Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences
Thomas Harriot Signature

Thomas Harriot



Published in the Roanoke Colonies Research Newsletter [used by permission of the author]

Despite his prolific career as a scientist and mathematician, Thomas Harriot published very little during his lifetime. His only published work was A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, based on his experiences with the 1585-86 expedition to Roanoke Island. However, his influence in various fields was greater than we might expect, most likely through the distribution of manuscripts concerning his mathematical innovations (especially in algebraic notation), astronomical observations of the sun and moon, and several other subjects.

In many ways, Harriot's presence on the Internet parallels his career in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The broad accessibility and yet seemingly fleeting nature of availability of Internet resources is not unlike the image we have of Renaissance manuscript culture. As in the Europe of his time, Harriot is not alone in the quiet pervasiveness of his influence. Other Roanoke-related writers and artists, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Hakluyt, John White and Theodore De Bry, lurk on the World Wide Web, where their presence is felt without being obvious.

To begin, two good, short biographies of Harriot can be found on the World Wide Web. The first site is John J. O'Connor and Edmund F. Robertson's MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive from the School of Mathematics and Computational Sciences at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Starting with Harriot's biography, found from the History of Mathematics homepage by clicking on the "Biographies Index," one can connect to discussions of mathematicians such as Francois Viete and John Wallis, who were influenced by Harriot's work, as well as to a discussion of Harriot's work on equations. A longer, fuller biographical outline of Harriot's life has been written by Richard S. Westfall from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. A part of the "Catalog of the Scientific Community of the 16th and 17th Centuries" in Rice University's Galileo Project, a "hypertext source of information on the life and work of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and the science of his time," Westfall's biography covers everything from Harriot's religious background to his patrons to his technological innovations. Both biographies, especially Westfall's, include good bibliographies of sources on Harriot.

Rice University's Galileo Project goes beyond the purely biographical and includes copies and discussion of Harriot's work on lunar surface observations and on sunspots. To find Harriot's manuscript drawings of the moon and of the sunspots he observed, go to the "Table of Contents for Topics" under "Resources" on the Galileo Project's homepage. From there look for "Thomas Harriot" in the "People" section and for "The Moon" and for "Sunspots" under the "Things" section. The manuscript drawings are available as both thumbnail pictures and as high-resolution images.

However, the most important primary work by Harriot for researchers working on Roanoke colonization-related topics is A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. It is now available on the World Wide Web in a marvelously complete and well-edited electronic edition by Melissa S. Kennedy at the University of Virginia. Kennedy includes both transcriptions and facsimiles of the original 1588 edition and of the 1590 edition with Theodor de Bry's engravings. As prefatory material, Kennedy includes a table of textual variants, a discussion of her emendations, a biographical sketch of Harriot, a discussion of the provenance of extant copies of the Briefe and True Report, and notes on the specific copies she used for her editions. All in all, it is a very complete and useful edition of Harriot's work.

Aside from primary sources, several electronically published works either analyze Harriot's Briefe and True Report or use it as a source for historical or anthropological studies. Vance Briceland of Wayne State University has placed on his own web pages a copy of his paper, "The Credit of Truth: Thomas Harriot and the Defense of Ralegh." Briceland argues that while Harriot's Briefe and True Report is generally accepted as an accurate portrayal of the New World regions he visited as part of the 1585-86 expedition to Roanoke Island, in fact the work is "deliberately designed to mislead its audience in order to protect Ralegh's interests in his colonies" in the face of the less than favorable reports being brought back by men such as the expedition's leader, Ralph Lane. Briceland's text can be reached through the "Writings" page of his World Wide Web site.

Marco Malaspina has placed on the World Wide Web his thesis for the corso di laurea in English literature at the University of Bologna, "Harold Bloom e Stephen Greenblatt: un confronto tra due voci della perplessita poststutturalista." As part of his discussion, Malaspina treats Greenblatt's observations on the tension between magic and science in Harriot's description of "Invisible Bullets" attacking and killing the Native Americans of Roanoke Island--what has later been recognized as the effects of European diseases on the native people of the New World. Malaspina's thesis can be found through his homepage, which is in English, though the thesis itself is in Italian.

In the field of anthropology, Harriot is an important source for Allen Lutins' M.A. thesis from the State University of New York at Binghamton, "Prehistoric Fishweirs in Eastern North America." Harriot's description of weirs are sketchy, but White's watercolors fill out details which are then later confirmed by their similarity to the weirs described in Robert Beverley's History and Present State of Virginia (1705). Lutins' thesis can be found by following the well marked links from his homepage.

Hariot gets significant, even if passing, reference on several World Wide Web sites as well. For instance, Thomas C. Hales includes material concerning "Thomas Harriot and the rise of atomism" and "Robert Kargon on Harriot's correspondence with Kepler" as background on Kepler's conjecture about what would be "the densest arrangement of equal balls." This material can be located by following the link from Hales' homepage. The Kepler Conjecture under "Research" to his "Kepler's Conjecture" section, where under "Publications and preprints" the "History" link should be followed.

Finally, for those who would rather not type in each Universal Resource Locator (URL) address, several of these works are linked together in Anniina Jokinen's Hariot section of her "Sixteenth-Century Renaissance English Literature" page. Jokinen provides links to the biographies, the edition of A Briefe and True Report, Briceland's essay, and some other sites mentioned above.

Just as he was in scientific and mathematical circles during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Thomas Harriot is a seemingly quiet but actually strong presence on the Internet. Even without his own homepage, Harriot is there, waiting to teach us something about the world in which he worked.