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The Scottish Nation

HUTTON, JAMES, an eminent geologist and philosopher, the son of a merchant in Edinburgh, who was at one time city treasurer, was born there, June 3, 1726. He was educated at the High school, and entered the university of his native city in 1740. In 1743, he became an apprentice to a writer to the signet; but the bent of his inclination was directed towards chemistry, and we are told that instead of studying the law, he was more frequently found amusing the other young men in the office in which he had been placed, with chemical experiments. Having adopted the profession of medicine, after attending three years at the medical classes of Edinburgh, he repaired to Paris, where he remained two years. He returned home by way of Leyden, at the university of which place he took his degree of M.D. in September 1749. Afterwards, in conjunction with a Mr. James Davie, with whom he had become acquainted in London, he established at Edinburgh, a manufacture of sal ammoniac from coal soot, which for many years was carried on with considerable success. Having little chance of getting into practice as a doctor of medicine, he resolved to apply himself to agriculture, and, with this view, he resided for some time at the house of a farmer in the county of Norfolk, occasionally making journeys on foot into different other parts of England, and on the road prosecuting his researches in geology and mineralogy. He also set out on a similar tour through the Netherlands.

      In the summer of 1754 he commenced agriculturist on a small property in Berwickshire left him by his father, and having brought a plough and ploughman with him from Norfolk, he introduced the improved mode of husbandry practised in that county. In 1768, he removed to Edinburgh, and thenceforth devoted his whole attention to scientific pursuits. In 1777, appeared his first publication, a small pamphlet on the distinction between coal and culm, a question then agitated before the board of customs and privy council, for the purpose of ascertaining the proportion of duty which ought to be levied on each, when carried coastwise. In 1794 he published a metaphysical work, entitled ‘An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, and the Progress of Reason from Sense to Science and Philosophy,’ 3 vols. 4to. In the following year appeared, in two vols, 8vo, his great work, entitled ‘The Theory of the Earth,’ with proofs and illustrations, in four parts. An outline of this ‘Theory’ had been originally communicated to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in the first volume of whose Transactions it was published; but his system of geology, which refers the structure of the solid parts of the earth to the action of fire, having excited a warm controversy among men of science, and met with a severe attack from Dr. Kirwan of Dublin, Dr. Hutton was induced to enlarge and publish separately the entire work. In support of his ‘Theory’ he had, during a long course of years, accumulated a variety of facts, having undertaken journeys not only through Scotland, but also through England and Wales, and different parts of the continent of Europe. His hypothesis was countenanced by the celebrated chemist Dr. Black, Mr. Clerk of Elden, and other scientific men, and was ably defended by Professor Playfair, who, in 1802, published his ‘Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth.’ In the first volume of the ‘Transactions of the royal Society of Edinburgh,’ he also published a paper entitled ‘A Theory of Rain,’ which met with a vigorous opposition from M. De Luc, and became a subject of controversy. He next commenced a work, to be entitled ‘Elements of Agriculture,’ which was intended to form four volumes 8vo, but which his death prevented him from completing. His health had begun to decline in 1792, and in the summer of 1793 he was seized with a dangerous illness, from which he never entirely recovered. He died, unmarried, 26th March 1797. He retained his faculties to the last, and wrote a good deal the day he died. A characteristic portrait of him, in full length, is given in the first volume of Kay’s Edinburgh portraits, where is also a head of him in conjunction with that of his friend Dr. Black.

      Dr. Hutton’s works are:

      Essay towards giving some just Ideas of the Personal character of Count Zinzendorff. Lond. 1755, 8vo.

      Considerations on the Nature, Quality, and distinctions of coal and Culm. Edin. 1777, 8vo.

      Dissertations on Different Subjects in Natural Philosophy. Edin. 1792, 4to. In this work his theory for explaining the phenomena of the material world seems to coincide very closely with that of Boscovich.

      An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, and of the Progress of Reason from Sense to Science and Philosophy, 3 vols. 4to. Edin. 1794.

      Dissertation upon the Philosophy of Light, Heat, and Fire. Edin. 1794, 8vo.

      Theory of the Earth, with large additions, and a new mineralogical system. Edin. 1796, 2 vols. 4to.

      Of certain Natural Appearances of the Ground, on the Hill of Arthur’s Seat. Trans. Soc. Edin., ii, 3.

      Observations on Granite. Ib iii. 77. 1794.

      On the Flexibility of the Brazilian Stone. Ib. 86.

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