Thomas Harriot, Algonquian, and Optics

Thomas Harriot certainly comes under the category of “People whom History Forgot”, right alongside Cornelis Drebbel. The problem in both cases is that much of their life works were destroyed or lost, before ever being published. Just we don’t know the workings of Drebbel’s perpetual clocks, or his advanced methods of lens grinding, we can’t know the full extent of the genius behind Harriot’s discoveries in astronomy, optics, mathematics, and Native American languages. But from what I have learned, he is very close to the influences and circle I suspect was behind the creation of the Voynich Manuscript.

Thomas Harriot was on Sir Walter Raleigh’s first expedition of 1594, and studied… well, everything “over here”, including the Algonquin language. He found that he could not transcribe the sounds of the language using our Latin alphabet, so he made a new phonetic one. Here is an interesting passage from “Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists”:

“Harriot’s resultant alphabet had thirty-six characters in total and looked extraordinary_ a hodgepodge of algebraic symbols, Greek and Roman letters, invented characters. One scholar described the letters as looking “like devills,” perhaps because some ended in forked tridents. The shape of the letters provided a clue as to how they should be pronounced. English equivalents were recorded alongside where applicable, while sounds that were unfamiliar were categorised as “barbarouse wordes” and placed in a separate column. Harriot tested his alphabet on English phrases, putting passages of the Lord’s Prayer into his new script to see whether they were readable. The alphabet was a work of unparalleled creativity- one that had required the logic of a scientist and the imagination of an artist” It successfully represented every sound of this complex language.”

Portion of Thomas Harriot's Algonquin: click for full view

Portion of Thomas Harriot's Algonquian Alphabet

Note not only the many “Voynichy” characters, but the repetitive nature of them, and the small distinctions… with major import… but nonetheless small. Here is a full image of the page. Now Imagine a book of those suckers, with no clues to tell us what they were, where or when they came, and what language they represented? We would be as lost, I am certain, as we are with the Voynich Manuscript. There were such books written in this script, but they burned in the Great London Fire.

As I pointed out, Harriot has been under-appreciated to history, because he did not get much of his work published. Many notes were found in the 1980’s, including the alphabet page. But also of interest… well, to me… is that he was apparently an early experimenter with optics, and quite good at it. At least one reference I saw had him making the first telescope in England. It was very good device, and allowed him to make very good sketches of the moon, and sunspots, about the time Galileo is credited with both.

“The Italian philosopher [Galileo] is credited with the feat in December 1609. But papers at the West Sussex Record Office show that Harriot drew images of the Moon several months earlier.” -Christine McGourty, BBC article, ‘English Galileo’ Maps on Display

Thomas Harriot's Moon Map: pre-Galileo's

Thomas Harriot's Moon Map: pre-Galileo's

Harriot also influenced Francis Bacon, and was friends with Kepler at the time Kepler was in Prague, next to Drebbel. It is also of interest because he was on the Raleigh expedition alongside Joachim Gaunse, the man it is believed the New Atlantis’ Joabim is based on; and alongside one David Gans, who is believed related to Joachim Gaunse (Gans), and whom was with Kepler, Drebbel, and Harriot, in Prague. Of course this goes to the very influences and people whom I feel could be responsible for the Voynich. In Harriot’s work, you have alternate languages and characters, Native American influences, advanced optics, influences on Francis Bacon and his New Atlantis… all by a man who rubbed elbows with the “real” Joabim, Johannes Kepler, and Cornelis Drebbel. This is the very stew from which I believe the Voynich may have formed, and at the best time for it to have done so. H.R. SantaColoma

Addendum, July 4, 2009:

I came across another connection in my circle of interest, while looking up references to Algonquian. In addition to Harriot and others, one William Strachey also compiled a list of Algonquian words and phrases. His list was a full 500 long. He wrote of his accounts in the New World, including the book, “The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia“*. Strachey was a rich source of information on Native Americans, their language and culture. Today his writings are invaluable to learning of the layout and functions of the original Jamestown town and fort, because he gave such detailed descriptions.

But then there is a very curious “cross connection” to Shakespeare. It turns out that William Strachey’s description of the wreck of the Sea Venture on July 24, 1609, is almost universally considered source material for Shakespeare’s account of the wreck in The Tempest. Also, the mysterious magical nature of Prospero and Miranda’s isle is considered based in part on Strachey’s descriptions of Bermuda, where he was wrecked.

Again, I find parallel influences: Both in those whom I suspect influenced the Voynich Manuscript, and also, those known, historically, to have influenced the people of my circle of interest. The expeditions of Raleigh, the ships which supplied them, the people who manned them, all influenced, in some cases directly, both Bacon’s New Atlantis and Shakepeare’s The Tempest.

*One manuscript copy of which was dedicated to Francis Bacon (!).

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2 Responses to “Thomas Harriot, Algonquian, and Optics”

  1. proto57 Says:

    Thanks to the author of the Facebook page, “The Voynich Manuscript Revisited”, for this link:

    http://www.languagegeek.com/rotinonhsonni/tsalagi/original_syllabary.html

  2. Bird Glyphs, Aztecs, Aries, Hakluyt et al. « The Voynich-New Atlantis Theory Says:

    [...] that matter? He was an early explorer, promoting the British settling of the New World, along with Harriot, Raleigh, Francis Bacon, Strachey and so on. In other words, the very document with this very rare bird-glyph-as-paragraph-marker was actually [...]

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