Thomas Harriot: the Man Who Beat Galileo to the Moon

I’ve previously mentioned the fact that the individual who becomes famous as being the first person to do, think or discover something is rarely the rightful claimant to the title. I’ve mentioned this primarily in the case of Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Here’s another example in another sphere of science, in the form of an extract from my book, Where Are We, What Are We, Why Are We?

Thomas Harriot.
Thomas who?
Exactly. You’ve never heard of him. Unlike Galileo.
Here’s a picture of the man (Or is it? Its authenticity is not certain).

Thomas Harriot

Thomas Harriot

If you visit the Science Museum in London at any time up til the end of December 2010 you’ll be able to go to an exhibition called Cosmos and Culture: How Astronomy has Shaped our View of the World. There you’ll be able to gaze upon a drawing of the moon executed by the above-mentioned Mr Harriot (or Hariot).
Written on the drawing is the date that it was made: 26 July 1609. This drawing is nothing less than the oldest astronomical record ever created using a telescope. It was drawn almost exactly 400 years ago today (It has today’s date, 26th July, on it – but it was produced when the Julian calendar was in use rather than the newer Gregorian calendar, so it was produced on 6th August in the current dating system). To see Harriot’s moon drawings see the links at the end of the article.
In 1608 Harriot came into the possession of one of the first Dutch trunks (as telescopes were then known), which he turned skyward in order to study heavenly bodies such as the moon and Jupiter. The results of his studies were distinctive maps which are of a higher quality than Galileo’s more famous efforts: Harriot had a degree of accomplishment at map making, having spent some time producing maps in the early British colonies in America.

So how come Galileo got all of the credit for pointing a telescope at the sky and not Harriot? The answer, outlined in the exhibition, was perhaps that Harriot was a gentleman scientist of independent means while Galileo had to earn a living and was a tireless self-promoter. On top of that, Harriot had several friends who were implicated in the famous Gunpowder Plot to blow up the British parliament (indeed Harriot spent a short time in prison as a consequence, although he was soon released), so a degree of self-restraint on matters that may rock the religious boat were prudent.

Harriot and Galileo weren’t the only people aiming telescopes at the Moon in the early seventeenth century. Our satellite was also being studied from, amongst other places, Wales.
In Carmarthenshire, Sir William Lower (a Cornishman who had settled in Wales) and John Prydderch (or Protheroe) looked at the Moon and made the following observation, described in a letter from Lower to Harriot (who had given the telescope to Lower):

“… and the whole brimme along looks like unto the description of coasts in the Dutch books of voyages. In the full she appears like a tart that my cooke made me last weeke; here a vaine of bright stuffe, and there of darke, and so confusedlie all over. I must confess I can see none of this without my cylinder.”


I delve into some aspects of the use of the telescope by Galileo/Harriot/Lower, and the effects on our view of our place in the cosmic scheme of things, in my book, Where Are We, What Are We, Why Are We?

Harriot’s drawings of the moon

Cosmos and Culture exhibition at the Science Museum

Article about Harriot and the exhibition in the Observer newspaper


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