Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

5 James Hutton

5.1 Early career

James Hutton (1726–97) conforms fairly closely to Emerson's identikit picture of an intellectual of the Scottish Enlightenment. His chief scientific work was his Theory of the Earth, which was launched at meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785 and eventually expanded and published in two large volumes, ten years later, in 1795.

Figure 4
(Scottish National Portrait Gallery) ©
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Figure 4: James Hutton (1726–97)

He was the son of a well-to-do Edinburgh merchant and was educated first at the city's university, where, like many students, he was particularly interested in chemistry. From Edinburgh University he took what was the natural route for young men who were keen to extend their studies in science: he went to Paris, and from there to the university which features again and again in the background to the Scottish Enlightenment – Leiden, in the Netherlands. The presiding spirit at Leiden was that of the doctor and chemist Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738). Boerhaave's ideas influenced a generation of students, including those who returned to Scotland to establish the Edinburgh Medical School in 1726. Although Hutton graduated as a doctor at Leiden in 1749, he never practised regularly.

Instead, he returned to Edinburgh and set up a profitable chemical works which produced sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride) – a substance used as a flux in the metalworking trades and in the textile industry. Typically, Hutton was not averse to dirtying his hands, either with chemicals or with trade. Equally typically, he did not rest content as a successful chemicals manufacturer, but moved on into agriculture when he inherited two farms. He studied the latest agricultural techniques with a view to introducing them on his farms.

Farming, like the chemical industry, was unable to sustain his interest, and he moved on to geology. In making this move, though, he was able to take with him much of the knowledge he had derived from his earlier enterprises. Farming had prompted his interest in the structure of the earth's crust. Drainage schemes and quarrying opened sections through earth and rock which intrigued him, and in pursuit of his twin interests in agricultural improvement and the structure of the landscape, he travelled extensively around Scotland.

Eventually, in 1767, Hutton returned to Edinburgh, where he slotted comfortably into the Enlightenment milieu. He associated with Adam Smith, Joseph Black, the historian William Robertson, the anthropologist Lord Monboddo and the engineer James Watt. Through Watt, he met the members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group of scientists, engineers and industrialists from the English Midlands. In short, Hutton was closely in touch with activities in a host of related and vigorous areas of enquiry.

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