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Gunpowder & Geometry: The Life of Charles Hutton, Pit Boy, Mathematician and Scientific Rebel by Benjamin Wardhaugh. This book review is a guest post by London Historians Member Laurence Scales. 

gngThis is the biography of Charles Hutton (1737-1823). Charles Who? To those in the know he was a Georgian mathematician. For those of you who might just possibly have overlooked him, he was the first person to draw a mountain using contour lines – for a grand project we will come to shortly.

To paint Hutton quickly with a few contour lines, he was a significant figure in publishing, gunnery and scientific politics. His is a story of a snakes and ladders career in the long 18th century for someone with few advantages of birth, but with wits and ambition. Social mobility at that time is something we usually think uncommon and remarkable though the exceptions are numerous: Humphry Davy from Penzance, George Stephenson from Tyneside and Thomas Telford from Scotland, for example. Some of them may have lived their whole life being regarded by nobility as oiks. But they were respected oiks, and able to afford comforts that many would envy. Hutton came from hewing coal to taking a plate of oysters with Sir John Pringle, the President of the Royal Society. Pringle’s successor, Sir Joseph Banks, was a snob and, as a plant collector, had no time for mathematics. The Royal Society came close to disintegrating. Hutton’s rift with the Royal Society gives the biography an edge.

Hutton was from Tyneside, but it was a home he quitted permanently for London when, as a young man, he was appointed a professor at the Woolwich Royal Military Academy then turning out cadets for the Royal Artillery and later Royal Engineers. The appalling behavior of cadets (and fellow staff) is typical of the colourful detail that makes his story enjoyable.

Within a few years Hutton was working on one of the greatest practical experiments of the age, nothing less than the weighing (more properly, calculating the density) of the Earth. The delicate measurements, hundreds of them, were taken in Scotland by the Astronomer Royal, and not in a nice comfortable Edinburgh observatory, but on a mountainside in the dreich. But the number crunching, requiring contour lines to size the mountain, was done by Hutton longhand in Woolwich.

Hutton was a glutton in that he had an extraordinary appetite for long, tedious and repetitive calculations, the details of which we are spared while still gaining insight into the vital but unrecognised toil behind the mathematical tables for astronomers, navigators, surveyors and financial houses. As you might expect from this period and our distance from it, individual women do not play a large part in this story, but a few, and many unknown women, are tantalisingly glimpsed.

An insight I have gained is that Hutton was, I might say, only an artisan mathematician – a virtuoso problem solver and a great teacher playing by all the known rules. But he did not change the game. Although Hutton read several languages it took Cambridge mathematicians such as mechanical computer pioneer Charles Babbage and others to challenge the staid British mathematical community by hailing continental brilliance.
The author, Benjamin Wardhaugh, is an Oxford academic spanning mathematics, history and music. He has slogged to tease out the differences in hundreds of pages in each of umpteen different editions of Hutton’s works to try and read his mind. We can appreciate his effort and, as a result, we are relieved of it. Wardhaugh has published academic papers on Hutton. This biography, nevertheless, comes to us with a light and engaging style while carrying the authority of an academic writer. Recommended.


Gunpowder & Geometry (312 pp, illustrated) by Benjamin Wardhaugh is published in hardback by Harper Collins.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, a volunteer in the archives of the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts, and is working on an alternative history of engineering.

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