Harriot, Thomas

, an eminent mathematician, was born at Oxford, or, as Anthony Wood expresses it, “turn-; bled out of his mother’s womb in the lap of the Oxonian Muses,” in 1560. Having been instructed in grammarlearning in that city, he became a commoner of St. Maryhall, where he took the degree of B. A. in 1579. He had then so distinguished himself, by his uncommon skill in mathematics, as to be recommended soon after to sir Walter Raleigh as a proper preceptor to him in that science. Accordingly, that noble knight became his first patron, took him into his family, and allowed him a handsome pension. In 1585 he was sent over by sir Walter with his first colony to Virginia; where, being settled, he was employed in discovering and surveying that country, in observing what commodities it produced, together with the manners and customs of its inhabitants. He published an account of it under this title, “A brief and true Report of the Newfoundland of Virginia;” which was reprinted in the third voyage of Hakluyt’s “Voyages.” Upon his return to England, he was introduced by his patron to the acquaintance of Henry earl of Northumberland who, “finding him,” says Wood, “to be a gentleman of an affable and peaceable nature, and well read in the obscure pan of learning,” allowed him a yearly pension of 120l. About the same time, Robert Hues, well known by his ‘ Treatise upon the Globes,“and Walter Warner, who is | said to have communicated to the famous Harvey the first hint concerning the circulation of the blood, being both of them mathematicians, received pensions from him of less value, ^o that in 1606, when the earl was committed to the Tower for life, Harriot, Hues, and Warner, were his constant companions, and were usually called the earl of Northumberland’s Magi. They had a table at the earl’s charge, who did constantly converse with them, to divert the melancholy of his confinement; as did also sir Walter Raleigh, who was then in the Tower. Harriot lived for some time at Sion-college, and died in London, July 2, 1621, of a cancer in his lip. He was universally esteemed on account of his learning. When he was but a young man, he was styled by Mr. Hakluyt” Juvenis in disciplinis mathematicis excellens;“and by Camden,” Mathematicus insignis.“A ms. of his, entitled” Ephemeris Chryrometrica,“is preserved in Sion-college library and his” Artis Analytic* Praxis“was printed after his death, in a thin folio, and dedicated to Henry earl of Northumberland. Des Cartes is said to have been obliged to this book for a great many improvements in algebra, which he published to the world as his own, a fact that has been amply proved, in the astronomical ephemeris for 17vS8, by Dr. Zach, astronomer to the duke of Saxe Gotha, from manuscripts which he found in 1784 at the seat of the earl of Egremont at Petworth, a descendant of the above-mentioned earl of Northumberland. These papers also show that Mr. Harriot was an astronomer as well as an algebraist, As to his religion, Wood says, that,” notwithstanding his great skill in mathematics, he had strange thoughts of the Scripture, always undervalued the old story of the Creation of the World, and could never believe that trite position, * Ex nihilo nihil fit.‘ He made a Philosophical Theology, wherein he cast off the Old Testament, so that consequently the New would have uo foundation. He was a deist; and his doctrine he did impart to the earl, and to sir Walter Raleigh, when he was compiling the ’ History of the World,’ and would controvert the matter with eminent divines of those times: who, therefore, having no good opinion of him, did look on the manner of his death, as a judgment upon him for those matters, and for nullify, ing the Scripture.“Wood borrowed all this from Aubrey, without mentioning his authority; and it has been answered, that Harriot assures us himself, that when he was with the | first colony settled in Virginia, in every town where he came,” he explained to them the contents of the Bible, &c. And though I told them,“says he,” the book materially and of itself was not of such virtue as I thought they did conceive, but only the doctrine therein contained; yet would many be glad to touch it, to embrace it, to kiss it, to hold it to their breasts and heads, and stroke over all their bodies with it, to shew their hungry desires of that knowledge which was spoken of." To which we may add, that, if Harriot was reputed a deist, it is by no means probable that Dr. Corbet, an orthodox divine* and successively bishop of Oxford and Norwich, sending a poem, dated December 9, 1618, to sir Thomas Aylesbury, when the comet appeared, should speak of

"Deep Harriot’s mine,

In which there is no dross, but all refine."

Nor is it likely that his noble executors, sir Thomas Aylesbury and Robert Sidney, viscount Lisle, would have suffered an inscription to be engraved upon his monument in St. Christopher’s church, which might have been contradicted by all the town, if it had been false, and which, upon the supposition of his being an infidel, would have been ridiculous:

"Qui omnes scientias calluit, & in omnibus excelluit

Mathematicis, Philosophicis, Theologicis,

Veritatis indagator studiosissimus,

Dei Triniunius cultor piissimus."


Biog. Brit. Gleig’s Suppl. to Encycl. Britannica. —Hutton’s Dictionary. Letters by eminent persons, 1812, 3 vols. 8vo.