University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department

John Shirley Papers
related to Thomas Harriot

( ca. 1590 - 1621, 1947 - 1988 )

Manuscript Collection Number: 343
Accessioned: Gift of John Shirley, 1988.
Extent: 22 linear feet.
Content: Typescripts, correspondence, photographs, audio-tapes, microfilm, photocopies, maps
notebooks, clippings, advertisement posters, and books.
Access: The collection is open for research.
Processed: May 1997 by Julie Witsken.

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Table of Contents

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Biographical Note

Thomas Harriot

Few facts are known about the early years of British astronomer, mathematician, and scientist Thomas Harriot (1560-1621). Harriot graduated from St. Mary's, Oxford, with a B. A. on February 12, 1580. Shortly thereafter, he became acquainted with Sir Walter Raleigh, who was his friend until Raleigh's death forty years later. Harriot accompanied the famed party sent by Raleigh to colonize Virginia (present-day North Carolina) in 1585, acting as surveyor, cartographer, and scientific advisor. Upon his return to England, he published his Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588) and was introduced to the Earl of Northumberland. Impressed by Harriot's talents, Northumberland offered Harriot a pension double that of other men, such as the geographer Robert Hues and the mathematician Walter Warner, under his patronage. Financially supported for many decades by both Northumberland and his friend Raleigh, Harriot was thus able to devote himself to a lifetime of study and research.

During the 1590s and early 1600s, Harriot pursued his study of optics. He was the first Englishman to make a telescope, and it has been debated whether he or Galileo should be credited with the invention. His discoveries in the field of mathematics were no less monumental. The founder of the English school of algebra, Harriot was the first mathematician to set an equation equal to zero and then factor it; he created modern algebraic symbols such as "greater than" and "less than" signs; and was the first to explore the potential of binary numeration. Harriot's other studies included navigation and physics. He discovered the sine law of refraction, which explains the bending of light, some twenty years before Willebrord Snell, to whom the achievement was credited.

Through his accomplishments, Harriot became one of the most well-known and highly respected intellectuals of his time. He knew and influenced many of the great literary and scientific minds of the period, such as Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe in England, and Johann Kepler in Germany, yet his own influence has been obscured by that of his contemporaries. His death on July 2, 1621 marked the end of the career of a true Renaissance man, forgotten until recent decades.

John Shirley

American educator and author John Shirley (1908-1988), internationally recognized as one of the few authorities on Thomas Harriot, was directly responsible for elevating Harriot's status in history. Shirley, a native of Swea City, Iowa, graduated with honors from the University of Iowa with a bachelor's degree in literature and physics, and later a doctorate in literature and philosophy. He taught English at Michigan State University and in 1949 was appointed dean of liberal arts at North Carolina State University before becoming provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Delaware in 1962. He served as acting president of the University from 1967-1968, and in 1972 he was named H. Fletcher Brown Research Professor in the History of Science. In recognition of his significant contributions to scholarship, the University awarded him its highest award, the Medal of Distinction, in 1982.

Shirley began his studies of Thomas Harriot during his John Simons Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947, during which time he researched Harriot's unpublished manuscripts. Once Shirley had located all of the known manuscripts, many of which had been neglected for over a century, he then spent decades examining and evaluating them. The result of his research includes several works on Harriot such as the first Harriot biography, Thomas Harriot: A Biography (1983). He also published Scholarly Publishing at the University of Delaware (1975) and Sir Walter Raleigh and the New World (1985). Shirley died at the age of 80, while on vacation in San Antonio, Texas, in 1988.


Obituary. News Journal. December 29, 1988.

"Former U. D. Provost Dies," UpDate. January 5, 1989. p.2.

Enquiry. Spring 1983 (Vol. 3 no. 3).

Note: Biographical information was also derived from the collection.

Scope and Content Note

The John Shirley Papers related to Thomas Harriot consist of 22 linear feet of manuscripts, photographs, correspondence, maps, audio-tapes, microfilms, notebooks, clippings, and other material related to British mathematician, astronomer, and scientist Thomas Harriot, all of which was collected by American scholar and educator John Shirley. Materials related to Shirley's other professional work are also included. The collection spans the dates ca. 1590- 1621, 1947-1988 and is divided into six series: Harriot research material, works by Shirley on Harriot, Harriot seminars and symposiums, Shirley correspondence regarding Harriot, Harriot manuscripts, and Shirley professional material not related to Harriot.

Series I contains three boxes of research material collected by Shirley and relating to Thomas Harriot, his contemporaries, his time, and other Harriot scholars. Typescript and photocopied articles, other secondary sources, two dissertations written on Harriot, typed and autograph notes, and some photographs and correspondence comprise this series. Also included are files pertaining to the Thomas Harriot Editorial Board, of which Shirley was the American chairman, and two laminated posters depicting Harriot and his patron Sir Walter Raleigh. Shirley's organizational scheme for the first two boxes has been preserved, with files arranged alphabetically by name of article or source's author.

Series II comprises works, both published and unpublished, by Shirley relating to Harriot. Notes, drafts, typescripts, carbon copies, galley and page proofs, published and photocopied versions of works, and correspondence regarding the works are all included in this series. The bulk of the series consists of material related to Thomas Harriot: A Biography (1983) and The Teaching of Science in Renaissance England, which was apparently unpublished, though there are drafts of numerous articles as well.

Series III contains material related to seminars and symposiums on Harriot. The series deals largely with the Thomas Harriot Symposium held at the University of Delaware in 1971. Correspondence regarding the conference, budget outlines and general preparation; evaluation forms of the conference; and photographs, brochures, name tags and other souvenir items are included, as are three audio-tapes of the conference. The series also contains page and galley proofs of Thomas Harriot: Renaissance Scientist (1974), a collection of essays based upon the symposium and edited by Shirley. Individual essays also appear with the authors' own notes, drafts, correspondence, copies and galley proofs. They are followed by correspondence from Shirley to Clarendon and Oxford presses regarding publication matters, accounting items such as royalty payment forms and reviews of the work.

Files pertaining to the annual Thomas Harriot Seminar held in England comprise another substantial portion of the series. Notes, drafts and copies of speeches, lists of participants and presentations, pamphlets, typed minutes and other items from conferences between the years of 1967-1985 are contained in these files. The remainder of the series contains similar materials from four other Harriot-related conferences.

Series IV consists of Shirley's professional correspondence largely relating to his Harriot research. It includes incoming as well as copies of Shirley's outgoing letters, and with a minor exception, follows Shirley's original organization: arrangement alphabetically by personal name. Of particular note is Shirley's correspondence with author Muriel Rukeyser, who also wrote a book on Harriot. The series also contains enclosures such as brochures, articles, copies, etc., and a file of chronologically arranged carbons of outgoing letters.

Series V contains copies of all known Harriot manuscripts produced from originals or microfilm of originals at the British Museum, Petworth House and several other British repositories. Similar depositions exist at only two other libraries worldwide: the Bodleian at Oxford University and the Science Museum in London. Prior to Shirley's discovery of the manuscripts, many of them had been lost for centuries in private British archives. The manuscripts are represented in several forms: bound copies, loose copies, microfilm, and photographed versions. Where possible, the manuscripts are arranged by owner of the originals. Also present are photocopies, slides, and photographs of miscellaneous manuscripts.

The series also includes ten binders containing detailed information about the manuscripts and their contents. Another part of the series are five binders entitled "chronology."

Series VI contains Shirley's professional, non-Harriot-related material from his years in academia. Shirley's doctoral thesis in English and Philosophy; articles written in English Literature and Physics; and speeches and drafts of speeches, mostly on educational matters, comprise part of the series. Other education materials such as notes and paraphernalia from a State Department conference on education are also included. Another part of the series is comprised of materials pertaining to Shirley's John Simons Guggenheim Fellowship. These consist of Shirley's application for the fellowship, his correspondence regarding the fellowship and travel arrangements, and library tickets collected during his research on the fellowship. In addition, the series includes such personal items as articles written and signed by Shirley's friends in academia; letterhead stationery; and various photographs, mostly taken during Shirley's stay in England under the Guggenheim fellowship.

Series List

I.   Research                                                   

     1.   Shirley Arrangement                                   
     2.   Miscellaneous notes and research                     
     3.   Special sections                                     
     4.   Articles written on Harriot                          
     5.   Dissertations written on Harriot                     
     6.   Notes on individuals                                 
     7.   Photocopied oversize material                        
     8.   Photographs                                          
     9.   Thomas Harriot Editorial Board                       
     10.  Advertisements                                       

II.  Works written by Shirley on Harriot                       

     1.   Drafts of articles                                   
     2.   Copies of published articles                         
     3.   Source Materials for the Study of Thomas Harriot   
     4.   The Teaching of Science in Renaissance England       
     5.   Thomas Harriot:  A Biography                         

III. Seminars and Symposiums                                   

     1.   Thomas Harriot Symposium at the University of Delaware
     2.   Thomas Harriot: Renaissance Scientist                
     3.   Science and Arts in the Renaissance Symposium at the Folger Institute
     4.   Science and Arts in the Renaissance                  
     5.   Annual Thomas Harriot Seminar in England             
     6.   Other Harriot-related conferences                    

IV.  Correspondence                                            

V.   Harriot Manuscripts                                       

     1.   Manuscript photocopies                               
     2.   Microfilm                                            
     3.   Photographs and slides                               
     4.   Binders                                              
VI.  Shirley: Professional, not related to Harriot             

     1.   Writings                                             
     2.   Speeches                                             
     3.   Education-related                                    
     4.   Guggenheim Fellowship                                
     5.   Personal                                             

Appendix A - Books                         

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