John Gribbin

Of Coal & Calculus

Gunpowder and Geometry: The Life of Charles Hutton – Pit Boy, Mathematician and Scientific Rebel


William Collins 312pp £20 order from our bookshop

Charles Hutton will never be on the long list for depiction on a banknote, but perhaps he deserves the accolade more than some of those who have been nominated and have already received recognition in other ways. If your reaction to this suggestion is ‘Who was Charles Hutton?’ it confirms the fact that he should be brought out of the shadows of English scientific history. After all, he was the first person to make a reasonably accurate measurement of the density of the Earth, even if his results were superseded within his own lifetime.

It is Hutton’s lifetime, rather than his life, that holds the reader’s attention in this book, which is as much social history as it is biography. Hutton was born in 1737 on Tyneside, the youngest son of a coal miner. As the youngest, he was indulged to the extent of being sent to school until the age of fourteen. His ability at mathematics was noted and he assisted the schoolmaster in teaching the younger pupils. But he eventually had to go down the pit as a coal hewer. Laid off at the age of eighteen, he was able to take over the modest school where he had studied when the teacher moved on. It was the first step in his ascent.

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