Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Thomas Harriot and the Roanoak Colony

It was on August 17, 1585 that the Colony of Roanoke Island was established by the landing of Sir Walter Raleigh's agents led by Ralph Lane(Raleigh actually never visited North America). This Colony would become known as the "Lost Colony". But before it got lost, it was part of the little known story of one of the better English Mathematicians of the period. Thomas Harriot's name was once synonymous with a common method of solving quadratics taught in nearly every high school. Once commonly called Harriot's Method, today it is simply referred to as factoring.

From my article on "Twenty Ways to Solve a Quadratic."
"For most students the first method of solving quadratic equations that they learn is by factoring. I have written (too often say some) that I think this is a pedagogical mistake, and that probably a graphic solution should be first. Vera Sanford points out in her Short History of Mathematics, 1930 that “In view of the present emphasis given to the solution of quadratic equations by factoring, it is interesting to note that this method was not used until Harriot’s work of 1631. Even in this case, however, the author ignores the factors that give rise to negative roots.” Harriot died in 1621, and like all his books, this one, Artis Analyticae Praxis ad Aequationes Algebraicas Resolvendas , was published after his death. An article on Harriot at the Univ of Saint Andrews math history web site says that in his personal writing on solving equations Harriot did use both positive and negative solutions, but his editor, Walter Warner, did not present this in his book."

And how did he come to be in the exploration of Virginia?? Here is the story from Encyclopedia Virginia, 2010:
Thomas Hariot (often spelled Harriot) was an English mathematician, astronomer, linguist, and experimental scientist. During the 1580s, he served as Sir Walter Raleigh's primary assistant in planning and attempting to establish the English colonies on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina. He taught Raleigh's sea captains to sail the Atlantic Ocean using sophisticated navigational methods not well understood in England at the time. He also learned the Algonquian language from two Virginia Indians, Wanchese and Manteo. In 1585, Hariot joined the expedition to Roanoke, which failed and returned to England the next year. During his stay in America, Hariot helped to explore the present-day Outer Banks region and, farther north, the Chesapeake Bay. He also collaborated with the artist John White in producing several maps notable at the time for their accuracy. Although Hariot left extensive papers, the only work published during his lifetime was "A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia", which evaluated the economic potential of Virginia. The report appeared most impressively in Theodor de Bry's 1590 edition that included etchings based on the White-Hariot maps and White's watercolors of Indian life. After a brief imprisonment in connection to the Gunpowder Plot (1605), Hariot calculated the orbit of Halley's Comet, sketched and mapped the moon, and observed sunspots. He died in 1621.
Harriott was not actually involved with the gunpowder plot, and was only held and questioned briefly because one of his financial sponsors, Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland, was a second cousin to Thomas Percy, one of the conspirators.