A Self-Made Man

Here’s another of my Literary Review contributions:


Charles Hutton will never be on the long list for inclusion on a Bank of England note; but perhaps he deserves the accolade more than some of those who have been nominated and have already received recognition in other ways.  The likelihood that your reaction to this suggestion is probably “who was Charles Hutton?” highlights the fact that he deserves to be brought out of the shadows of English scientific history.  After all, he was the first person to make a reasonably accurate measurement of the density of the Earth, even if his results were superseded by more accurate techniques within his own lifetime.

It is Hutton’s lifetime, rather than his life, which holds the reader’s attention in this book, which is as much social history as it is biography.  Hutton was born in 1837, the youngest son of a coal miner on Tyneside.  As the youngest, he was indulged to the extent of being sent to school until he was about fourteen, where his ability at mathematics was noted, and then assisted the schoolmaster in teaching the younger pupils.  But he eventually had to go down the pit as a coal hewer.  Laid off at the age of 18, he was able to take over the modest school when the teacher moved on, the first step in his ascent.

Benjamin Wardhaugh graphically describes the conditions Hutton escaped from and the importance of Newcastle and its coal to the changes taking place in Britain in the second half of the seventeenth century.  Hutton was the classic example of an upwardly mobile self-improver; he built up his school, read voraciously, and attended evening classes.  In 1764 he published a textbook on arithmetic, and by the winter of 1766-77, he was even giving classes in mathematics to other schoolteachers, and had begun to contribute puzzles to the fashionable mathematical magazines of his day.  An impressive work on geometry was published in 1770.  It was the success of this work which led to the most important change in his life.  In 1773 the post of Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich became vacant.  Unusually for the time, the new Professor was chosen chiefly on merit, and Hutton was the candidate who proved to have most merit.  He left Newcastle in June 1773, never to return.

At the Academy, Hutton made his mark on the instruction of generations of British officers though the time of the American and Napoleonic wars, helping to instill a scientific tradition which extended to the Indian Army in Victorian times.  But he also worked as a scientist in his own right, on good terms with the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, at the nearby Greenwich Observatory and contributing to astronomical projects connected with finding longitude at sea.  He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in November 1774, even before his greatest work.  Between 1773 and 1775 a project overseen by Maskelyne had measured the way a plumb line was deflected from the vertical by the gravitational pull of a mountain, and had surveyed the mountain.  This produced a mass of observations from which it would in principle be possible to work out the density and mass of the Earth.  It was Hutton who carried out that work. But it was for work on ballistics, directly relevant to his role at Woolwich, that Hutton received the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, their highest honour, in 1778.

Wardhaugh describes this as “Hutton’s apogee”.  His scientific career tailed off afterwards, and Hutton was involved on the losing side in a famous argument which threatened to split the Royal Society when Joseph Banks was President.  But the story so far occupies less than half of Gunpowder and Geometry, and less than half of Hutton’s life – he died in 1823.  The narrative picks up, though, even as the work of Hutton himself becomes more routine.  The story, as Wardhaugh points out, reads like something from the pages of a Jane Austen novel, which is hardly surprising since she was writing at exactly this time about the same kind of people as those in the circles Hutton now moved in.  We have a wife abandoned in Newcastle, a mistress who becomes a second wife when the first one dies, a daughter and son-in-law killed by fever in the West Indies, leaving an infant grandson for Hutton to raise, the death of a favourite daughter, an elopement, and a reconciliation.

As for Hutton’s legacy, his course of mathematics became the basis of teaching on the subject at West Point when the Military Academy started there in 1801, his work on ballistics was translated (pirated) into French during the Napoleonic era, he was one of the first to urge a change from the duodecimal to the decimal system, and he promoted the use of radians, rather than degrees, in working with angles.  He was famous enough that people named their children after him, and on his death his son received condolences from the Duke of Wellington.  His books remained in print and in use for decades, but gradually his fame faded, and by the end of the nineteenth century he was largely forgotten.

Wardhaugh has done a good job of rescuing Hutton from obscurity and setting the man and his achievements in the context of their times.  A minor irritation is that the thematic presentation of the various topics produces some jumping about in the chronology, which has the reader (at least, this reader) backtracking here and there to work out how the different events fit together.  But the story of how “the pit boy turned professor [became] one of the most revered British scientists of his day” is well worth reading.



One comment on “A Self-Made Man

  1. Nice piece, but your dates are adrift: starts 1837 and goes back in time; unless Hutton was Benjamin Button. 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s