The Englishman who beat Galileo

In case it has escaped your notice, 2009 has officially been declared the International Year of Astronomy. Much publicity declares that this is to celebrate Galileo Galilei’s first use of the telescope in astronomy 400 years ago.

A portrait believed to be of Thomas Harriot (from Wikipedia), and the remarkable map of the Moon that he produced. Moon image credit: Lord Egremont/Galaxy Picture Library

The publicity is wrong. The fame-hungry Italian was beaten to the first historic views of the heavens through a telescope by an Englishman observing near London.

UK experts reveal that the more modest Thomas Harriot was sketching the Moon at least four months before Galileo from the grounds of Syon House, in Isleworth, Middlesex.

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 British stargazers and historians want recognised. Presenter of The Sky At Night Sir Patrick Moore told Skymania News: “Harriot’s observations of the Moon are the earliest records we have of a telescope used in astronomy.

“His lunar map was extraordinarily good, far better than Galileo’s, so his telescope must have been better too. He should have the fame he deserves.”

Harriot’s first patron Raleigh was thrown into the Tower on trumped-up charges of atheism and ultimately beheaded. Harriot found a new benefactor in the Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, who set him up in a house at Syon Park.

Unfortunately, the Earl was also imprisoned in the Tower by King James 1 after his distant cousin Thomas Percy took part in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. Harriot was jailed too for three weeks before being cleared of involvement.

Sir Patrick said: “Harriot kept his head down and stayed out of the public eye – he was very wise! He didn’t want fame and fortune. He just wanted a nice quiet life.”

Neither Harriot nor Galileo invented the telescope – then called a “troncke” or “perspective cylinder” – that is generally credited to Dutch spectacle-maker Hans Lippershey in 1608, although others have also been given the credit. However, Harriot realised it could reveal the mysteries of the heavens.

He encouraged a friend, Sir William Lower in South Wales, to use one too. After viewing the moon, Sir William wrote back: “In the full she appeares like a tarte that my Cooke made me the last Weeke.”

Leading science historian Dr Allan Chapman, of Oxford University, told Skymania News: “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. But Galileo was much more interested in fame. Had he been alive today, he would have had his own press office. He had an incredible genius for grabbing the media.”

He added: “Harriot was never interested in fame. And having his two best friends and patrons under very close scrutiny in the Tower was a good reason for keeping your mouth shut!

“Harriot was set up very very handsomely financially by Percy with what has been estimated at between £100 and £200 a year income. At a time when the head of an Oxford college deemed himself lucky to get £100 a year, this was real money.

“And he had no specific duties apart from being a very clever gentleman, visiting his master in the Tower occasionally, writing, and corresponding continentally, because Harriot was definitely a mathematician of continental standing. And Harriot had all those things that Galileo wanted.”

Dr Chapman added: “Definitely Harriot needs proper recognition. I’m not saying the English were first there with everything, not remotely, but we tend to underplay in many ways what we did in this country. I’m very much concerned with trying to get Harriot as a known figure. We need to have this achievement out there.”

Dr Chapman said that Harriot also independently viewed sunspots and went on to make accurate records of the motions of Jupiter’s four main moons, though after Galileo.

He obtained a copy of Galileo’s book Siderius Nuncius, which was published in Venice in 1610 and distributed rapidly across Europe. Dr Chapman said that both Galileo and Harriot supported Copernicus’s model that put the Sun at the centre of the solar system.

A US organiser of the International Year of Astronomy told Skymania News: “The celebration began as an initiative of astronomers in Italy, so it is only natural that it focuses on Galileo and his well published accomplishments.”

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