England’s Galileo recognised at last

An Englishman who beat Galileo to first use of the telescope in astronomy will finally get the recognition due to him this weekend. A plaque will be unveiled on Sunday to remember Thomas Harriot, a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, who observed and sketched the Moon from a site west of London in 1609.

Harriot's map of the MoonA day of celebrations has been organised at Syon Park, near Isleworth, Middlesex, from where Harriot drew the Moon as it appeared through his ‘Dutch trunke’. His sketches predated Galileo’s by several monthsbut were less well publicised, leading his Italian rival to gain all the accolades.

British astronomers plan to put things right on Sunday. The ceremony will be conducted by Lord Egremont, of Petworth, who has the original images in his collection. The day’s events, part of the International Year of Astronomy, also include an exhibition of Harriot’s maps and drawings as well as contemporary astronomical images, a mobile planetarium and rocket-building for children.

The Apollo 11 Moon-landing will be celebrated and telescopes will be on hand to use. There will be a selection of 17th century music by the choral group Cantamus, and University of Oxford historian Dr Allan Chapman will give an evening talk about Harriot and his pioneering work.

He said: “Harriot was the first person in the world ever to see an astronomical body through a telescope and draw it on the 26th of July, 1609.

“Harriot’s moon map is just spectacular. There’s no doubt about that. It is better than anything produced by Galileo.”

Oxford-born Harriot was a clever chap who taught sailors Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake to navigate, surveyed newly-colonised Virginia in America, and brought home the first potatoes and tobacco.

He also wrote the earliest publicity blurb for smoking, a habit that killed him – the first recorded death from tobacco-related cancer. He even enjoyed a brief spell in the Tower of London.

But it is Harriot’s historic breakthrough in astronomy that UK stargazers and historians have long demanded be recognised. Full details of Sunday’s events at Syon Park can be found here.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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