Nothing is known of Harriot’s family or childhood. The first surviving reference to him is his registration at the University of Oxford in December 1577 when he was 17 years old (from which we may deduce the year of his birth to have been 1560).
After graduating from Oxford, Harriot worked for Walter Ralegh, and in 1585 sailed on an expedition sponsored by Ralegh to the coast of what is now North Carolina. There he lived for a year on Roanoke Island behind the Outer Banks, exploring the locality and conversing with the native Algonquin Indians, whose language he had taught himself. His Briefe and true report of the newfoundland of Virginia (1588) [link?] was his only publication in his lifetime.
After his return to England, Harriot continued his friendship with Ralegh, but in the early 1590s also came under the patronage of Henry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland. This position gave Harriot the freedom to work for the rest of his life on the wide range of subjects that interested him: navigation, mechanics, optics, alchemy, geometry, algebra, and astronomy. At his death in 1621, he left some 9000 sheets of notes on these subjects, many of them containing unusual and original ideas on contemporary problems of mathematics and natural philosophy.
A few days before he died, Harriot instructed his friends to select and publish suitable material, as they saw fit. Unfortunately, the task proved almost impossible. Harriot’s papers contain private working notes, almost always lacking the kind of explanation that a new reader needs. Further, even the best and clearest papers are mixed with a great deal of rough work, including repetitions and false starts, which are not helpful to a general reader. Some of the material on algebra was published ten years after Harriot’s death as the Artis analyticae praxis [ECHO link], but after that the publication project was abandoned. In the early twenty-first century, there have been further publications of selected pages (Stedall 2003; Schemmel 2008; Beery and Stedall 2008) but the problems outlined above remain, making print publication unsuitable for more than a small fraction of the material. The Harriot Online project now addresses these problems in a new way, making the manuscripts freely available, and finally bringing to fulfillment Harriot’s wishes of four centuries ago.