Thomas Hariot: American Adventurer and Renaissance Scientist

Francis J. Bremer introduces a true Renaissance man; Thomas Hariot, man of action and ideas.

On the day when Walter Ralegh faced the executioner’s axe, he was surrounded by a crowd of friends, enemies, former associates and the curious of London. Standing in the assemblage, and taking notes of his friend’s last words, was Thomas Hariot, adventurer, astronomer, ethnographer, and mathematician - a Renaissance man of the Age of Elizabeth.

Living as we do at a time when contact between the man of action and the man of ideas is becoming a lost ideal, it is instructive to study the life and accomplishments of this key member of the Ralegh circle, a man who contributed equally to the colonization of America and the pioneering of new scientific worlds.

Thomas Hariot was born in Oxford in 1560. He grew up there and entered St. Mary’s Hall, from which he graduated at the age of twenty. The great universities were backward in the study of mathematics and the natural sciences; and, to find men possessed of curiosity about the natural world, its phenomena and their measurement, Hariot had to journey to London, the ‘third university’ of the Elizabethan world.

There, amid the faculty of Gresham College and the residents of the Inns of Court, he was to meet kindred spirits, who sought to challenge the future as well as to preserve the past. One such enquirer was Henry Briggs, the Gresham Professor of Geometry, who was involved in bringing together mathematicians and master shipwrights to address a variety of nautical problems. It is likely that Hariot gravitated towards these men. In 1583 he was employed as a member of Ralegh’s entourage at Durham House, where he instructed Ralegh and a group of his associates in the use of navigational instruments and charts.

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