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Thomas Harriot on the coinage of England

Biggs, Norman (2019) Thomas Harriot on the coinage of England. Archive for History of Exact Sciences, 73 (4). pp. 361-383. ISSN 0003-9519

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Identification Number: 10.1007/s00407-019-00228-w


Thomas Harriot was the finest English mathematician before Isaac Newton, but his work on the coinage of his country is almost unknown, unlike Newton’s. In the early 1600s Harriot studied several aspects of the gold and silver coins of his time. He investigated the ratio between the values of gold and silver, using data derived from the official weights of the coins; he used hydrostatic weighing to determine the com- position of the coins; and he studied the methods used to calculate how metals should be combined in order to produce the required standard of purity. This work required not only arithmetical skill, but also great insight into the relationships between the various quantities, and here his ‘greate invention of algebra’ played its part. The gold and silver coins were critically important in the national economy at that time, because they had intrinsic value and represented the country’s store of wealth. In his lifetime Harriot was supported by the patronage of Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, who was a member of the Privy Council in 1604 when great changes to the English coinage were being made. After Harriot’s death his papers remained under the control of one of his executors, Sir Thomas Aylesbury, who became Master of the Tower Mint in 1635. These facts suggest that his work on the coins was considered to be important for practical reasons, not just academic ones. In this article the interplay between the scholarly work and its application to matters of national significance will be anal- ysed in depth. The conclusions also throw some light on the long-standing mystery surrounding the fate of Harriot’s papers.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: © 2019 The Author
Divisions: Mathematics
Subjects: Q Science > QA Mathematics
Date Deposited: 26 Apr 2019 10:21
Last Modified: 16 May 2024 02:42

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