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Thomas Harriot's Life

After graduating from St Mary’s Hall (now Oriel College) Oxford in 1579 Harriot enjoyed the patronage of Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland. Harriot took part in the Raleigh-sponsored voyage to Roanoke in 1585-6 led by Ralph Lane and Richard Grenville, and subsequently published an account of the voyage, the Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588). Joining the household of Northumberland in 1595, Harriot had his own house in the grounds of Percy’s house, Syon, beside the Thames at Isleworth and received a generous annuity until the end of his life. Although Harriot published nothing else during his life, he left behind a substantial collection of manuscripts (now divided between the British Library and Petworth House) which span an enormous range of topics, including mathematics, atomism, mechanics, navigation, astronomy, optics and alchemy. Harriot worked extensively on algebraic equations, and after his death his colleague Walter Warner, with the help of Nathaniel Torporley, published a short textbook on algebra, the Artis analyticae praxis (1631). Harriot corresponded with Johannes Kepler, made telescopic observation of the moons of Jupiter shortly after Galileo, drew maps of the moon and observed the movements of sunspots, anticipated Snell’s discovery of the sine law of refraction by nearly thirty years, and was acquainted with some of the leading intellectual figures of his day – including the mathematician John Dee, the poet George Chapman, and the navigational expert Richard Hakluyt.

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