The Time Hutton Turned the Heat On

A painting of James Hutton by Sir Henry Raeburn

Remember that embarrassing thing you did five years ago?


It is extremely difficult to erode memories. Most are lifelong reminders of how bad a particular event in our lives were. An awkward note while singing in front of the class. Failing grades. A botched romantic confession. These embarrassing events deposit themselves into the deepest core of our memories. Aided, most of the time, by mnemonic nomenclatures that add nothing but insult: nerd, four-eyes, genetic gaffe, plague face, disease depository, and etc. In retrospect, a few were hilarious, but most of them undeniably hurt.

The remembrance of things past is a truly human feature. No other species actively recall their pasts nor engage in activities to record events for posterity. Childhood is remembered by looking at old photographs. Looking at ancient texts might reveal a secret or two about life in the Roman Empire. This is all due to the fact that humans have and are the objects of history.

But this reveals an obvious lacunae in the long chronicle of life. Human beings are a relatively young species: life is believed to have started 3.5 billion years ago (ya) and Homo sapiens only emerged 600,000ya. How then does one make sense of the vast span of time prior to the advent of humans? Furthermore, how does one even look back to the time before the emergence of life?

One man sought to answer these questions. But it took a series awkward events to get him started with it.

Edinburgh in the 18th-century as depicted by Alexander Nasmyth.

A revolution in thought was brewing in 18th-century Edinburgh. Men and women of curious minds all enjoyed the vice of drink and think — ideas poured forth freely from brains and beer. The Scottish Enlightenment was in maximum moxie.

Underneath this nimbus of intellectual oomph, a young lawyer’s apprentice was growing dissatisfied with his practice. “[He] was often found amusing himself and his fellow apprentices with chemical experiments when he should have been copying papers, or studying the forms of legal proceedings,” wrote his biographer John Playfair. Chemistry was to occupy his mind and it took him away from the legal field — transplanting him into the study of medicine where he came closest to study the chemical arts. The University of Edinburgh was the academic garden where he blossomed, his name was James Hutton.

James Hutton was born to a rich Edinburgh merchant family on the 3rd of June 1726. He enjoyed a childhood privileged with education. He was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh at the age of 14 to study the Humanities but found science to be the real home of his interests. After a perfunctory apprenticeship in the legal profession in 1744, he decided to fully focus on medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

But in 1747 things turned awkward.

News went around that he fathered an illegitimate son with a Ms. Edington and to quell possible scandal he had no other option but to leave. Hutton packed his bags and left his home of Edinburgh for Paris — an academic anabasis abroad.

James Hutton and Ms. Edington never married. Their son was named James Smeaton Hutton. Hutton continued to support mother and son financially to cover up for his physical absence.

The Paris that Hutton landed on was a steaming cauldron of active intellectual energy. Charged by the twin forces of Rousseau and Voltaire, Paris paraded full speed ahead to the rally of reason. It is in this favorable happenstance that Hutton found himself a place to continue his studies uninterrupted. According to Playfair, in Paris Hutton “pursued with great ardour the studies of chemistry and anatomy.” Separation from home and social scandal were not to stymie him.

In 1749 he was on the move again, and this time he continued his medical studies in Leiden University, receiving his degree later that year. The subject of his thesis contained the germs from which his later geological theories erupted. De sanguine et circulatione microcosmi was Hutton’s attempt to explain blood circulation in the body using Newton’s idea of orbital planetary cycles.

Despite the credentials and pomp, Hutton decided not practice medicine. He settled in London for some time then went back to Edinburgh in 1750 when he and a former colleague James Davie agreed upon a partnership.

Hutton and Davie were doing chemical experiments on sal ammoniac (NH4Cl) when both were still medical students in Edinburgh. They discovered a simpler way of producing this mineral from coal soot, a common commodity easily culled from the chimneys of Edinburgh. Davie proposed to use their novel technique to start a sal ammoniac business – Hutton agreed. After finalizing the details they set up their production line in their hometown and business went rolling. This venture proved successful as it secured Hutton’s financial needs allowing him the freedom to pursue his other scientific projects.

Free from the fetters of finance, Hutton set his sights on farming. From 1752–1753 Hutton worked on a farm in Norfolk, England to learn the rudiments of agriculture. Playfair recounts that Hutton “enjoyed this situation very much” adding that “there was accordingly no period of his life to which he more frequently alluded.”

He traveled extensively around England to learn various agricultural techniques and to discuss with learned professionals. In 1754 he decided that he was ready to begin his own adventure in agriculture. So he went back to his native Scotland and settled on a patch of land in Slighhouses which he inherited from his family.

The time Hutton spent learning the fundamentals of the agricultural trade acquainted him with the natural forces that governed the earth. Farming requires fellowship with the soil so Hutton frequently frolicked far and wide to observe different soil compositions and rock formations. His frequent travels led him to ponder how the earth came to be the way it is, starting his intellectual foray into geology.

In Hutton’s time, questions regarding the earth were relegated to the realm of theology. Conventional wisdom beseeched God for answers, and He came ready with a bevy of biblical passages as explanation. What Hutton did was to look down and see what the rocks and soil had to say. The gospel of the ground was a telling scripture in soil.

After a successful stint as a farmer, Hutton repatriated to Edinburgh in 1767 and found himself in great company. He joined the pyre of Scotland’s brightest intellectual embers: Adam Smith, David Hume, Joseph Black, James Watt, and many others.

The great store of knowledge acquired throughout the years blended with experience gained emboldened his resolve – he wasted no time in idle folly. He turned his house into his own personal laboratory filled with fossil specimens and chemicals. One visitor even complained of having no space left to sit down!

Geological theory became the locus of Hutton’s attention. And in 1785, he read the first outlines of his theory of the Earth in front of the Royal Society of Edinburgh – Scotland’s scientific elite.

It was awkward.

The scientific establishment saw Hutton’s theory as a direct attack on the foundations of faith, while some simply disagreed on empirical grounds.

If there was one thing Hutton never believed in, it was in the attempt that one can “fabricate a system of apparent wisdom in the folly of a hypothetical delusion.” So in response, Hutton set out to consult the earth for advice to help strengthen his case. He believed in the solid truth of his theory.

Siccar point – the most important geological site in the world. (Photo: Dave Souza)

In 1788 Hutton and two of his colleagues chanced upon the rock hard truth. They were navigating through Scotland’s eastern shores when they witnessed firsthand the majestic rock formation at Siccar point.

Hutton noticed that the different rock layers looked like they belonged to different time periods. On the base were rocks stacked vertically. These were topped by another rock layer that ran diagonally. Together they looked like a series of letter Ts (just like TT). Hutton hypothesized that the vertical rocks were older and the diagonal rocks only came about later after the initial gradual geological process that formed the vertically lined rocks.

In Hutton’s thinking, this formation required an enormously vast span of time that stretched beyond the biblical age of the earth of 6,000 years. If Hutton were correct, the earth would be much older – permitting an age that goes beyond the millions – the first appeal for the idea of deep time. Hutton added that in this extremely long timeline, the same geological forces that acted in the past are also in effect now occurring in cycles (reminiscent of his medical thesis and indicative of his Newtonian allegiance). Hutton’s theory came to be known as uniformitarianism.

The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning –no prospect of an end.”

James Hutton, The Theory of the Earth (1788)

But aside from describing the basic logic of his theory, Hutton also provided a detailed explanation of the mechanism that drives his system. What caused the movement of rocks in the first place? The new steam engines of Hutton’s day provided him with an answer.

Hutton understood how heat is integral in the function of steam engines. He believed that the earth followed a similar principle – a fiery furnace burns within the earth permeating heat to its outer layers, causing the movements of rocks and mountains.

In this reformulated and updated version of his theory, Hutton correctly answered the question of how rock formations came to be. Slow and gradual processes powered by the earth’s internal engine occurred in cycles for millions and millions of years. Geology as a science was finally born.

A definitive version of his theory came out of the press in 1795, but Hutton’s prolix prose impeded the force of his findings from causing a major scientific breakthrough. Another factor that dampened the impact of his theory was his illness. He was diagnosed with bladder stones in 1791 and his health continued to deteriorate from then on. Perhaps it was his illness that clouded his mind from writing clearly; but nonetheless he found enough strength to finish the work, causing at least a minor tremor in academia. The last aftershock came in 1797 when James Hutton breathed his last at the age of 70.

His biographer and friend John Playfair took the task of rewriting Hutton’s magnum opus and in 1802 Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth was released to great acclaim.

Modern geologists have at their disposal advanced tools to accurately estimate the age of rocks. From their laboratories, they have found the earth to be about 4.5 billion years old, much older than what Hutton could have imagined. But Hutton did not have today’s equipment nor did he have the advanced technology for his use. What Hutton did was read the earth’s history directly from the pages buried within its rocks – the story of the earth written in stone.

Fragments of the earth’s past are continuously being read to this day by scientists. Like a memory that insists to be remembered, the earth persistently continues to tell its story. Perhaps uniformitarianism also acts in the brain because like in the earth’s case, remembering is far easier than forgetting.

But that remains doubtful, for a quick rendezvous of the head with a rock seems to be enough to loosen free a memory.

But that is bit awkward.



Dean, Dennis. James Hutton and the History of Geology. New York: Cornell Press, 1993.

Playfair, John. Biographical Account of James Hutton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Repcheck, Jack. The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth’s Antiquity. London: Hachette UK, 2008.

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