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RAS PN 09/2: Thomas Harriot: A telescopic astronomer before Galileo

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 April 2010 14:46
Published on Wednesday, 14 January 2009 00:00
Harriot_Drawing_1.jpg
A new article in the February edition of 'Astronomy and Geophysics' explains how British astronomer Thomas Harriot made the first drawing of the Moon through a telescope in July 1609, several months before Galileo.

ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY PRESS INFORMATION NOTE
Date: 14th January 2009
For Immediate Release
Ref.: PN 09/2

 

Issued by:
Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Burlington House
Piccadilly
London W1J 0BQ
Tel: +44 (0)794 124 8035, +44 (0)20 7734 4582
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

RAS PN 09/2: THOMAS HARRIOT: A TELESCOPIC ASTRONOMER BEFORE GALILEO

This year the world celebrates the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009), marking the 400th anniversary of the first drawings of celestial objects through a telescope. This first has long been attributed to Galileo Galilei, the Italian who went on to play a leading role in the 17th century scientific revolution. But astronomers and historians in the UK are keen to promote a lesser-known figure, English polymath Thomas Harriot, who made the first drawing of the Moon through a telescope several months earlier, in July 1609.

In a paper to be published in Astronomy and Geophysics, the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), historian Dr Allan Chapman of the University of Oxford explains how Harriot not only preceded Galileo but went on to make maps of the Moon’s surface that would not be bettered for decades.

Harriot lived from 1560 to 1621. He studied at St Mary’s Hall (now part of Oriel College), Oxford, achieving his BA in 1580 before becoming a mathematical teacher and companion to the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. In the early 1590s Raleigh fell from royal favour and was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

From this time Harriot was passed to the patronage of Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland who was himself imprisoned as one of the Gunpowder Plotters in 1605 but continued to support Harriot in his residence at Sion (now Syon) Park, in what is now west London. Harriot became a leading force in mathematics, working on algebraic theory and corresponding with scientists in the UK and across Europe.

By 1609, Harriot had acquired his first ‘Dutch trunke’ (telescope). He turned it towards the Moon on 26 July, becoming the first astronomer to draw an astronomical object through a telescope. The crude lunar sketch shows a rough outline of the lunar terminator (the line marking the division between night and day on the Moon, as seen from the Earth) and includes a handful of features like the dark areas Mare Crisium, Mare Tranquilitatis and Mare Foecunditatis.

Harriot went on to produce further maps from 1610 to 1613. Not all of these are dated, but they show an increasing level of detail. By 1613 he had created two maps of the whole Moon, with many identifiable features such as lunar craters that crucially are depicted in their correct relative positions. The earliest telescopes of the kind used by Harriot (and Galileo) had a narrow field of view, meaning that only a small portion of the Moon could be seen at any one time and making this work all the more impressive. No better maps would be published for several decades.

Despite his innovative work, Harriot remains relatively unknown. Unlike Galileo, he did not publish his drawings. Dr Chapman attributes this to his comfortable position as a ‘well-maintained philosopher to a great and wealthy nobleman’ with a generous salary (somewhere between £120 and £600 per annum or by way of comparison several times the level of the Warden of Wadham College, Oxford). Harriot had comfortable housing and a specially provided observing chamber on top of Sion House, all of which contrasted with Galileo’s financial pressures.

Dr Chapman believes that the time has come to give Harriot the credit he deserves. “Thomas Harriot is an unsung hero of science. His drawings mark the beginning of the era of modern astronomy we now live in, where telescopes large and small give us extraordinary information about the Universe we inhabit.”

Professor Andy Fabian, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, agrees. “As an astrophysicist of the 21st century, I can only look back and marvel at the work of 17th century astronomers like Thomas Harriot. The world is right to celebrate Galileo in the International Year of Astronomy – but Harriot shouldn’t be forgotten!”

FURTHER INFORMATION

ASTRONOMY AND GEOPHYSICS

The full article on Harriot will be published in the February 2009 edition of ‘Astronomy and Geophysics’, one of the journals of the Royal Astronomical Society. PDFs of the article are available in advance from a password-protected area of the RAS website, details of which can be obtained from the RAS Press and Policy Officer (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )
IMAGES AND CAPTIONS

Images and captions, including a purported portrait of Harriot and scans of some of his drawings, are available from the same password-protected area and available for use by bona fide media. Note that these are NOT public domain images and should be credited to ‘Lord Egremont’, who holds their copyright. Requests for commercial and other use should be made to the GalaxyPix image library at http://www.galaxypix.com or directly to West Sussex County Council, who are responsible for the original source material now held at Petworth House.

[These include a high-resolution version of image featured above, a photograph of Harriot's 26th July 1609 drawing of the Moon]

TELESCOPE400

The Telescope400 celebration will take place at Syon Park on 26th July 2009, when a programme of lectures and other activities will mark the 400th anniversary of Harriot’s first astronomical observation through a telescope. Details can be found at http://www.telescope400.org.uk

CONTACTS

Dr Robert Massey
(details above)

Dr Allan Chapman
Faculty of History, University of Oxford
Wadham College
Parks Road
Oxford OX1 3PN

Alison McCann
Assistant County Archivist
West Sussex Record Office
County Hall
Chichester PO19 1RN
Tel: +44 (0)1243 753625
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Steve Owens
UK Co-ordinator, IYA2009
c/o Glasgow Science Centre
50 Pacific Quay
Glasgow G51 1EA
Scotland
Tel: +44 (0)141 420 5010 x. 299
Mob: +44 (0)771 772 0479
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

The International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) celebrates the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope. IYA2009 is endorsed by UNESCO and is now supported by 135 countries under the leadership of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Throughout the year, thousands of professional and amateur astronomers will be working with the public as part of a global effort to promote astronomy and its contribution to science and culture. A series of innovative projects will encourage public engagement, from observing sessions at observatories to online blogs, photographic exhibitions and the campaign to combat light pollution.

In the UK, IYA2009 is led by volunteers in amateur astronomical societies, universities, industry, museums and science centres and supported by the Royal Astronomical Society (www.ras.org.uk ), the Institute of Physics (www.iop.org ) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (www.stfc.ac.uk ). The number of events and activities is growing rapidly and a full list can be found on the IYA2009 home page at www.astronomy2009.co.uk