London, July 26, 1609: Mankind's First Giant Leap Towards the Moon

From a home observatory in a London house on 26 July 1609, an epic journey began both for exploration, and for the lives of two pioneers: one famous, one not so much.

By Simon Ingram
Published 3 Jul 2019, 16:30 BST, Updated 30 Nov 2020, 12:12 GMT
The first known drawing of the moon through a telescope, by Thomas Harriot – dated 26 July 1609. The drawing pre-dated Galileo Galilei's by several weeks – but it was the latter that won international recognition, however fraught.
Courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich, permission of Lord Egremont

The headlines would belong to Galileo Galilei when he pointed a long wooden tube inset with glass lenses at the moon in November 1609, and began to draw his place into history. But unbeknownst to the illustrious 17th century Italian physicist – unbeknownst to just about everyone, in fact – four months earlier from the eaves of a home observatory in Kew, West London, the great Galileo had been astronomically gazumped.

The proof: a series of dog-eared sketches, the first dated in a florid hand to the 26th July 1609 – and depicting what at first glance appears to be an elaborate coffee stain. This is, in fact, the first known drawing of the moon through a telescope. The man holding the quill: a British mathematician by the name of Thomas Harriot. 

“Today, when we are so used to seeing detailed images of the Moon, the July 1609 sketch can be quite difficult to appreciate," says Megan Barford, Curator of Cartography at the Royal Museums Greenwich – where this summer Harriot's sketch is on display as part of an exhibition of lunar artefacts to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. "The shading indicates what we now describe as mare (lunar ‘seas’, which are actually plains of solidified lava), probably the Mare Crisium, Mare Tranquillitatis and Mare Foecunditatis. The curved line is the terminator, the edge of the illuminated surface of the Moon.” 

Harriot's second image of the moon – dated between 1610 and 1613 – is much more detailed, and shows areas of the moon familiar today.
Courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich, with Permission of Lord Egremont

Observations from Afar

The margins between Harriot and Galileo were relatively slender in Harriot's favour at the outset, but would later overlapped in both in time and type: Harriot's first sketch was made in July 1609, whereas Galileo's were made in late November and early December of the same year from his house in Padua, near Venice.

Before 1613 both men would observe the moons of Jupiter and sunspots, each apparently independently. But Harriot and Galileo's 1609 observations were made possible by a new instrument created by a Dutch-German spectacle maker named Hans Lippershey, who just the previous year had built what he called the 'Dutch trunke' – to all intent and purposes, the first telescope. The idea quickly caught on. 

“The telescope which Harriot used to make the earliest extant drawing had a x 6 magnification, which was less powerful than most binoculars readily available today." continues Megan Barford. "The next sketch of the Moon by Harriot which survives is from around a year later, and this and his later images, made with more powerful telescopes, are more detailed and refined.”

Remarkably, this second sketch – assembled, it's thought, from as a composite from previous observations – attempted to make order of the dark patches on the moon, creating a kind of map of the lunar surface in the process.

While Galileo would become famous – and infamous – for his work, the reason Harriot's drawings didn't surface widely at the time are likely down to the circumstances of his employment: in short, he didn't need the acclaim, or the money. “Harriot had a wealthy patron in Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland.” Says Megan Barford. “His life was certainly comfortable, and secure – he had a salary of £80 in 1598, and £100 from 1616. He worked in a world of mathematical and astronomical communication which was based on correspondence and conversation, rather than printing and publishing.”

Moon drawings from Siderius Nuncivs by Galileo Galilei, 1610. At the time the moon was believed to be perfectly smooth, like the Sun. Galileo differentiated great and ancient spots (macula magna antiqua) from small spots (macula minor).
Photograph by Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Parallel lives, colourful persecutions 

Credit must be given to the polymathic Galileo, for not only designing his own telescope (Harriot had bought his from the Netherlands) but for the myriad of elegant deductions he made from his own observations of the moon and other celestial bodies. He was the first to note the moon as an inferior sphere, and as being a place of heavy relief like the earth – which he deduced by noting the presence of craters and the behaviour of shadows. “I have noticed that the small spots... have the dark part towards the sun’s position, and on the side away from the sun they have brighter boundaries, as if they were crowned with shining summits,” he wrote in 1610.

Like Harriot, he also made observations of sunspots – in this he is thought to have also just been pipped to it by his English contemporary – and realised that the ‘stars’ he observed around Jupiter were actually moons. This led to his theory that these smaller celestial bodies orbited the planet, and therefore that the planets likely orbited the sun, rather than the other way around. 

While all have proven since as loud shouts of eureka in our understanding of our universe, Galileo would suffer for his insight: like Copernicus centuries earlier, his observations vindicated the idea that the Earth wasn't, as per Catholic doctrine, the centre of the universe after all. Galileo's 1610 book Sidereus Nuncius – the 'starry messenger' – contained detail of his many early observations and caused outcry in the church; he was tried and convicted of heresy in 1633. Compared to similarly outspoken Giordano Bruno, who was convicted for making similar statements about the principles of the universe in 1600, Galileo got off lightly: he remained under house arrest until his death in 1642. Giordano reputedly had a spike driven through his tongue before being hung upside down, stripped naked and burned at the stake.

Galileo faced resistance convincing the church that his deductions weren't heretical – given, like Copernicus before him, he contradicted the Roman Catholic principle that the earth was the immovable centre of the universe. In 1633 he was imprisoned under house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642.
Photograph by National Geographic Image Collection

“Compared to similarly outspoken Giordano Bruno, Galileo got off lightly: he remained under house arrest until his death in 1642. Giordano reputedly had a spike driven through his tongue before being hung upside down, stripped naked and burned at the stake.”

Harriot, meanwhile, appears to have led a life that was no less peculiarly eventful – though most of Harriot's (mis)adventures occurred before he turned his eyes to the stars, rather than because of it. Harriot had sailed to Roanoke, Virginia in 1585 at the bidding of Sir Walter Raleigh, where he had been one of the first to translate the Algonquian language from natives there – and one of the last to see the colony before its mysterious disappearance. 

Suspected of being involved in the gunpowder plot due to a family connection, the 9th Earl Henry Percy was arrested on charges of treason in 1605, and Harriot along with him. (Harriot was released; Percy would spend over 15 years in the Tower of London). He later witnessed the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618, before succumbing himself to probable skin cancer in 1621.

A colourful life – and an obscure but significant place in the very first steps of lunar exploration. 

The Moon is exhibiting at the Royal Museums Greenwich from 19 June. 

The July 2019 issue of National Geographic features a gatefold with our newest map of the moon - showing missions and surface detail, along with a timeline of exploration.

This month National Geographic Magazine is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing with a special issue – including a fold-out of our newest map of the moon. Click here for more details. 



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