The English Moon
Exactly four hundred years ago, on July 26 1609, the English astronomer Thomas Harriot turned his primitive telescope, a Dutch 'trunke', on the full Moon above Syon House in what is now West London, and made the above sketch. It doesn't look like much, but it's not only the first known sketch of the surface features of the Moon; it's also the first known sketch of astronomical features seen through a telescope - Galileo would begin drawing features on the Moon four months later. Over the next year, Harriot made detailed maps of what he could see of the Moon's geography and helped to usher in a revolution in human thought: heavenly bodies like the Moon were no longer remote lights, but places with local habitations, and names.
He lived a life eminently worthy of novelisation - he was a mathematician who worked for Sir Walter Raleigh, giving tutorials in navigation to Raleigh and his captains, helping to design their ships, and sailing to America on an expedition, where he spent time with the Algonquin Indians. When he returned to England, he worked for Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, popularly known as the Wizard Earl, because of his interest in science and alchemy - he knew the infamous astrologer John Dee, as well as Christopher Marlowe and John Donne. Possibly, Harriot was a member of the 'School of Night' mentioned in Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost. In any event, he helped to tutor the Earl's children in the pleasantly stimulating company of other mathematicians and scientists at Syon House, run by the Earl's cousin, Sir Thomas Percy. Sir Thomas was involved in the Gunpowder Plot; after he and the leader of the plot, Robert Catesby, beseiged at Holbeache House in Warwickshire, were killed by a marksman with a single bullet, Harriot was briefly imprisoned, and the Earl of Northumberland was locked up in the Tower of London for seventeen years. Harriot returned to his studies, making the first observations of sunspots and founding the 'English' school of algebra, but remained obscure because he published little in his lifetime. Unlike the poor and vigorously ambitious Galileo, he enjoyed the leisurely life of an English gentleman, sharing his findings only with his close colleagues and his sponsors. He died in 1621 of skin cancer - some have speculated that it was caused by the tobacco popularised by Raleigh. A crater is named in his honour, on the far side of the Moon, first mapped in the 1960s by machines beyond the wildest dreams of the School of Night.
You can see Thomas Harriot's drawings, and much else, at a new exhibition at the Science Museum, London.