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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
James Tytler, Chemist


Mr. James Tytler was born at the manse of Fearn, of which place his father was minister. James received an excellent provincial education; and afterwards, with the proceeds of a voyage or two to Greenland, in the capacity of medical assistant, he removed to Edinburgh to complete his knowledge of medicine, where he made rapid progress not only in his professional acquirements, but in almost every department of literature.

At an early period he became enamoured of a sister of Mr. Young, Writer to the Signet, whom he married. From this event may perhaps be dated the laborious and poverty-stricken career of Tytler.

His means, at the very outset, were unequal to the task of providing for his matrimonial engagements, and from one failure to another he seems to have descended, until reduced to the verge of indigence. He first attempted to establish himself as a surgeon in Edinburgh; and then removed to Newcastle, where he commenced a laboratory, but without success. In the course of a year or two he returned to Leith, where he opened a shop for the sale of chemical preparations; and here again his evil destiny prevailed. It is possible his literary bias might have operated as a drag upon his exertions. These repeated failures seem to have destroyed his domestic happiness. His wife, after presenting him with several children, left him to manage them as best he could, and resided with her friends, some time in Edinburgh, and afterwards in the Orkneys.

Previous to this domestic occurrence, Tytler had abandoned all his former religious connexions, and even opinions; and now finding himself thrown upon his literary resources, he announced a work entitled, "Essays on the most important subjects of Natural and Revealed Religion." Unable to find a bookseller or printer willing to undertake the publication of his Essays, Tytler's genius and indefatigable spirit were called forth in an extraordinary manner. Having constructed a printing-press upon a principle different from those in use, and having procured some old materials, he set about arranging the types of his Essays with his own hands, and without previously having written down his thoughts upon paper. Mr. Kay states in his MS., that twenty-three numbers of the Essaj's were issued in this manner, and were only interrupted in consequence of other engagements entered into by the author.

Mr. Tytler was known by his previous literary contributions, but his fame was increased by the publication of his Essays, which were admired not only for the clearness of their reasoning, but for the extraordinary manner of their production.

The attention of the booksellers being thus directed towards him, he was engaged in 1776 as a contributor, or rather as editor of the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a work which, under his management, was enlarged from three to eight volumes quarto. Subsequently, he was much employed by the booksellers in compilations and abridgments; the most important of which was the Edinburgh Geographical Grammar. Besides conducting various periodicals, he published a translation of the four Eclogues of Virgil into English verse; and from his own press, in a similar manner to his Essays, issued the first volume of a general History of all Nations.

At the commencement of the "balloon mania," Tytler's genius took a new flight. In 1784, he issued proposals to ascend in a fire-balloon, when a considerable sum was immediately subscribed to enable him to proceed with the experiment. He accordingly constructed a balloon of about forty feet in height, and thirty in diameter, with stove and other apparatus; but although he had contemplated ascending during the week of the races (early in August), it was not till the 27th of that month that he succeeded in making a decisive attempt. On this occasion he rose to the height of three hundred and fifty feet. The scene of the experiment was at Comely Gardens, near the King's Park. Although he succeeded in demonstrating the principle of a fire-balloon, all his attempts were short of success. When Lunardi visited Scotland in 1785, he was of course much interested in the aeronaut's success, and hence Mr. Kay has, with much propriety, associated him with the "fowls of a feather." In the volume published by Lunardi in London (which we have elsewhere noticed), giving an account of his Scottish aerial voyages, we find a poetical address to that gentleman by Mr. Tytler, commencing —

"Etherial traveller! welcome from the skies—
Welcome to earth to feast our longing eyes."

This effusion was no doubt in compliment to the successful aeronaut; but as Tytler, in a long note, is careful to explain the principle of his "fire-balloon," and the causes of failure, it is to be presumed that the author was influenced by a desire to set himself right in the opinion of Lunardi and the public. In this note Tytler attributes his ill success, in the first instance, to the want of proper shelter, and the smallness of the stove, which could not supply enough of heat. In the second, his friends were alarmed at the idea of "dragging into air" a cumbrous iron apparatus, and therefore, although Tytler gave directions to have the stove enlarged, they deceived him by actually making it less. By this time the public were highly dissatisfied, and he states that he was vilified in the newspapers—denounced as a coward and a scoundrel—and pointed to as one deserving magisterial surveillance. "I bore it all," says poor Tytler, "with patience, well knowing that one successful trial would speedily change the public opinion." Accordingly, on the third occasion, he did not trust to his friends; he had the stove enlarged nearly a foot, and with great hopes of success proceeded to the trial. So early as five o'clock in the morning the balloon was inflated, and when he took his seat it rose with much force; but having come in contact with a tree, the stove was broken in pieces, while the adventurer himself narrowly escaped injury. This disaster put an end to the speculation, although not to the spirit of the projector, who remained firmly convinced of the practicability of his invention.

Tytler's first wife being dead, he married, in 1779, a sister of Mr. John Cairns, flesher in Edinburgh, by which union he had one daughter. On the death of his second wife in 1782, he was wedded, a third time, to Miss Aikenhead in December following, by whom, says Mr. Kay's MS., "he has two daughters (twins) so remarkably like each other, though now four years of age, that they can hardly be distinguished from each other, even by their parents, who are often obliged to ask their name, individually, at the infants themselves." Kay also mentions, and while he does so, admits his own belief in the practicability of the invention, that he (Tytler) " is at present engaged in the construction of a machine, which, if he completes it according to his expectations, will in all probability make his fortune." This machine was no less than "the perpetuen mobile, or an instrument which, when once set a-going, will continue in motion for ever!"

Kay farther adds—"He has just completed a chemical discovery of a certain water for bleaching linen, which performs the operation in a few hours, without hurting the cloth." This was a practical and beneficial discovery ; but like the other labours of Tytler, however much others may have reaped the benefit, it afforded very little to himself. To add to, or rather to crown the misfortunes of the unlucky son of genius, he espoused the cause of the "Friends of the People," in 1792, and having published a small pamphlet of a seditious nature, was obliged to abscond. He went to Ireland, where he finished a work previously undertaken, called "A System of Surgery," in three volumes. Immediately afterwards he removed to the United States, where he resumed his literary labours, but died in a few years after, while conducting a newspaper at Salem. His family were never able to rejoin him.


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