James Hutton

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James Hutton : biography

14 June 1726 – 26 March 1797

After his degree Hutton returned to London, then in mid-1750 went back to Edinburgh and resumed chemical experiments with close friend, James Davie. Their work on production of sal ammoniac from soot led to their partnership in a profitable chemical works, manufacturing the crystalline salt which was used for dyeing, metalworking and as smelling salts and previously was available only from natural sources and had to be imported from Egypt. Hutton owned and rented out properties in Edinburgh, employing a factor to manage this business.

Farming and geology

Hutton inherited from his father the Berwickshire farms of Slighhouses, a lowland farm which had been in the family since 1713, and the hill farm of Nether Monynut. In the early 1750s he moved to Slighhouses and set about making improvements, introducing farming practices from other parts of Britain and experimenting with plant and animal husbandry. He recorded his ideas and innovations in an unpublished treatise on The Elements of Agriculture.

This developed his interest in meteorology and geology. In a 1753 letter he wrote that he had "become very fond of studying the surface of the earth, and was looking with anxious curiosity into every pit or ditch or bed of a river that fell in his way”. Clearing and draining his farm provided ample opportunities. Playfair describes Hutton as having noticed that “a vast proportion of the present rocks are composed of materials afforded by the destruction of bodies, animal, vegetable and mineral, of more ancient formation”. His theoretical ideas began to come together in 1760. While his farming activities continued, in 1764 he went on a geological tour of the north of Scotland with George Maxwell-Clerk,, ancestor of the famous James Clerk Maxwell.

Edinburgh and canal building

In 1768 Hutton returned to Edinburgh, letting his farms to tenants but continuing to take an interest in farm improvements and research which included experiments carried out at Slighhouses. He developed a red dye made from the roots of the madder plant.

He had a house built in 1770 at St John’s Hill, Edinburgh, overlooking Salisbury Crags. This later became the Balfour family home and, in 1840, the birthplace of the psychiatrist James Crichton-Browne. Hutton was one of the most influential participants in the Scottish Enlightenment, and fell in with numerous first-class minds in the sciences including John Playfair, philosopher David Hume and economist Adam Smith. Hutton held no position in Edinburgh University and communicated his scientific findings through the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was particularly friendly with Joseph Black, and the two of them together with Adam Smith founded the Oyster Club for weekly meetings, with Hutton and Black finding a venue which turned out to have rather disreputable associations.

Between 1767 and 1774 Hutton had considerable close involvement with the construction of the Forth and Clyde canal, making full use of his geological knowledge, both as a shareholder and as a member of the committee of management, and attended meetings including extended site inspections of all the works. In 1777 he published a pamphlet on Considerations on the Nature, Quality and Distinctions of Coal and Culm which successfully helped to obtain relief from excise duty on carrying small coal.

Theory of rock formations

Hutton hit on a variety of ideas to explain the rock formations he saw around him, but according to Playfair he "was in no haste to publish his theory; for he was one of those who are much more delighted with the contemplation of truth, than with the praise of having discovered it”. After some 25 years of work, his Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe was read to meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in two parts, the first by his friend Joseph Black on 7 March 1785, and the second by himself on 4 April 1785. Hutton subsequently read an abstract of his dissertation Concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration and Stability to Society meeting on 4 July 1785, which he had printed and circulated privately. In it, he outlined his theory as follows;