Huttons Boswells

At any other time, the force and elegance of Playfair's style must have insured popularity to the Huttonian doctrines; but, by a singular coincidence, neptunianism and orthodoxy were now associated in the same creed; the tide of prejudice ran so strong, that the majority were carried away into the chaotic fluid, and other cosmological inventions of Werner.

Charles Lyell, 1830

James Hutton died on the evening of Saturday, March 26, 1797, at the age of seventy. One sister, Isabella, survived him. He was buried in Greyfriar's Cemetery, the largest cemetery in the city, lying below the south side of imposing Edinburgh Castle. Although he had been ill for over four years, the doctor had inexplicably made no effort to get his affairs in order. Joseph Black, the very picture of organization and preparation himself, was pressed into service to deal with Hutton's considerable estate. Several weeks after Hutton's death, Black and the rest of his still-saddened friends were shocked by an unexpected development: Hutton's illegitimate son, also named James Hutton, arrived in Edinburgh to announce his existence. Even Black, who knew Hutton better than anyone, was stunned. The second James Hutton, now about fifty years old, had lived in London all his life; he was married and had five grown children. There is evidence that Hutton had occasionally sent his son money, but no indication that he had ever met his grandchildren, and he did not provide for any of them upon his death. It is a testament to Hutton's friends, if not to him, that Black, Playfair, and others looked after Hutton's grandchildren after his death. In fact, one of the grandchildren was a motivated student, and Playfair saw to it that he was admitted into the University of Edinburgh.

Though Hutton's personal affairs were in disarray, the same could not be said of his intellectual pursuits. By 1797, he had published two of three planned volumes of the Theory of the Earth. The unpublished third volume would have been welcomed, for the draft manuscript contained passages about his discoveries at Glen Tilt, Arran, and Siccar Point. But it was hardly necessary. The doctor had completed all the needed field-work, and Clerk, Playfair, and Hall were his witnesses. He had published his theory three times: the Abstract in 1785, the long paper in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1788, and the two volumes of Theory of the Earth in 1795. And he had also published a short piece on granite in 1790. He no doubt died feeling that his theory and legacy were secure.

The critics were still hounding him, of course. Yet, he had dispatched Richard Kirwan at length in the 1795 book. And though an old nemesis, Jean André De Luc (1727-1817), reappeared to attack Hutton's two volumes in a series of articles published in 1796 and 1797, he seemed merely to parrot Kirwan. De Luc was from Geneva, but had lived in London since the early 1770s. He was a respected member of the Royal Society, and his aim, like Kirwan's, was to reconcile Genesis and geology. In his critique, he charged Hutton with crediting the Deity for the outlandish processes that "he has himself devised against the Mosaic account of the earth." De Luc's own theory was related to Werner's. He imagined that there had been six major epochs in the earth's history, correlating to the six days of creation, and that huge cavities in the earth had caused massive collapses, which in turn had led to dramatic recessions of the universal ocean and odd formations on the surface of the earth.

Kirwan and De Luc were respected geologists, and though their attacks were spirited, they were also old-fashioned and steeped in religion; they did not seriously engage with Hutton's rigorous scientific assertions. Had De Luc been the last to take on Hutton, his friends could have rested easy. But a new foe appeared right before Hutton died—the most talented and determined of them all. He would engage with Hutton's scientific assertions. To add insult to injury, this new enemy lived right in Hutton's backyard—and he was a mere child. Robert Jameson was yet another Edinburgh native and student from the University of Edinburgh who, at twenty-two years old, presented a paper at the Royal Medical Society (in Edinburgh) titled "Is the Huttonian Theory of the Earth Consistent with Fact?" As the title makes clear, the 1796 article was a direct attack on Hutton's theory. Where and why the young Jameson developed his anti-Hutton sentiment are not documented. However, it is probable that it started at the university, in John Walker's classroom. As a student, Jameson had become the protégé of the increasingly infirm Walker, who gave him responsibility for the day-to-day running of the Museum of Natural History while Jameson was still an undergraduate. A convert to the Wernerian viewpoint, Jameson was determined to prove Hutton wrong once and for all.

Unlike his mentor, who never seemed to finish the books he was supposedly writing, Jameson was prolific. Following the 1796 paper, he traveled to Ireland to meet Richard Kirwan. Still only twenty-four years old, he published his first book, An Outline of the Mineralogy of the Shetland Islands, and of the Island of Arran, in 1798. Arran was one of the areas that Hutton had visited during his granite-finding trips of1785-1787, and Jameson deliberately chose to visit it to provide a different interpretation. Two years later, he published a prodigious two-volume book titled Mineralogy of Scotland. The book contained impressive scholarship, and it applied the Wernerian viewpoint to the geology of Scotland.

After writing two books and one article, all aimed at disproving Hutton and reinstating Werner and Walker, Jameson decided to travel to Freiberg to study at the feet of the master himself. He left for Saxony in September 1800, and studied with Werner for one year. He returned to Edinburgh more committed than ever; and now that Walker's health was in tatters, Jameson was named his assistant. When Walker died in 1803, the world's most accomplished pro-Wernerian and anti-Huttonian geologist became a formal colleague of Playfair's and the next geology professor at the University of Edinburgh.

John Playfair watched these developments with alarm. As early as 1796, the year Jameson's first paper was published, he recognized that Jameson was a potential threat to all that Hutton had worked so hard to accomplish. Moreover, Playfair was not convinced that Hutton's book had adequately confronted even Kirwan and De Luc. As evidence of how much work was left to be done, the already influential Encyclopedia Britannica, in its third edition of 1797, devoted twelve double-column pages to challenging Hutton's 1788 paper: "Thus we have seen, that, contrary to our author's hypothesis, the world has undoubtedly had a beginning; that our dry land has not, for ages, been the bottom of the sea; that we may reasonably suppose the deluge to have been the cause of all or most of the fossil appearance of shell, bones, & c., we meet with ..."

Who would lead the counterattack? Joseph Black had neither the strength nor energy. John Clerk was the same age as Black and also in declining health. James Watt was busy making history in his own right, and had not stayed close to Hutton in his later years. In the end, Playfair knew that he and Hall would need to safeguard their friend's work. It appears that both men were motivated to play these roles because of the importance of the scientific questions, which they recognized as among the most intriguing in the waning years of the eighteenth century. At the same time, their affection for Hutton was unmistakable. Soon after Hutton's death, Playfair visited Arran, and he wrote to Hall from there: "The junctions I saw were I believe all visited by Dr. H. At one of them I could see the marks of his hammer, (or at least I thought so), and could not without emotion think of the enthusiasm with which he must have viewed it. I was never more sensible of the truth of what I remember you said one day when we were looking at the Dykes in the water at Leith since the Dr.'s death, 'that these phenomena had now lost half their value.'"

As a first step, Playfair decided to write a memoir of Hutton for the Royal Society of Edinburgh, similar to one he had written for Matthew Stewart ten years earlier (Stewart was the mathematician who assumed Maclaurin's chair after his death; he died in 1785, when Playfair took his position). While sorting through Hutton's papers, Playfair realized how much material had been committed to manuscript but never published. Also, shortly after he began the memoir, Jameson's book about Arran appeared. That book, combined with Playfair's fear that Hut-ton's 1795 Theory of the Earth—written while Hutton was tormented by intense pain—was not as strong as it could have been, caused Playfair to take an unprecedented step. He decided that he would write a new book about Hutton's theory. Thus, he embarked on Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. Other scholars have extended a predecessor's works before and since, but usually the new effort is presented as an original work. The title alone demonstrates that Playfair's goal was remarkably honorary; he was simply clarifying what his friend had already proved. In the preface to his book, Playfair wrote, with his usual modesty,

Having been instructed by Dr. Hutton himself in his theory of the earth; having lived in intimate friendship with that excellent man for several years, and almost in the daily habit of discussing the questions here treated of; I have had the opportunity of understanding his views and becoming acquainted with his peculiarities, whether of expression or of thought. In the other qualifications necessary for the illustration of a system so extensive and various, I am abundantly sensible of my deficiency, and shall therefore, with great deference, and considerable anxiety, wait the decision from which there is no appeal.

Playfair's book was published in 1802. Over 500 pages, but with a relatively large typeface and small page size, the book did not feel long, especially when compared to Hutton's lengthy two volumes. The layout itself was clever. The first part, less than 150 pages, was a distillation of the Huttonian theory and focused on stratified rocks, their consolidation and position on the surface of the earth, intrusive igneous veins, granite, the system of stratified rocks and igneous rocks, and what it all meant for the renovation of the earth. The next 400 pages consisted of separate chapters organized under the heading "Notes and Additions." A representative chapter was titled "Origin of Coal"; another was "Rivers and Lakes." These chapters demonstrated just how well James Hutton had taught geology to the mathematician; they also showed how widely read in geology Playfair had become. The chapters were filled with specific examples from all over the world, most coming from other writers, although Playfair had been doing geologic fieldwork around Scotland in preparation for writing the book (he mainly revisited the major locales of Hutton's 1785-1788 excursions). The last part of Illustrations addressed the various criticisms that had surfaced over the years. Playfair never mentioned Jameson by name, but he did explicitly direct comments to Werner, Kirwan, and De Luc.

Illustrations of the Huttonian System was successful. It was published in London and Edinburgh simultaneously, and it certainly attracted a wider readership than Hutton's final work (which went through only one 500-copy printing). Playfair's nephew later wrote (in 1822), "With what success [Illustrations] was attended we may judge from the fame and credit which have been attained by the theory, which, but for its commentary, seemed likely to be known only through the erroneous statement of its opponents."

James Hall performed a function just as important as Playfair's. Seeing Siccar Point with the doctor in 1788 had been a key turning point for Hall. From then on, he was a disciple of Hutton's and he wanted to help confirm his old friend's theory. The young aristocrat was a talented chemist, and in the early 1790s he asked Hutton whether he could perform some experiments on basalt. For reasons not altogether clear, Hutton thought that any such experiment would be fruitless and urged Hall not to bother. Hall did not agree, but he did not want to openly disobey Hutton, so he waited.

Following Hutton's death, Hall saw no reason to wait any longer. The existence of subterranean heat remained a controver sial topic, and Hall believed that he had a way to prove its existence through chemistry. Jameson, Kirwan, De Luc, and Werner himself all claimed that basalt—what we now know to be an igneous rock like granite—was a Primary rock, and therefore among the oldest on the planet. Hutton was convinced that it was fresh molten rock injected into older strata. The Wernerians proved their contention by pointing out that basalt, when heated and cooled in experiments, turned to glass, not the crystalline rocks that appeared in nature. Therefore, basalt must be a precipitate, formed in the universal ocean. It is important to remember that the followers of Werner merely had to prove that the upstart Hutton was wrong because he was confronting their established theory.

Hall had an ingenious idea: What if the heated basalt was cooled only very slowly, as would probably happen within the earth, where Hutton reasoned that basalt formed? Hall collected fifteen separate samples of basalt from Scotland, England, and the Continent, heated them to very high temperatures, and then let them cool slowly. Sure enough, the basalts re-formed as crystals, not glass. With Hall's connections in Paris and at the Royal Society in London, word of the experiments spread through the geology community and were quickly recognized as significant. However, the resulting crystals still did not look like their parent rocks (the basalts needed to cool much more slowly than Hall had allowed). Therefore, though this experiment proved the Wernerians were wrong in believing that basalts always cooled into glass, it did not conclusively prove Hutton correct.

But Hall's next experiment would do just that. It would take about six years to complete and it is now considered the beginning of experimental geology. Hall's goal was to prove that limestone would not disintegrate if heated under great pressure. Recall that Joseph Black had discovered carbon dioxide by heating types of limestone; his specimens lost nearly half their weight when heated, and he was then able to prove that what was lost was carbon dioxide. So this was well known. And it was precisely what critics pointed to when Hutton argued that subterranean heat caused sediments to consolidate: If limestone, one of the most common of all stratified rocks, became completely transformed when heated, how could heat be the "mineralizing" factor? Hutton had argued that pressure kept the components together and prevented disintegration, but this had not been proved.

Hall performed over 500 experiments designed to prove that limestone did not disintegrate when heated, as it does on earth, as long as there was enough pressure to hold it together. He had to design every facet of the experiment because nothing like it had ever been attempted. In addition, he had to assemble his own instruments and equipment, which included a special high-temperature thermometer, and gun barrels (at the time, the only objects built to withstand high pressure). Hall placed the rocks in the gun barrels, heated them to tremendously high temperatures, and then measured the loss of weight. In his most successful experiments, with the heat as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius and pressure measurements equivalent to a column of salt water 2,700 meters (almost 2 miles) high, the minerals lost essentially no weight. This was a triumphant result.

Hall's new success was again widely publicized. His reputation as a careful chemist meant that the results were taken seri ously. Unfortunately, because of their complexity, the experiments were nearly impossible for others to replicate, so they could not be independently confirmed. Until similar results were achieved by others, and they finally were decades later, Hall's findings could not be considered unassailable. Clearly, there was more work to do.

Playfair's Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth was published in 1802, and Hall's limestone experiments were completed in 1804-1805. These two men had done more than anyone could ask to protect another's legacy. And for most of the first decade of the nineteenth century, it looked as though the Huttonians had won the battle against the Wernerians. But Werner's advocates were simply too numerous and determined for Playfair and Hall to withstand for long. Werner lived until 1817, teaching his course regularly and creating new apostles each time. Robert Jameson was probably even more instrumental in keeping Werner's ideas predominant. He was the only professor at the University of Edinburgh teaching the geology course, and it was the largest course of its type in the world. Records of the period show that he taught between 50 and 100 students each year (Werner taught only about 20 annually), creating a small army of Wernerians by the end of the term. Rubbing salt into the wound, Jameson did more than espouse the tenets of Werner's system; he also took pains to criticize Hut-ton's system at every turn. In addition to his teaching, Jameson published his most successful book yet in 1808. Titled Elements of Geognosy, this technical book was the most scholarly and refined presentation of Abraham Werner's system.

Although the tension in Edinburgh was palpable, the geological community in England officially turned its collective back on the controversy. The French Revolution had created a tremendous backlash of conservatism in England that started in the early 1790s and continued for several decades. The conservatism spread in all directions, infecting even the sciences. Kirwan and De Luc's critiques of Hutton were emblematic of this backlash. Then, in 1807, the prominent geologists of England founded the Geological Society of London. The founders of this body were weary of the Hutton/Werner debate and essentially told their members that the field needed facts and observations, not theories. The purpose of their society would be to provide the needed facts. Therefore, the society encouraged and supported specific and detailed investigations of geological formations.

In 1808, the same year that Jameson's book appeared, a development on the Continent complicated the picture. Two prominent French scientists, Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart, presented a paper that summarized the results of their close examination of the strata around Paris. They had discovered something puzzling: Nine distinct episodes had been revealed in the strata. Most significantly, the fossils found in the strata alternated between saltwater and freshwater organisms. The collaborators were followers of Werner, but this discovery shook their belief in his system. Werner's universal ocean had receded only once, so the alternation between salt and fresh water was impossible. But this had certainly occurred around Paris.

When Cuvier published his book on the joint Cuvier/ Brongniart research in 1812, he presented a new theory in which the earth had been beset by a series of catastrophic floods, at least six times in its history. These catastrophes accounted for the otherwise unexplainable strata around Paris. But the previous deluges had occurred so far in the past that they could not be analyzed or otherwise investigated. Cuvier wrote that it was not possible to "explain the more ancient revolutions of the globe by means of still existing causes. . . . The thread of operation is here broken, the march of nature is changed, and none of the agents that she now employs were sufficient for her ancient works." This view soon became known as Catastrophism. Because Cuvier argued that "the thread of operation is here broken," he did not attempt to address the question of how old the earth was.

The irrepressible Robert Jameson quickly translated Cuvier's book into English. The Jameson edition was widely read, going through five editions from 1813 to 1827. Jameson was able to overlook the problems that the book presented for strict Wernerism, the most significant being that it dramatically altered the original concept of one, and only one, universal ocean. The crucial factor, in Jameson's eyes, was that Cuvier emphasized that the final catastrophe was the source of the earth's current geology. This final deluge could be interpreted as the universal ocean. Furthermore, Cuvier's contention that the type and scale of the earth's operations in the past were different from forces currently at work was in direct opposition to the ideas Hutton and his followers had proposed.

While Cuvier's work was energizing the Wernerians, James Hall inadvertently contributed to the obscuring of Hutton's vision. One part of Hutton's theory that troubled him was its inability to explain the appearance of huge boulders (called erratics by geologists) in various parts of Europe. Hall came to believe that tsunamis—overwhelming tidal waves—might be the cause (Hall even placed dynamite under water to see whether he could create small-scale tsunamis for study; in the end, all he created were big splashes of water). He was particularly certain that something like a tidal wave must have crossed Scotland, from Glasgow to Edinburgh. The erratics that Hall was trying to explain had actually been transported by glaciers. They were remnants of the last ice age. Nonetheless, his 1815 article, "On the Revolutions of the Earth's Surface," appeared to some readers to question the fundamental Huttonian belief in slow and continuous action of everyday geologic processes.

The year 1815 also marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. Toward the end of that year, John Playfair embarked on a lengthy tour of Europe in preparation for a second edition of Illustrations, a revision that was going to be a thorough reworking of the material. So much had occurred since 1802—the maturation of Playfair's own ideas, Hall's seminal experiments, Cuvier's important discoveries in Paris and his theory of catastrophism to explain them, and even Jameson's specific contributions—that the planned revision would likely be an entirely new book.

He spent seventeen months on the Continent and traveled all over France, Switzerland, and Italy, covering more than 4,000 miles. Back in Edinburgh in the middle of 1817, the writing of the second edition was interrupted by an invitation from the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica to write a comprehensive review article on the state of the mathematical and physical sciences for one of their supplements. This was an offer the mathematician could not refuse, and he enthusiastically took up the challenge. The second edition would have to wait a few months.

Sadly, the second edition never appeared. In fact, it was never even begun. Soon after completing the first draft of the article for Britannica in mid-1818, Playfair began to suffer from a "disease of the bladder" that nearly incapacitated him. Over time, he recovered somewhat, only to have the disease return with a vengeance in June 1819. One month later, John Playfair was dead at the age of seventy-one.

In 1822, his nephew, James Playfair, wrote a memorial, similar to the one John Playfair had written for Hutton in 1805. One telling passage shows the perilous state that Hutton's theory of the earth was in now that its leading expositor was deceased:

It has been said that the illustration of a theory of the earth was but a profitless employment for so accurately thinking a philosopher, and that the task aught have been left to more imaginative minds, whose speculations would have afforded equal pleasure to those who delight in forming fabrics of theory on insufficient foundations. It is true that even the lucid commentary of Playfair does not establish the Huttonian as a general and undeviating theory, in an undoubted and indisputable situation.

From a close relative, this was hardly an endorsement for a body of work that so dominated the energy ofJohn Playfair.

At the beginning of the 1820s, then, with Jameson still very active at the University of Edinburgh, Cuvier in his prime in Paris, and James Hall getting on in years, there was little hope that James Hutton's theory of the earth would ever become widely accepted. It would take another rigorous thinker—from an entirely new generation—to embrace the undeniable logic behind the ideas and recognize Hutton's true brilliance.

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