five survive. In 1590 Theodor De Bry published Harriot's A Briefe and True Report in four languages—Latin, German, French and German—together with engravings based on White’s maps and drawings of Native Americans, shaping the European conception of the New World for centuries. White’s surviving watercolors did not become public until the nineteenth century and were published only in the twentieth century. The originals reside in the British Museum.
Harriot lived for a few years at the Abbey of Molanna near Youghal in County Waterford, Ireland, that he had received from Raleigh for his service managing Raleigh's Irish estates. He returned to London where he became acquainted with Henry Percy, the ninth Earl of Northumberland, whose service he entered by 1593. By 1598 he was receiving a handsome pension of 80 pounds annually and eventually was given a lifetime interest in Northumberland's land holdings at Brampton in County Durham and a house on Northumberland's estate of Syon House west of London on the Thames near Kew. Harriot also had estates in Norfolk and Cornwall.
Following the ascension of James I in 1603, Raleigh was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Harriot was soon imprisoned along with Northumberland, whose kinsman Thomas Percy was involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1604, in which Guy Fawkes and his conspirators tried to blow up the House of Parliament. Harriot was released in a short time although Northumberland remained in the Tower of London until 1621. In September 1607 Harriot observed a comet from Ilfracombe which would later be identified as Halley's Comet.
Harriot died in July of 1621 in London and was buried in St. Christopher le Stocks, the site of the present Bank of England, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.
Among Harriot's other accomplishments are his development around 1601 of the sine law of refraction of light, his indentification of the trajectory of a projectile [a titled parabola], his lunar and solar observations and drawings [along with Galileo in Italy he was one of the first observers of sunspots], his poetry, his development [again contemporaneously with Galileo] of the "perspective trunke" or telescope and his telescopic drawings of the moon, his observations of the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus--the latter of which validated Copernican cosmology, his incisive scriptural studies [with colleague Gilbert Chapman], his development of loxodromes [the straight lines on a Mercator map], his creation of captions for the Roanoke-based drawings of fellow explorer and artist John White, and his theory of the genesis of equations [one of the last discoveries in the field of algebra]. In addition to his own experiments and observations, Harriot also looked outward beyond the shores of England as he corresponded with such luminaries as Tycho Brahe, Johannes Keplerand Galileo Galilei. It is clear indeed that Harriot lived a full life that demonstrated his deep love of learning and his devotion to study.
Harriot was a man of both intellect and action, described by a contemporary as, "The master of all essential and true knowledge." He played many roles as an adventurer, anthropologist, astronomer, author, cartographer, ethnographer, explorer, geographer, historian, linguist, mathematician, naturalist, navigator, oceanographer, philosopher, planner, scientist, surveyor, versifier and teacher. The sweeping breadth of his scholarly accomplishments represents well the heterogeneous liberal arts disciplines and broad-based mission of East Carolina University's Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences and serves as a scholarly ideal for its faculty, students and alumni, while his name invokes the identification of East Carolina University with the historical era in which eastern North Carolina was first explored and mapped by Europeans.