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IYA2009 Press Releases 0947

Date: 14th July 2009
For Immediate Release
Ref.: PN 09/47

Issued by:
Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Burlington House
London W1J 0BQ
Tel: +44 (0)794 124 8035, +44 (0)20 7734 4582
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400 years ago English polymath Thomas Harriot became the first person to look at a celestial object through a telescope. Harriot pointed his simple ‘Dutch trunke’ telescope at the Moon on 26th July 1609, making simple drawings of our nearest astronomical neighbour from his house in Syon Park in what is now West London.

Harriot made his pioneering drawings several months before Galileo. On 26th July 2009, this pioneering work will be commemorated in Telescope 400, a public event taking place at Syon Park as part of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) and funded by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). That day members of the public will join astronomers in a celebration of Harriot’s work.

Telescope 400 runs from 11.00 a.m. – 5.00 p.m. and is a day of activities for adults and children alike where you can:

·         See an exhibition of Harriot’s maps and drawings as well as contemporary astronomical images

·         Enjoy Explorer Dome - a mobile planetarium - where you can learn about the night sky

·         Design and launch your own water-powered rocket

·         Make and take home your own Star Finder and Sundial

·         Learn how to sketch what you see through a telescope in an ‘art and astronomy’ workshop

·         Listen to short talks marking the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing

·         Meet a ‘spaceman’ and maybe Thomas Harriot himself!

·         View the surface of the Sun in safety through solar telescopes under the supervision of astronomers

·         Watch ‘Create a Comet’ demonstrations

At 4 p.m. the choral group Cantamus will perform a selection of 17th Century Music in the Great Hall of Syon House.

At 4.30 p.m. a memorial plaque will be unveiled by Lord Egremont of Petworth, close to the site of Harriot’s observations 400 years ago.

From 5.30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the evening a buffet reception will follow a lecture on Harriot’s life and work by University of Oxford historian of astronomy, Dr Allan Chapman.


Images and captions, including a purported portrait of Harriot and scans of some of his drawings, are available from

Username: press
Password: iya2009

and are available for use by bona fide media. Note that these are NOT public domain images and should be credited to ‘Lord Egremont’, who holds their copyright. Requests for commercial and other use should be made to the GalaxyPix image library at or directly to West Sussex County Council, who are responsible for the original source material now held at Petworth House.


Full details of the Telescope400 celebration can be found at Tickets for the daytime celebrations can be purchased on the day at the normal visitor entrance to Syon Park and include entrance to the house and grounds (adults £9, children £4, family £20, concessions £8). Tickets (£20) for the evening lecture, buffet and reception are available in advance from Syon House on +44 (0)20 8560 0882.


Dr Robert Massey
(details above – away from 16th to 25th July)

Teresa Grafton
(lead contact from 16th July)
Chair, Telescope 400
Mob: +44 (0)777 3160247
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Ann Mills
Telescope 400
Mob: +44 (0)774 3755376
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Dr Allan Chapman
Faculty of History, University of Oxford
Wadham College
Parks Road
Oxford OX1 3PN
Tel: +44 (0)1865 251577

Alison McCann
Assistant County Archivist
West Sussex Record Office
County Hall
Chichester PO19 1RN
Tel: +44 (0)1243 753625
E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Ian Ridpath
Telescope 400
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Robin Scagell
Telescope 400
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Harriot lived from 1560 to 1621. He studied at St Mary’s Hall (now part of Oriel College), Oxford, achieving his BA in 1580 before becoming a mathematical teacher and companion to the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. In the early 1590s Raleigh fell from royal favour and was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

From this time Harriot was passed to the patronage of Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland who was himself imprisoned as one of the Gunpowder Plotters in 1605 but continued to support Harriot in his residence at Sion (now Syon) Park, in what is now West London. Harriot became a leading force in mathematics, working on algebraic theory and corresponding with scientists in the UK and across Europe.

By 1609, Harriot had acquired his first ‘Dutch trunke’ (telescope). He turned it towards the Moon on 26 July, becoming the first person to draw an astronomical object through a telescope. The crude lunar sketch shows a rough outline of the lunar terminator (the line marking the division between night and day on the Moon) and includes a handful of features like the dark areas Mare Crisium, Mare Tranquilitatis and Mare Foecunditatis.

Harriot went on to produce further maps from 1610 to 1613. Not all of these are dated, but they show an increasing level of detail. By 1613 he had created two maps of the whole Moon, with many identifiable features such as lunar craters that crucially are depicted in their correct relative positions. The earliest telescopes of the kind used by Harriot (and Galileo) had a narrow field of view, meaning that only a small portion of the Moon could be seen at any one time and making this work all the more impressive. No better maps would be published for several decades.

Despite his innovative work, Harriot remains relatively unknown. Unlike Galileo, he did not publish his drawings. University of Oxford historian of astronomy Dr Allan Chapman attributes this to Harriot’s comfortable position as a ‘well-maintained philosopher to a great and wealthy nobleman’ with a generous salary (somewhere between £120 and £600 per annum or by way of comparison several times the level of the Warden of Wadham College, Oxford). Harriot had comfortable housing and a specially provided observing chamber on top of Sion House, all of which contrasted with Galileo’s financial pressures.


The International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) celebrates the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope. IYA2009 is endorsed by UNESCO and is now supported by 135 countries under the leadership of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). See for more details.

Throughout the year, thousands of professional and amateur astronomers will be working with the public as part of a global effort to promote astronomy and its contribution to science and culture. A series of innovative projects will encourage public engagement, from observing sessions at observatories to online blogs, photographic exhibitions and the campaign to combat light pollution.

IYA 2009 – UK home page


The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.


Syon Park is the West London ancestral home of the Duke of Northumberland and his family. See for details.