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.
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.
Hutton’s works are:
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
Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, and of the Progress
of Reason from Sense to Science and Philosophy, 3 vols. 4to. Edin.
Dissertation upon the Philosophy of Light, Heat, and Fire. Edin.
of the Earth, with large additions, and a new mineralogical
system. Edin. 1796, 2 vols. 4to.
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.
Flexibility of the Brazilian Stone. Ib. 86.