Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Black’

Regency Personalities Series

In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Royal Society of Edinburgh


Royal Society of Edinburgh

Royal Society of Edinburgh is Scotland’s national academy of science and letters. It is a registered charity, operating on a wholly independent and non-party-political basis and providing public benefit throughout Scotland. Established in 1783, it has since then drawn upon the strengths and expertise of its Fellows..

The Society covers a broader selection of fields than the Royal Society of London including literature and history. Unlike similar organisations in the rest of the UK, the Fellowship includes people from a wide range of disciplines – science & technology, arts, humanities, medicine, social science, business and public service. This breadth of expertise makes the Society unique in the UK.
At the start of the 18th century, Edinburgh’s intellectual climate fostered many clubs and societies (see Scottish Enlightenment). Though there were several that treated the arts, sciences and medicine, the most prestigious was the Society for the Improvement of Medical Knowledge, commonly referred to as the Medical Society of Edinburgh, co-founded by the mathematician Colin Maclaurin in 1731.
Maclaurin was unhappy with the specialist nature of the Medical Society, and in 1737 a new, broader society, the Edinburgh Society for Improving Arts and Sciences and particularly Natural Knowledge was split from the specialist medical organisation, which then went on to become the Royal Medical Society.
The cumbersome name was changed the following year to the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. Other Founders included William Robertson and the Alexander Monro’s Primus and Secundus. With the help of University of Edinburgh professors like Joseph Black, William Cullen and John Walker, this society transformed itself into the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783 and in 1788 it issued the first volume of its new journal Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
As the end of the century drew near, the younger members such as Sir James Hall embraced Lavoisier’s new nomenclature and the members split over the practical and theoretical objectives of the society. This resulted in the founding of the Wernerian Society (1808–58), a parallel organisation that focused more upon natural history and scientific research that could be used to improve Scotland’s weak agricultural and industrial base. Under the leadership of Prof. Robert Jameson, the Wernerians first founded Memoirs of the Wernerian Natural History Society (1808–21) and then the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal (1822), thereby diverting the output of the Royal Society’s Transactions. Thus, for the first four decades of the 19th century, the RSE’s members published brilliant articles in two different journals.
The Royal Society has been housed in a succession of locations:

  • 1783–1807 – College Library, University of Edinburgh
  • 1807–1810 – Physicians’ Hall, George Street; the home of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
  • 1810–1826 – 40–42 George Street; shared with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland from 1813
  • 1826–1908 – the Royal Institution (now called the Royal Scottish Academy Building) on the Mound; shared, at first, with the Board of Manufactures (the owners), the Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland


The Keith Medal is a prize awarded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy, for a scientific paper published in the society’s scientific journals, preference being given to a paper containing a discovery, either in mathematics or earth sciences.
The Medal was inaugurated in 1827 as a result of a gift from Alexander Keith of Dunottar, the first Treasurer of the Society. It is awarded quadrennially, alternately for a paper published in: Proceedings A (Mathematics) or Transactions (Earth and Environmental Sciences).

  • 1827: David Brewster
  • 1831: Thomas Graham
  • 1833: James David Forbes
  • 1835: John Scott Russell
  • 1837: John Shaw

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Regency Personalities Series

In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Sir James Edward Smith
2 December 1759 – 17 March 1828


James Edward Smith

Sir James Edward Smith was born in Norwich in 1759, the son of a wealthy wool merchant. He displayed a precocious interest in the natural world. During the early 1780s he enrolled in the medical course at the University of Edinburgh where he studied chemistry under Joseph Black and natural history under John Walker. He then moved to London in 1783 to continue his studies. Smith was a friend of Sir Joseph Banks who was offered the entire collection of books, manuscripts and specimens of the Swedish natural historian and botanist Carl Linnaeus, following the death of his son Carolus Linnaeus the Younger. Banks declined the purchase but Smith bought the collection for the bargain price of £1,000. The collection arrived in London in 1784 and in 1786 Smith was elected Fellow of the Royal Society.

Between 1786 and 1788 Smith made the grand tour through the Netherlands, France, Italy and Switzerland visiting botanists, picture galleries and herbaria. He founded the Linnean Society of London in 1788, becoming its first President, a post he held until his death. He returned to live in Norwich in 1796 bringing with him the entire Linnean Collection. His library and botanical collections acquired European fame and were visited by numerous entomologists and botanists from the entire Continent. In 1792, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Smith spent the remaining thirty years of his life writing books and articles on botany. His books included Flora Britannica and The English Flora (4 volumes, 1824 – 1828). He contributed 3,348 botanical articles to Rees’s Cyclopædia between 1808 and 1819, following the death of Rev. William Wood, who had started the work. In addition, he contributed 57 biographies of botanists. He contributed seven volumes to the only major botanical publication of the eighteenth century, Flora Graeca, the publications begun by John Sibthorp. A fruitful collaboration was found through descriptions Smith supplied to publisher and illustrator, James Sowerby. Depiction of flora in England had previously only found patronage for aesthetic concerns, but an interest in gardening and natural history saw illustrated publications, such as the exotic A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland and the 36-volume English Botany, reaching new audiences.

In 1797 Smith published The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia, the earliest book on American insects. It included the illustrations and notes of John Abbot, with descriptions of new species by Smith based on Abbot’s drawings.

Smith’s friendship with William Roscoe (after whom he named the genus Roscoea) saw him contribute 5000 plants between 1806 and 1817 to supplement the Roylean Herbarium. This was to become the Smith Herbarium held by the Liverpool Botanic Garden. After Smith’s death the Linnean Collection, together with Smith’s own collections, were bought by the Linnean Society for £3,150.

He was married to Pleasance Reeve (1773–1877). She survived her husband by 49 years and edited his memoirs and correspondence. They are buried together at St Margaret’s, Lowestoft.

  • Icones pictae plantarum rariorum descriptionibus et observationibus illustratae. London, 1790–93
  • Linnaeus, Carl von, Disquisitio de sexu plantarum. (1786) – (English) A dissertation on the sexes of plants translated from the Latin of Linnaeus by James Edward Smith. London : Printed for the author, and sold by George Nicol …
  • “Tentamen Botanicum de Filicum Generibus Dorsiferarum”, Mém. Acad. Roy. Sci. Turin, vol. 5 (1793) 401-422; one of the earliest scientific papers on fern taxonomy.
  • English Botany: Or, Coloured Figures of British Plants, with their Essential Characters, Synonyms and Places of Growth, descriptions supplied by Smith, was issued as a part work over 23 years until its completion in 1813. This work was issued in 36 volumes with 2,592 hand-colored plates of British plants. Published and illustrated by James Sowerby.
  • Linné, Carl von, Lachesis Lapponica or A Tour In Lapland, Translated by James Edward Smith (1811). London: White and Cochrane In two volumes.

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Regency Personalities Series

In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

James Watt
19 January 1736 – 25 August 1819


James Watt

James Watt was born on 19 January 1736 in Greenock, Renfrewshire, a seaport on the Firth of Clyde. His father was a shipwright, ship owner and contractor, and served as the town’s chief baillie, while his mother, Agnes Muirhead, came from a distinguished family and was well educated. Both were Presbyterians and strong Covenanters. Watt’s grandfather, Thomas Watt, was a mathematics teacher and baillie to the Baron of Cartsburn. Despite being raised by religious parents, he later on became a deist.

Watt did not attend school regularly; initially he was mostly schooled at home by his mother but later he attended Greenock Grammar School. He exhibited great manual dexterity, engineering skills and an aptitude for mathematics, while Latin and Greek failed to interest him.

When he was eighteen, his mother died and his father’s health began to fail. Watt travelled to London to study instrument-making for a year, then returned to Scotland, settling in the major commercial city of Glasgow intent on setting up his own instrument-making business. He made and repaired brass reflecting quadrants, parallel rulers, scales, parts for telescopes, and barometers, among other things. Because he had not served at least seven years as an apprentice, the Glasgow Guild of Hammermen (which had jurisdiction over any artisans using hammers) blocked his application, despite there being no other mathematical instrument makers in Scotland.

Watt was saved from this impasse by the arrival of astronomical instruments at the University of Glasgow, instruments that required expert attention. Watt restored them to working order and was remunerated. These instruments were eventually installed in the Macfarlane Observatory. Subsequently three professors offered him the opportunity to set up a small workshop within the university. It was initiated in 1757 and two of the professors, the physicist and chemist Joseph Black as well as the famed Adam Smith, became Watt’s friends.

At first he worked on maintaining and repairing scientific instruments used in the university, helping with demonstrations, and expanding the production of quadrants. In 1759 he formed a partnership with John Craig, an architect and businessman, to manufacture and sell a line of products including musical instruments and toys. This partnership lasted for the next six years, and employed up to sixteen workers. Craig died in 1765. One employee, Alex Gardner, eventually took over the business, which lasted into the twentieth century.

In 1764, Watt married his cousin Margaret (Peggy) Miller, with whom he had five children, two of whom lived to adulthood: James Jr. (1769–1848) and Margaret (1767–1796). His wife died in childbirth in 1772. In 1777 he was married again, to Ann MacGregor, daughter of a Glasgow dye-maker, with whom he had two children: Gregory (1777–1804), who became a geologist and mineralogist, and Janet (1779–1794). Ann died in 1832. Between 1777 and 1790 he lived in Regent Place, Birmingham.

There is a popular story that Watt was inspired to invent the steam engine by seeing a kettle boiling, the steam forcing the lid to rise and thus showing Watt the power of steam. This story is told in many forms; in some Watt is a young lad, in others he is older, sometimes it’s his mother’s kettle, sometimes his aunt’s. James Watt of course did not actually invent the steam engine, as the story implies, but dramatically improved the efficiency of the existing Newcomen engine by adding a separate condenser. This is difficult to explain to someone not familiar with concepts of heat and thermal efficiency. It appears that the story of Watt and the kettle was created, possibly by Watt’s son James Watt Jr., and persists because it is easy for children to understand and remember. In this light it can be seen as akin to the story of Newton, the falling apple and his discovery of gravity.
Although it is often dismissed as a myth, like most good stories the story of James Watt and the kettle has a basis in fact. In trying to understand the thermodynamics of heat and steam James Watt carried out many laboratory experiments and his diaries record that in conducting these he used a kettle as a boiler to generate steam.

In 1759 Watt’s friend, John Robison, called his attention to the use of steam as a source of motive power. The design of the Newcomen engine, in use for almost 50 years for pumping water from mines, had hardly changed from its first implementation. Watt began to experiment with steam, though he had never seen an operating steam engine. He tried constructing a model; it failed to work satisfactorily, but he continued his experiments and began to read everything he could about the subject. He came to realise the importance of latent heat—the thermal energy released or absorbed during a constant-temperature process—in understanding the engine, which, unknown to Watt, his friend Joseph Black had previously discovered some years before. Understanding of the steam engine was in a very primitive state, for the science of thermodynamics would not be formalised for nearly another 100 years.

In 1763, Watt was asked to repair a model Newcomen engine belonging to the university. Even after repair, the engine barely worked. After much experimentation, Watt demonstrated that about three-quarters of the thermal energy of the steam was being consumed in heating the engine cylinder on every cycle. This energy was wasted because later in the cycle cold water was injected into the cylinder to condense the steam to reduce its pressure. Thus by repeatedly heating and cooling the cylinder, the engine wasted most of its thermal energy rather than converting it into mechanical energy.

Watt’s critical insight, arrived at in May 1765, was to cause the steam to condense in a separate chamber apart from the piston, and to maintain the temperature of the cylinder at the same temperature as the injected steam by surrounding it with a “steam jacket.” Thus very little energy was absorbed by the cylinder on each cycle, making more available to perform useful work. Watt had a working model later that same year.

Despite a potentially workable design, there were still substantial difficulties in constructing a full-scale engine. This required more capital, some of which came from Black. More substantial backing came from John Roebuck, the founder of the celebrated Carron Iron Works near Falkirk, with whom he now formed a partnership. Roebuck lived at Kinneil House in Bo’ness, during which time Watt worked at perfecting his steam engine in a cottage adjacent to the house. The shell of the cottage, and a very large part of one of his projects, still exist to the rear.

The principal difficulty was in machining the piston and cylinder. Iron workers of the day were more like blacksmiths than modern machinists, and were unable to produce the components with sufficient precision. Much capital was spent in pursuing a patent on Watt’s invention. Strapped for resources, Watt was forced to take up employment—first as a surveyor, then as a civil engineer—for eight years.

Roebuck went bankrupt, and Matthew Boulton, who owned the Soho Foundry works near Birmingham, acquired his patent rights. An extension of the patent to 1800 was successfully obtained in 1775.

Through Boulton, Watt finally had access to some of the best iron workers in the world. The difficulty of the manufacture of a large cylinder with a tightly fitting piston was solved by John Wilkinson, who had developed precision boring techniques for cannon making at Bersham, near Wrexham, North Wales. Watt and Boulton formed a hugely successful partnership (Boulton and Watt) which lasted for the next twenty-five years.

In 1776, the first engines were installed and working in commercial enterprises. These first engines were used to power pumps and produced only reciprocating motion to move the pump rods at the bottom of the shaft. The design was commercially successful, and for the next five years Watt was very busy installing more engines, mostly in Cornwall for pumping water out of mines.

These early engines were not manufactured by Boulton and Watt, but were made by others according to drawings made by Watt, who served in the role of consulting engineer. The erection of the engine and its shakedown was supervised by Watt, at first, and then by men in the firm’s employ. These were large machines. The first, for example, had a cylinder with a diameter of some 50 inches and an overall height of about 24 feet, and required the construction of a dedicated building to house it. Boulton and Watt charged an annual payment, equal to one third of the value of the coal saved in comparison to a Newcomen engine performing the same work.

The field of application for the invention was greatly widened when Boulton urged Watt to convert the reciprocating motion of the piston to produce rotational power for grinding, weaving and milling. Although a crank seemed the obvious solution to the conversion Watt and Boulton were stymied by a patent for this, whose holder, James Pickard, and associates proposed to cross-license the external condenser. Watt adamantly opposed this and they circumvented the patent by their sun and planet gear in 1781.

Over the next six years, he made a number of other improvements and modifications to the steam engine. A double acting engine, in which the steam acted alternately on the two sides of the piston was one. He described methods for working the steam “expansively” (i.e., using steam at pressures well above atmospheric). A compound engine, which connected two or more engines was described. Two more patents were granted for these in 1781 and 1782. Numerous other improvements that made for easier manufacture and installation were continually implemented. One of these included the use of the steam indicator which produced an informative plot of the pressure in the cylinder against its volume, which he kept as a trade secret. Another important invention, one which Watt was most proud of, was the parallel motion which was essential in double-acting engines as it produced the straight line motion required for the cylinder rod and pump, from the connected rocking beam, whose end moves in a circular arc. This was patented in 1784. A throttle valve to control the power of the engine, and a centrifugal governor, patented in 1788, to keep it from “running away” were very important. These improvements taken together produced an engine which was up to five times as efficient in its use of fuel as the Newcomen engine.

Because of the danger of exploding boilers, which were in a very primitive stage of development, and the ongoing issues with leaks, Watt restricted his use of high pressure steam – all of his engines used steam at near atmospheric pressure.

Edward Bull started constructing engines for Boulton and Watt in Cornwall in 1781. By 1792 he had started making engines of his own design, but which contained a separate condenser, and so infringed Watt’s patents. Two brothers, Jabez Carter Hornblower and Jonathan Hornblower Jnr also started to build engines about the same time. Others began to modify Newcomen engines by adding a condenser, and the mine owners in Cornwall became convinced that Watt’s patent could not be enforced. They started to withhold payments due to Boulton and Watt, which by 1795 had fallen. Of the total £21,000 (£1,940,000 as of 2016) owed, only £2,500 had been received. Watt was forced to go to court to enforce his claims.

He first sued Bull in 1793. The jury found for Watt, but the question of whether or not the original specification of the patent was valid was left to another trial. In the meantime, injunctions were issued against the infringers, forcing their payments of the royalties to be placed in escrow. The trial on determining the validity of the specifications which was held in the following year was inconclusive, but the injunctions remained in force and the infringers, except for Jonathan Hornblower, all began to settle their cases. Hornblower was soon brought to trial and the verdict of the four judges (in 1799) was decisively in favour of Watt. Their friend John Wilkinson, who had solved the problem of boring an accurate cylinder, was a particularly grievous case. He had erected about twenty engines without Boulton’s and Watts’ knowledge. They finally agreed to settle the infringement in 1796. Boulton and Watt never collected all that was owed them, but the disputes were all settled directly between the parties or through arbitration. These trials were extremely costly in both money and time, but ultimately were successful for the firm.

Before 1780 there was no good method for making copies of letters or drawings. The only method sometimes used was a mechanical one using linked multiple pens. Watt at first experimented with improving this method, but soon gave up on this approach because it was so cumbersome. He instead decided to try to physically transfer some ink from the front of the original to the back of another sheet, moistened with a solvent, and pressed to the original. The second sheet had to be thin, so that the ink could be seen through it when the copy was held up to the light, thus reproducing the original exactly.

Watt started to develop the process in 1779, and made many experiments to formulate the ink, select the thin paper, to devise a method for wetting the special thin paper, and to make a press suitable for applying the correct pressure to effect the transfer. All of these required much experimentation, but he soon had enough success to patent the process a year later. Watt formed another partnership with Boulton (who provided financing) and James Keir (to manage the business) in a firm called James Watt and Co. The perfection of the invention required much more development work before it could be routinely used by others, but this was carried out over the next few years. Boulton and Watt gave up their shares to their sons in 1794. It became a commercial success and was widely used in offices even into the twentieth century.

From an early age Watt was very interested in chemistry. In late 1786, while in Paris, he witnessed an experiment by Berthollet in which he reacted hydrochloric acid with manganese dioxide to produce chlorine. He had already found that an aqueous solution of chlorine could bleach textiles, and had published his findings, which aroused great interest among many potential rivals. When Watt returned to Britain, he began experiments along these lines with hopes of finding a commercially viable process. He discovered that a mixture of salt, manganese dioxide and sulphuric acid could produce chlorine, which Watt believed might be a cheaper method. He passed the chlorine into a weak solution of alkali, and obtained a turbid solution that appeared to have good bleaching properties. He soon communicated these results to James McGrigor, his father-in-law, who was a bleacher in Glasgow. Otherwise he tried to keep his method a secret.

With McGrigor and his wife Annie, he started to scale up the process, and in March 1788, McGrigor was able to bleach 1500 yards of cloth to his satisfaction. About this time Berthollet discovered the salt and sulphuric acid process, and published it so it became public knowledge. Many others began to experiment with improving the process, which still had many shortcomings, not the least of which was the problem of transporting the liquid product. Watt’s rivals soon overtook him in developing the process, and he dropped out of the race. It was not until 1799, when Charles Tennant patented a process for producing solid bleaching powder (calcium hypochlorite) that it became a commercial success.

By 1794 Watt had been chosen by Thomas Beddoes to manufacture apparatus to produce, clean and store gases for use in the new Pneumatic Institution at Hotwells in Bristol. Watt continued to experiment with various gases for several years, but by 1797 the medical uses for the “factitious airs” had come to a dead end.

Watt combined theoretical knowledge of science with the ability to apply it practically. Humphry Davy said of him “Those who consider James Watt only as a great practical mechanic form a very erroneous idea of his character; he was equally distinguished as a natural philosopher and a chemist, and his inventions demonstrate his profound knowledge of those sciences, and that peculiar characteristic of genius, the union of them for practical application”.

He was greatly respected by other prominent men of the Industrial Revolution. He was an important member of the Lunar Society, and was a much sought-after conversationalist and companion, always interested in expanding his horizons. His personal relationships with his friends and partners were always congenial and long-lasting.

Watt was a prolific correspondent. During his years in Cornwall, he wrote long letters to Boulton several times per week. He was averse to publishing his results in, for example, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society however, and instead preferred to communicate his ideas in patents. He was an excellent draughtsman.

He was a rather poor businessman, and especially hated bargaining and negotiating terms with those who sought to use the steam engine. In a letter to William Small in 1772, Watt confessed that “he would rather face a loaded cannon than settle an account or make a bargain.” Until he retired, he was always much concerned about his financial affairs, and was something of a worrier. His health was often poor. He was subject to frequent nervous headaches and depression.

At first the partnership made the drawing and specifications for the engines, and supervised the work to erect it on the customers property. They produced almost none of the parts themselves. Watt did most of his work at his home in Harper’s Hill in Birmingham, while Boulton worked at the Soho Manufactory. Gradually the partners began to actually manufacture more and more of the parts, and by 1795 they purchased a property about a mile away from the Soho manufactory, on the banks of the Birmingham Canal, to establish a new foundry for the manufacture of the engines. The Soho Foundry formally opened in 1796 at a time when Watt’s sons, Gregory and James Jr. were heavily involved in the management of the enterprise. In 1800, the year of Watt’s retirement, the firm made a total of forty-one engines.

Watt retired in 1800, the same year that his fundamental patent and partnership with Boulton expired. The famous partnership was transferred to the men’s sons, Matthew Robinson Boulton and James Watt Jr. . Longtime firm engineer William Murdoch was soon made a partner and the firm prospered.
Watt continued to invent other things before and during his semi-retirement. Within his home in Handsworth, Staffordshire, Watt made use of a garret room as a workshop, and it was here that he worked on many of his inventions. Among other things, he invented and constructed several machines for copying sculptures and medallions which worked very well, but which he never patented. One of the first sculptures he produced with the machine was a small head of his old professor friend Adam Smith. He maintained his interest in civil engineering and was a consultant on several significant projects. He proposed, for example, a method for constructing a flexible pipe to be used for pumping water under the Clyde at Glasgow.

He and his second wife travelled to France and Germany, and he purchased an estate in mid-Wales at Doldowlod House, one mile south of Llanwrthwl, which he much improved.

In 1816 he took a trip on the paddle-steamer The Comet, a product of his inventions, to revisit his home town of Greenock.

He died on 25 August 1819 at his home “Heathfield” in Handsworth, Staffordshire (now part of Birmingham) at the age of 83. He was buried on 2 September in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Handsworth. The church has since been extended and his grave is now inside the church.

William Murdoch joined Boulton and Watt in 1777. At first he worked in the pattern shop in Soho, but soon he was erecting engines in Cornwall. He became an important part of the firm and made many contributions to its success. A very able man, he made several important inventions on his own.
John Griffiths, who wrote a biography of him in 1992, has argued that Watt’s discouraging Murdoch from working with high pressure steam (Watt rightly believed that boilers of the time would be unsafe) on his steam road locomotive experiments delayed its development.

Watt patented the application of the sun and planet gear to steam in 1781 and a steam locomotive in 1784, both of which have strong claims to have been invented by Murdoch. The patent was never contested by Murdoch, however, and Boulton and Watt’s firm continued to use the sun and planet gear in their rotative engines, even long after the patent for the crank expired in 1794. Murdoch was made a partner of the firm in 1810, where he remained until his retirement 20 years later at the age of 76.

James Watt’s improvements to the steam engine “converted it from a prime mover of marginal efficiency into the mechanical workhorse of the Industrial Revolution”. The availability of efficient, reliable motive power made whole new classes of industry economically viable, and altered the economies of continents. In doing so it brought about immense social change, attracting millions of rural families to the towns and cities.

Watt was the sole inventor listed on his six patents:

  • Patent 913 A method of lessening the consumption of steam in steam engines-the separate condenser. The specification was accepted on 5 January 1769; enrolled on 29 April 1769, and extended to June 1800 by an act of Parliament in 1775.
  • Patent 1,244 A new method of copying letters; The specification was accepted on 14 February 1780 and enrolled on 31 May 1780.
  • Patent 1,306 New methods to produce a continued rotation motion – sun and planet. The specification was accepted on 25 October 1781 and enrolled on 23 February 1782.
  • Patent 1,321 New improvements upon steam engines – expansive and double acting. The specification was accepted on 14 March 1782 and enrolled on 4 July 1782.
  • Patent 1,432 New improvements upon steam engines – three bar motion and steam carriage. The specification was accepted on 28 April 1782 and enrolled on 25 August 1782.
  • Patent 1,485 Newly improved methods of constructing furnaces. The specification was accepted on 14 June 1785 and enrolled on 9 July 1785.

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Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

James Hutton
13 June 1726 – 26 March 1797


James Hutton

He was born in Edinburgh on 3 June 1726 OS as one of five children of William Hutton, a merchant who was Edinburgh City Treasurer, but who died in 1729 when James was still young. Hutton’s mother — Sarah Balfour — insisted on his education at the High School of Edinburgh where he was particularly interested in mathematics and chemistry, then when he was 14 he attended the University of Edinburgh as a “student of humanity” i.e. Classics (Latin and Greek). He was apprenticed to the lawyer George Chalmers WS when he was 17, but took more interest in chemical experiments than legal work. At the age of 18, he became a physician’s assistant, and attended lectures in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. After three years he went to the University of Paris to continue his studies, taking the degree of Doctor of Medicine at Leiden University in 1749 with a thesis on blood circulation. Around 1747 he had a son by a Miss Edington, and though he gave his child James Smeaton Hutton financial assistance, he had little to do with the boy who went on to become a post-office clerk in London.

After his degree Hutton returned to London, then in mid-1750 went back to Edinburgh and resumed chemical experiments with close friend, James Davie. Their work on production of sal ammoniac from soot led to their partnership in a profitable chemical works, manufacturing the crystalline salt which was used for dyeing, metalworking and as smelling salts and previously was available only from natural sources and had to be imported from Egypt. Hutton owned and rented out properties in Edinburgh, employing a factor to manage this business.

Hutton inherited from his father the Berwickshire farms of Slighhouses, a lowland farm which had been in the family since 1713, and the hill farm of Nether Monynut. In the early 1750s he moved to Slighhouses and set about making improvements, introducing farming practices from other parts of Britain and experimenting with plant and animal husbandry. He recorded his ideas and innovations in an unpublished treatise on The Elements of Agriculture.

This developed his interest in meteorology and geology. In a 1753 letter he wrote that he had “become very fond of studying the surface of the earth, and was looking with anxious curiosity into every pit or ditch or bed of a river that fell in his way”. Clearing and draining his farm provided ample opportunities. Playfair describes Hutton as having noticed that “a vast proportion of the present rocks are composed of materials afforded by the destruction of bodies, animal, vegetable and mineral, of more ancient formation”. His theoretical ideas began to come together in 1760. While his farming activities continued, in 1764 he went on a geological tour of the north of Scotland with George Maxwell-Clerk, ancestor of the famous James Clerk Maxwell.

In 1768 Hutton returned to Edinburgh, letting his farms to tenants but continuing to take an interest in farm improvements and research which included experiments carried out at Slighhouses. He developed a red dye made from the roots of the madder plant.

He had a house built in 1770 at St John’s Hill, Edinburgh, overlooking Salisbury Crags. This later became the Balfour family home and, in 1840, the birthplace of the psychiatrist James Crichton-Browne. Hutton was one of the most influential participants in the Scottish Enlightenment, and fell in with numerous first-class minds in the sciences including John Playfair, philosopher David Hume and economist Adam Smith. Hutton held no position in Edinburgh University and communicated his scientific findings through the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was particularly friendly with Joseph Black, and the two of them together with Adam Smith founded the Oyster Club for weekly meetings, with Hutton and Black finding a venue which turned out to have rather disreputable associations.

Between 1767 and 1774 Hutton had considerable close involvement with the construction of the Forth and Clyde canal, making full use of his geological knowledge, both as a shareholder and as a member of the committee of management, and attended meetings including extended site inspections of all the works. In 1777 he published a pamphlet on Considerations on the Nature, Quality and Distinctions of Coal and Culm which successfully helped to obtain relief from excise duty on carrying small coal.

Hutton hit on a variety of ideas to explain the rock formations he saw around him, but according to Playfair he “was in no haste to publish his theory; for he was one of those who are much more delighted with the contemplation of truth, than with the praise of having discovered it”. After some 25 years of work, his Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe was read to meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in two parts, the first by his friend Joseph Black on 7 March 1785, and the second by himself on 4 April 1785. Hutton subsequently read an abstract of his dissertation Concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration and Stability to Society meeting on 4 July 1785, which he had printed and circulated privately. In it, he outlined his theory as follows;

The solid parts of the present land appear in general, to have been composed of the productions of the sea, and of other materials similar to those now found upon the shores. Hence we find reason to conclude:
1st, That the land on which we rest is not simple and original, but that it is a composition, and had been formed by the operation of second causes.
2nd, That before the present land was made, there had subsisted a world composed of sea and land, in which were tides and currents, with such operations at the bottom of the sea as now take place. And,
Lastly, That while the present land was forming at the bottom of the ocean, the former land maintained plants and animals; at least the sea was then inhabited by animals, in a similar manner as it is at present.
Hence we are led to conclude, that the greater part of our land, if not the whole had been produced by operations natural to this globe; but that in order to make this land a permanent body, resisting the operations of the waters, two things had been required;
1st, The consolidation of masses formed by collections of loose or incoherent materials;
2ndly, The elevation of those consolidated masses from the bottom of the sea, the place where they were collected, to the stations in which they now remain above the level of the ocean.

At Glen Tilt in the Cairngorm mountains in the Scottish Highlands in 1785, Hutton found granite penetrating metamorphic schists, in a way which indicated that the granite had been molten at the time. This showed to him that granite formed from cooling of molten rock, not precipitation out of water as others at the time believed, and that the granite must be younger than the schists.

He went on to find a similar penetration of volcanic rock through sedimentary rock near the centre of Edinburgh, at Salisbury Crags, adjoining Arthur’s Seat: this is now known as Hutton’s Section. He found other examples in Galloway in 1786, and on the Isle of Arran in 1787.

The existence of angular unconformities had been noted by Nicolas Steno and by French geologists including Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, who interpreted them in terms of Neptunism as “primary formations”. Hutton wanted to examine such formations himself to see “particular marks” of the relationship between the rock layers. On the 1787 trip to the Isle of Arran he found his first example of Hutton’s Unconformity to the north of Newton Point near Lochranza, but the limited view meant that the condition of the underlying strata was not clear enough for him, and he incorrectly thought that the strata were conformable at a depth below the exposed outcrop.

Later in 1787 Hutton noted what is now known as the Hutton or “Great” Unconformity at Inchbonny, Jedburgh, in layers of sedimentary rock. As shown in the illustrations to the right, layers of greywacke in the lower layers of the cliff face are tilted almost vertically, and above an intervening layer of conglomerate lie horizontal layers of Old Red Sandstone. He later wrote of how he “rejoiced at my good fortune in stumbling upon an object so interesting in the natural history of the earth, and which I had been long looking for in vain.” That year, he found the same sequence in Teviotdale.

In the Spring of 1788 he set off with John Playfair to the Berwickshire coast and found more examples of this sequence in the valleys of the Tour and Pease Burns near Cockburnspath. They then took a boat trip from Dunglass Burn east along the coast with the geologist Sir James Hall of Dunglass. They found the sequence in the cliff below St. Helens, then just to the east at Siccar Point found what Hutton called “a beautiful picture of this junction washed bare by the sea”.

Playfair later commented about the experience, “the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time”. Continuing along the coast, they made more discoveries including sections of the vertical beds showing strong ripple marks which gave Hutton “great satisfaction” as a confirmation of his supposition that these beds had been laid horizontally in water. He also found conglomerate at altitudes that demonstrated the extent of erosion of the strata, and said of this that “we never should have dreamed of meeting with what we now perceived”.

Hutton reasoned that there must have been innumerable cycles, each involving deposition on the seabed, uplift with tilting and erosion then undersea again for further layers to be deposited. On the belief that this was due to the same geological forces operating in the past as the very slow geological forces seen operating at the present day, the thicknesses of exposed rock layers implied to him enormous stretches of time.

Though Hutton circulated privately a printed version of the abstract of his Theory (Concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration, and Stability) which he read at a meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 4 July 1785; the full account of his theory as read at the 7 March 1785 and 4 April 1785 meetings did not appear in print until 1788. It was titled Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe and appeared in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. I, Part II, pp. 209–304, plates I and II, published 1788. He put forward the view that “from what has actually been, we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen thereafter.” This restated the Scottish Enlightenment concept which David Hume had put in 1777 as “all inferences from experience suppose … that the future will resemble the past”, and Charles Lyell memorably rephrased in the 1830s as “the present is the key to the past”. Hutton’s 1788 paper concludes; “The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end.” His memorably phrased closing statement has long been celebrated.

Following criticism, especially the arguments from Richard Kirwan who thought Hutton’s ideas were atheistic and not logical, Hutton published a two volume version of his theory in 1795, consisting of the 1788 version of his theory (with slight additions) along with a lot of material drawn from shorter papers Hutton already had to hand on various subjects such as the origin of granite. It included a review of alternative theories, such as those of Thomas Burnet and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.
The whole was entitled An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge and of the Progress of Reason, from Sense to Science and Philosophy when the third volume was completed in 1794. Its 2,138 pages prompted Playfair to remark that “The great size of the book, and the obscurity which may justly be objected to many parts of it, have probably prevented it from being received as it deserves.”

His new theories placed him into opposition with the then-popular Neptunist theories of Abraham Gottlob Werner, that all rocks had precipitated out of a single enormous flood. Hutton proposed that the interior of the Earth was hot, and that this heat was the engine which drove the creation of new rock: land was eroded by air and water and deposited as layers in the sea; heat then consolidated the sediment into stone, and uplifted it into new lands. This theory was dubbed “Plutonist” in contrast to the flood-oriented theory.

As well as combating the Neptunists, he also opened up the concept of deep time for scientific purposes, in opposition to Catastrophism. Rather than accepting that the earth was no more than a few thousand years old, he maintained that the Earth must be much older, with a history extending indefinitely into the distant past. His main line of argument was that the tremendous displacements and changes he was seeing did not happen in a short period of time by means of catastrophe, but that processes still happening on the Earth in the present day had caused them. As these processes were very gradual, the Earth needed to be ancient, in order to allow time for the changes. Before long, scientific inquiries provoked by his claims had pushed back the age of the earth into the millions of years – still too short when compared with the accepted 4.6 billion year age in the 21st century, but a distinct improvement.

It has been claimed that the prose of Principles of Knowledge was so obscure that it also impeded the acceptance of Hutton’s geological theories. Restatements of his geological ideas (though not his thoughts on evolution) by John Playfair in 1802 and then Charles Lyell in the 1830s popularised the concept of an infinitely repeating cycle, though Lyell tended to dismiss Hutton’s views as giving too much credence to catastrophic changes.

Lyell’s books had widespread influence, not least on the up-and-coming young geologist Charles Darwin who read them with enthusiasm during his voyage on the Beagle, and has been described as Lyell’s first disciple. In a comment on the arguments of the 1830s, William Whewell coined the term uniformitarianism to describe Lyell’s version of the ideas, contrasted with the catastrophism of those who supported the early 19th century concept that geological ages recorded a series of catastrophes followed by repopulation by a new range of species. Over time there was a convergence in views, but Lyell’s description of the development of geological ideas led to wide belief that uniformitarianism had triumphed.

It was not merely the earth to which Hutton directed his attention. He had long studied the changes of the atmosphere. The same volume in which his Theory of the Earth appeared contained also a Theory of Rain. He contended that the amount of moisture which the air can retain in solution increases with temperature, and, therefore, that on the mixture of two masses of air of different temperatures a portion of the moisture must be condensed and appear in visible form. He investigated the available data regarding rainfall and climate in different regions of the globe, and came to the conclusion that the rainfall is regulated by the humidity of the air on the one hand, and mixing of different air currents in the higher atmosphere on the other.

The idea that the Earth is alive is found in philosophy and religion, but the first scientific discussion was by James Hutton. In 1785, he stated that the Earth was a superorganism and that its proper study should be physiology. Although his views anticipated the Gaia hypothesis, proposed in the 1960s by scientist James Lovelock, his idea of a living Earth was forgotten in the intense reductionism of the 19th century.
Hutton also advocated uniformitarianism for living creatures  – evolution, in a sense – and even suggested natural selection as a possible mechanism affecting them:

“…if an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be the most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.”

Hutton gave the example that where dogs survived through “swiftness of foot and quickness of sight… the most defective in respect of those necessary qualities, would be the most subject to perish, and that those who employed them in greatest perfection… would be those who would remain, to preserve themselves, and to continue the race”. Equally, if an acute sense of smell became “more necessary to the sustenance of the animal… the same principle [would] change the qualities of the animal, and.. produce a race of well scented hounds, instead of those who catch their prey by swiftness”. The same “principle of variation” would influence “every species of plant, whether growing in a forest or a meadow”. He came to his ideas as the result of experiments in plant and animal breeding, some of which he outlined in an unpublished manuscript, the Elements of Agriculture. He distinguished between heritable variation as the result of breeding, and non-heritable variations caused by environmental differences such as soil and climate.

Though he saw his “principle of variation” as explaining the development of varieties, Hutton rejected the idea that evolution might originate species as a “romantic fantasy”, according to palaeoclimatologist Paul Pearson. Influenced by deism, Hutton thought the mechanism allowed species to form varieties better adapted to particular conditions and provided evidence of benevolent design in nature. Studies of Charles Darwin’s notebooks have shown that Darwin arrived separately at the idea of natural selection which he set out in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, but it has been speculated that he may have had some half-forgotten memory from his time as a student in Edinburgh of ideas of selection in nature as set out by Hutton, and by William Charles Wells and Patrick Matthew who had both been associated with the city before publishing their ideas on the topic early in the 19th century.


  • 1785. Abstract of a dissertation read in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, upon the seventh of March, and fourth of April, MDCCLXXXV, Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and Stability. Edinburgh. 30pp.
  • 1788. The theory of rain. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. 1, Part 2, pp. 41–86.
  • 1788. Theory of the Earth; or an investigation of the laws observable in the composition, dissolution, and restoration of land upon the Globe. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. 1, Part 2, pp. 209–304.
  • 1792. Dissertations on different subjects in natural philosophy. Edinburgh & London: Strahan & Cadell.
  • 1794. Observations on granite. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. 3, pp. 77–81.
  • 1794. A dissertation upon the philosophy of light, heat, and fire. Edinburgh: Cadell, Junior, Davies.
  • 1794. An investigation of the principles of knowledge and of the progress of reason, from sense to science and philosophy. Edinburgh: Strahan & Cadell.
  • 1795. Theory of the Earth; with proofs and illustrations. Edinburgh: Creech. 2 vols.
  • 1797. Elements of Agriculture. Unpublished manuscript.
  • 1899. Theory of the Earth; with proofs and illustrations, vol III, Edited by Sir Archibald Geikie. Geological Society, Burlington House, London. at Internet Archive

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Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Daniel Rutherford
3 November 1749 – 15 December 1819


Daniel Rutherford

A Scottish physician, chemist and botanist who is most famous for the isolation of nitrogen in 1772.

Rutherford was the uncle of the novelist Sir Walter Scott.

The son of Professor John Rutherford and Anne Mackay, Daniel Rutherford was born in Edinburgh on 3 November 1749. He left home at the age of 16 to go to college. He was educated at Mundell’s School and Edinburgh University.

When Joseph Black was studying the properties of carbon dioxide, he found that a candle would not burn in it.

Black turned this problem over to Rutherford. Rutherford kept a mouse in a space with a confined quality of air until it died. (DWW-Obviously Science trumped the SPCA at the time, if there even was an Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)

Then, he burned a candle in the remaining air until it went out. Afterwards, he burned phosphorus in that, until it would not burn. Then the air was passed through a carbon dioxide absorbing solution. The remaining oxygen:
                “did not support combustion, and a mouse could not live in it.”

Rutherford called the gas (which we now know would have consisted primarily of nitrogen) “noxious air” or “phlogisticated air”. (DWW-I would use phlogisticated-it sounds very archaic.) Rutherford reported the experiment in 1772. He and Black were convinced of the validity of the phlogiston theory, so they explained their results in terms of it.

He was a professor of botany at the University of Edinburgh and keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

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Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Thomas Charles Hope
21 July 1766 – 13 June 1844


Thomas Charles Hope

Born in Edinburgh, the third son of surgeon and botanist John Hope and Juliana Stevenson, he was educated at the High School, the University of Edinburgh (MD 1787) and the University of Paris. At Edinburgh he was a student of Joseph Black.

A Scottish physician and chemist. He discovered the element strontium, and gave his name to Hope’s Experiment, which shows that water reaches its maximum density at 4°C.

Hope served as president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (1815–19), and as vice-president of Royal Society of Edinburgh (1823–33) during the presidencies of Walter Scott and Thomas Makdougall Brisbane.

He founded the chemical prize at Edinburgh.

Charles Darwin was one of Hope’s students, and Darwin viewed his chemistry lectures as highlights in his otherwise largely dull education at Edinburgh University.

Hope was a nephew of the physician Alexander Stevenson.

He was appointed lecturer in chemistry at the University of Glasgow in 1787, and professor of medicine in 1789.

In January 1788, upon the proposal of John Walker, Daniel Rutherford and Alexander Monro, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

In 1791-2 Hope discovered the chemical element strontium and named it after Strontian, the west highland village where he found strontianite. In the experiment that bears his name Hope determined the maximum density of water and explained why icebergs float.

In 1795 Hope was selected by Joseph Black as his assistant and eventual successor to the professorship of medicine and chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. Hope’s goal was to more fully combine the practice of medicine with his chemical instruction.

In 1800 Hope won the annual Edinburgh Arrow archery competition.

In 1804 he became a member of the Highland Society.

In May 1810 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

Between 1824-40 Hope worked with scientists based in Poissy, France. With the major Jean-François Senincourt, he tried to establish a university in the town. Within a few years his aims began to be realised as medical students crowded his lectures.

In 1843 he resigned the professorship and died in Edinburgh in 1844.

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Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Joseph Black
16 April 1728 – 6 December 1799


Joseph Black

Black was born in Bordeaux, his father, from Belfast, was engaged in the wine trade. His mother was from Aberdeenshire, and her family was also in the wine business. Joseph had twelve brothers and sisters. He entered the University of Glasgow when he was eighteen years old, and four years later he went to Edinburgh to further his medical studies.


A precision analytical balance

In about 1750, Black developed the analytical balance based on a light-weight beam balanced on a wedge-shaped fulcrum. Each arm carried a pan on which the sample or standard weights was placed. It far exceeded the accuracy of any other balance of the time and became an important scientific instrument in most chemistry laboratories.
In 1757, he was appointed Regius Professor of the Practice of Medicine at the University of Glasgow.

In 1761 Black deduced that the application of heat to ice at its melting point does not cause a rise in temperature of the ice/water mixture, but rather an increase in the amount of water in the mixture. Additionally, Black observed that the application of heat to boiling water does not result in a rise in temperature of a water/steam mixture, but rather an increase in the amount of steam. From these observations, he concluded that the heat applied must have combined with the ice particles and boiling water and become latent. The theory of latent heat marks the beginning of thermodynamics. Black’s theory of latent heat was one of his more-important scientific contributions, and one on which his scientific fame chiefly rests.

This all proved important not only in the development of abstract science but in the development of the steam engine. The latent heat of water is large compared with many other liquids, so giving impetus to James Watt’s successful attempts to improve the efficiency of the steam engine invented by Thomas Newcomen.

Black also explored the properties of a gas produced in various reactions. He found that limestone (calcium carbonate) could be heated or treated with acids to yield a gas he called “fixed air.” He observed that the fixed air was denser than air and did not support either flame or animal life. Black also found that when bubbled through an aqueous solution of lime (calcium hydroxide), it would precipitate calcium carbonate. He used this phenomenon to illustrate that carbon dioxide is produced by animal respiration and microbial fermentation.

In 1757/1758 Black became a friend of Watt, who first began his studies on steam power at Glasgow University in 1761. He provided significant financing and other support for Watt’s early research on the steam engine. Black also was a member of the Poker Club and associated with David Hume, Adam Smith, and the literati of the Scottish Enlightenment. Black never married. He died in Edinburgh at the age of 71, and is buried there in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

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