1588 Three Hundred Years Ago

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Thomas Harriot published his Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia in February, the first English book to describe Roanoke Island, the earliest English colony in America. Sent by Sir Walter Raleigh as the expedition’s scientific adviser, Harriot had investigated the country’s fertility, flora and fauna, commodities, and even its “naturall inhabitants.” These he described in scrupulous detail in his Report . Corn, he discovered, is a “graine of marvellous great increase,” and tobacco “purgeth superfluous phlegm and other gross humours.” After his adventures in the New World, Harriot returned to England, where he founded the English school of algebra and devised the greater than (〉) and less than (〈) signs.

According to Bailey Bishop, the director of Americana at Goodspeed’s prestigious rare-book shop in Boston, one of the seven remaining original copies of Harriot’s Report would sell for at least half a million dollars. “A million wouldn’t shock me,” he said. “Going back over a hundred years, the book has been spoken of in hushed, reverent tones as The Quarto Harriot.’ All rare-book dealers know of it.”