Thomas Harriot's manuscripts

Thomas Harriot died in 1621. He had published no mathematical or astronomical works during his lifetime, but he left his papers in reasonably good order and set out his wishes in his will that they should be properly edited and published. This article tells the story of how 380 years have passed since Harriot's death yet, despite many attempts, his dying wishes have not yet been properly carried out.

The story of how knowledge of Thomas Harriot's mathematical genius has come down to us is related in several of the references, see for example [1], [2], or [4]. We quote from the preface of [4]:-
It is now more than 350 years since Thomas Harriot on his deathbed considered his fame and reputation. Alas! Though recognised by his contemporaries as England's most profound mathematician, most imaginative and methodical experimental scientist, and first of all Englishmen to make a telescope and turn it on the heavens, Harriot had not prepared his works for the use of future generations. The thousands upon thousands of sheets of mathematics and of scientific observations which had occupied most of his waking hours were lost to sight, buried in private archives. Early discussions in the newly founded Royal Society of London centred around the search for Harriot's lost papers, but inquiries made from 1662 to 1669 proved fruitless, and it was finally assumed that they had been destroyed.
The rediscovery of Harriot's papers occurred in 1784. The story is somewhat complicated and future events were much influenced by the character of the person who made the discovery. Franz Xaver Zach was an Austrian, described in [2] as:-
an arrogant young man of boundless ambition.
Zach had been appointed as tutor to the son of Count de Bruhl so, when de Bruhl was sent to England in 1783 as Saxon Minister, Zach came to London with him. While in England, de Bruhl married again, this time to Lady Egremont who was a descendant of Harriot's patron Henry Percy, 9th Duke of Northumberland. The Egremont estates were at Petworth in Sussex and this had been Henry Percy's country estate. The Count de Bruhl visited Petworth in the summer of 1784 and there he found Harriot's manuscripts hidden among the stable accounts.

The manuscripts had been untouched since Henry Percy's death in 1632, eleven years after Harriot's own death. Count de Bruhl passed the manuscripts to his son's tutor, Franz Xaver Zach. Now Zach was certainly ambitious and saw at once that he had had the good fortune to make himself famous. He began making public statements regarding the discoveries he had made in studying Harriot's manuscripts.

It is a little hard today to understand the background of rivalry that existed at this time among English and Continental mathematicians. The rivalry had little to do with science, and everything to do with ignorant nationalism. Sadly newspapers toady still show signs that xenophobia is alive and well, but at least mathematicians and scientists have common goals which today mostly lift them above worrying about national boundaries. In the period when the Royal Society sought Harriot's papers in the 1660s one has the feeling it was more to do with showing that an Englishman was superior to Viète, Kepler and Galileo than it was to do with the importance in studying the development of mathematical thought!

Despite the fact that Harriot's work was of the very highest quality and importance, Zach made claims about it which were over the top [4]:-
...[Zach's] perusal showed Harriot to anticipate and be greater in his accomplishments than either Kepler or Galileo.
In 1786 Zach proposed to the Oxford University Press that he publish a major biography of Harriot together with an edited edition of the most important of Harriot's manuscripts. Thomas Hornsby, the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, proposed Zach for an honorary degree which was awarded in 1786. It is somewhat ironical that Hornsby, best known for his role in setting up the Radcliffe Observatory at Oxford, himself made tens of thousands of observations which were not published until 1932, about 150 years after they were recorded.

Also in 1786 Zach was granted the title Baron von Zach which, like his honorary doctorate, Zach used to promote himself. Zach was now appointed as director of a new astronomical observatory to be built at Seeberg, Gotha. This post carried with it important other roles which made Zach a leading man in European science. Although he continued to give lectures on Harriot and wrote an article repeating his over the top claims, von Zach had little time to devote to editing Harriot's papers, a task which might have occupied him without other distractions for the rest of his life. At this stage von Zach held what he considered the most important of Harriot's papers in his own possession, something which Count de Bruhl had been happy to allow to aid von Zach in the editorial task he believed he was undertaking.

Without doing any editorial work whatsoever, and without writing any biographical material, von Zach sent some of Harriot's papers to the Principal of Brasenose College in 1794 and asked that he forward them to Oxford University Press for publication. It was clear to Oxford Press that they had not received manuscripts in a fit state for publication, but they divided the papers into two groups, mathematical papers and astronomical papers, and sent them to two referees for opinions about publication.

The mathematical papers were sent to Abraham Robertson. Now Robertson was a rather remarkable person. He had started out in life as a domestic servant. One day while serving at table he was reprimanded for not paying attention to his duties. He confessed that he had been listening to his master and a guest arguing about the solution to a mathematical problem. Both, he politely pointed out, were wrong in their opinions and he proceeded to explain the correct solution. A poor students place was found for Robertson by his master at Oxford. Three years after receiving Harriot's papers to referee for publication, Robertson was appointed Savilian Professor of Geometry and, in 1810, Savilian Professor of Astronomy.

Robertson reported promptly on the mathematical papers sent top him (see for example [4]):-
These papers, excepting the last, are in no point of view fit for publication. The greatest part of them consists of detached and unfinished explanations ... begun [by Harriot], according to all appearance, with the design of satisfying his own mind upon the subject before him, and dropped abruptly once that satisfaction had been obtained ...
The review ends with the comment that to publish the papers in their present state would injure Harriot's reputation. This assessment was entirely fair. However, expectations of imminent publication had been roused. Hutton wrote in his Mathematical Dictionary published in 1797 (see, for example [1]):-
As to the manuscripts lately discovered by Dr Zach ... it is with pleasure I can announce that they are in a fair train to be published: they have been presented to the University of Oxford, on condition of printing them; with a view to which, they have been lately put into the hands of an ingenious member of that learned body, to arrange and prepare them for the press.
However, when the referee of the astronomical papers failed to reply, these too were sent to Robertson as a referee in 1798. His report on these really does seem to completely miss the point. Robertson claimed that their publication would not:-
... contribute, in the smallest degree, to the advancement of astronomy.
Although Robertson was correct in claiming that no unknown scientific facts were contained in the papers, he seems to have totally missed the fact that Harriot's work is of fundamental importance in the development of the subject.

As the years went by more and more criticism was aimed at Oxford University Press for the lack of appearance of Harriot's papers. They had sent the manuscripts back to Petworth House in 1799 having made the decision that publication in their present form was impossible. In 1822 Robertson, angry that Playfair and others were attacking Oxford University Press, made his reports on the papers public.

The next step was that [4]:-
Rigaud, Savilian Professor at Oxford, and Henry Stevens of Vermont, an antiquarian bookseller, both turned their hands to revealing the true Harriot in the nineteenth century. Neither fully succeeded.
In fact Stephen Peter Rigaud, who succeeded Robertson to both Savilian chairs at Oxford, was much more interested in the history of mathematics than Robertson had been. It is written in [1] that he:-
... played a major part in the renaissance of the history of mathematics - of Newtonian studies in particular ... Besides more general themes, he took pains to explore Oxford's own contributions to historical scholarship.
Rigaud was one of the Delegates of the Oxford Press, and his initial reason in becoming involved in the controversy over Harriot's papers was to defend the position of the Press. In fact Rigaud strongly attacked the claims made by von Zach (less vigorously after von Zach died on 2 September 1832) and, as a consequence, rather talked down Harriot's contributions. He did, however, begin a serious study of Harriot's manuscripts but he died in 1839 leaving copious notes on the manuscripts but another opportunity for publishing a proper edition was lost.

Although Rigaud had tried to find Harriot's will, he failed mainly because he did not know that Harriot died in London. The will was located by Henry Stevens of Vermont (1819-1886), see [5] and [6] for full details of this interesting episode. Stevens was not a scientist but rather an antiquarian bookseller whose interest came through a study of A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia which he believed was one of the most outstanding rare books anyone could own.

To further his knowledge of Harriot, Stevens visited London, studied the Harriot manuscripts held in the British Museum, found Harriot's will in the records of the Archdeaconry Court of London, but did not visit Petworth to view the bulk of Harriot's papers nor did he visit Oxford to consult the notes left by Rigaud. Stevens wrote a biography of Harriot but died before he could correct the proofs. The book, Thomas Harriot and his associates was privately printed in London in 1900. Only a few copies were produced and the work did little to fill the gap in knowledge about Harriot. It would also be fair to say that Stevens did not have the necessary mathematical background to understand the proper place of Harriot's achievements.

Harriot's will is a fascinating document which itemises all Harriot's personal possessions, including all his scientific instruments. It also carefully lays out how Harriot's friend Nathaniel Thorperley should proceed to publish his papers. Thorperley was, in fact, a good choice. As well as being a friend of Harriot's he had been Viète's secretary in the 1580s. Thorperley was required to:-
order and separate the chief of them from my waste papers, to the end that after he doth understand them he may make use in penning such doctrine that belongs unto them for public uses ...
Harriot was well aware that some of his revolutionary ideas would be hard to understand and he listed four other friends whom Thorperley might consult if he had difficulties. After the papers had been used for publication, Harriot requested that they be:-
... put into a convenient trunk with a lock and key and to be placed in my Lord of Northumberland's library and the key to be delivered into his Lordship's hands.
Although no proper edition of Harriot's papers have yet been published, there has been great interest in his work by historians of mathematics over the last few decades. As the preface of [4] put it:-
Only in the second half of the twentieth century, when the significance of science has become of crucial importance and the study of history and philosophy of science has matured, has Harriot's reputation started to come into its own. Now that the Harriot papers have seen the light of day, Harriot stands clear as a key figure at the time when the new science of logic, reason, mathematics, and experiment was coming into being. A man, who, like Bacon, took all knowledge for his province, Harriot, through both theory and practice, has proved himself to be a true Renaissance Scientist.

References (show)

  1. J Fauvel, R Flodd and R Wilson (eds.), Oxford figures : 800 years of the mathematical sciences (Oxford, 2000).
  2. J W Shirley, Thomas Harriot : a biography (Oxford, 1983).
  3. J W Shirley (ed.), A Source book for the study of Thomas Harriot (New York, 1981).
  4. J W Shirley (ed.), Thomas Harriot : renaissance scientist (Oxford, 1974).
  5. R C H Tanner, Henry Stevens and the associates of Thomas Harriot, in Thomas Harriot: Renaissance scientist (Oxford, 1974), 91-106.
  6. R C H Tanner, The study of Thomas Harriot's manuscripts. I. Harriot's will, History of science 6 (Cambridge, 1967), 1-16.

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update January 2000