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Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Englishman who beat Galileo

It is often said that no one remembers who came second but of course thats not always true.

I mentioned last week the 11th century Arabic scientist al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham who was working with prisms long before Newton and today we have another example.

It is popularly held that Galileo was the first man to view the Moon through a telescope in December 1609 however it is now believed that this was first done by an Englishman, Thomas Harriot, achieved this feat on July 26th 1609.

According to Dr Allan Chapman, a science historian at Oxford University

Thomas Harriot was not only the first person ever to draw an astronomical body with a telescope on 26 July 1609, he rapidly developed to become an absolutely superb lunar cartographer.

There weren't equivalent lunar drawings to be done for another 30 years.


So we ask, why have we never heard of him?

Well Harriot was a wealthy gentleman and had no desire for fame. Also he had two friends who were political prisioners held in the Tower of London. Galileo was hard-up and wanted fame and fortune.

The map Hariott drew in July 1609 will go on show in Florence, Italy, this summer as part of an exhibition on Galileo. Some other images will go on display in the Science Museum.

Sir Patrick Moore said


I'm sorry Harriot isn't better known over here... after all, we all know Galileo.

But Harriot was first... and his map of the Moon is better than Galileo's.

Looking at Harriot's map, it really is a work of art. He saw the mountains, craters and the so-called seas. It really is a wonderful thing and it's British.

Harriot was first, no question about it, and his map of the Moon was good. Galileo came after, but went much further.

Harriot never took things as far as he might have done. We've got to give Galileo pride of place but don't forget Harriot.


Interestingly letters from Sir William Lower, in Carmarthenshire, to Harriott show that Welsh Astronomers were also studying the moon at this time.

1 comment:

urbanextension said...

Poor old Harriot. I've never heard of him (along with most people I presume). Shame that he didn't get the recognition... that blimin Galileo! Great post thanks for the info... love stuff like this! Jane