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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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A guest post by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon. 

Review: The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science by Adrian Tinniswood.

royal society_I possess another book about the Royal Society (RS) but it is a bit of a doorstop and more of a collection of essays. I have been surprised not to find before this moment a clear and straightforward book on its history because even my most unscientific of London Historians friends would probably put the Royal Society or, to give it its full title, the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge on a pedestal with the label: National Treasure. Why? – because, well… Sir Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, innit? Nice to know it’s there. Wonderful heritage, and all that.

Not many of us know why it is still here today. Is the RS a fresh flower or a crumbling fossil in the modern world? Since the late 1700s there have grown up many learned societies devoted to scientific specialisms which supplant the original role of the RS to gather knowledge from experiments and invigorate understanding of the natural world. The RS claims today that it promotes excellence in science. Few of us who are not professional scientists can judge it on this territory. It does stage some public events, outstanding among which is their Summer Science Exhibition held in their modern headquarters and then, beside the new research, you may get to see a few relics on display.

So, Adrian Tinniswood has given us something handy. Books, such as this one, in the Landmark Library series are placed in the market perhaps as a more giftable alternative to the spartan but, in my sampling, excellent Very Short Introduction series (but that series has no equivalent book about the RS). I stage my own unofficial and mildly iconoclastic Royal Society Unofficial Tour and Tinniswood has added some detail and nuance to the knowledge that, without such a book, I have gathered for myself over the years.

Tinniswood is a historian and writer without a previous track record in science history (he has previously tackled Sir Christopher Wren) but that might be an advantage for the general reader. Look what Bill Bryson (RS Fellow), neither an academic historian nor a scientist, did to popularize science with A Short History of Nearly Everything. But historians discussing science, and indeed scientists writing history, are inevitably breaking cover.

We are given some of the RS’ cultural and human back story including Francis Bacon and the ‘invisible college’ of natural philosophers, some of whom eventually founded the RS. There is a useful appendix on the founding individuals. I was amused to deduce from this book that despite the emergence of coffee house culture at this time, the early RS perhaps owed more to the beer house. London Historians members who attend its pub meet-ups may take heart.

There is a colourful chapter on experiments, and an appendix including a handful of write-ups of early experiments and curious observations like Robert Boyle’s encounter with a neck of veal which, in the absence of a refrigerator, had become luminously putrid.

One difficulty that the RS presents to our judgement is that because some individual did some good work and was rewarded by election to this club, that might just be a case of the club basking in some reflected glory. Was the RS more than the sum of its gifted fellows? The RS has been attentive to PR in its 360 years, such as when honoring Humphry Davy with a Rumford Medal for his miners’ safety lamp, as if it was some triumph of natural philosophy. George Stephenson, unschooled, less clubbable, came up with something very similar at the same time. In the distant past the RS has had its National Treasure status periodically called into question by detractors as illustrious as Jonathan Swift and Charles Babbage. Happily, Adrian Tinniswood gives us a chapter on those entertaining spats.

What did the institution achieve in its 360 years? The book has a subtitle, ‘The invention of modern science’ which could both focus us on (1) what we now know, but it should also concern itself with (2) the evolution of the process by which we came to know it. The book is compact and, probably wisely, Tinniswood does not attempt to address the first point, and he deals with the second quite briefly, dealing with the publication of the scientific record, Philosophical Transactions, but not really later improvements such as peer review. The RS did much to help to invent the scientific method, a considerable legacy, as it provides our comforts and protects us from snake oil salesmen, if we care to listen. But it took hundreds of years about it. Its first female fellow was only enrolled in 1945.

So, we have a useful, attractive and entertaining book, and not one of those rather dull administrative histories that sometimes emerge from august institutions from the pen of a devoted insider. I would like to have seen more context, comparison and insight. We had our Francis Bacon, but it was Rene Descartes who influenced the course of science on the other side of the channel. Rather than just assume that the RS’s National Treasure status is deserved, we could be told what happened in other countries and in other younger British institutions such as the Royal Institution and the Society of Arts. What role, if any, did the RS play in the industrial revolution? There we have subject matter enough to fill another book.


The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science, 208 pages, by Adrian Tinniswood, is published by Head of Zeus, lavishly illustrated. 

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edward learThe bicentenary of Charles Dickens has caused the eclipse of two other Victorian worthies: Henry Mayhew (1812 – 1887) and Edward Lear (1812 – 1888). But the Royal Society, at least, has mounted a small exhibition in remembrance of the maestro of nonsense. But not for his daft poetry and cartoons, rather his illustrations of animals and birds. Lear was a highly talented illustrator and the images shown here are still in books, where they belong. Most were written by Fellows of the Royal Society. The illustrations feature tortoises, hedgehogs and other quadrupeds but the most spectacular pictures are of birds. The bulk of this work was done by Lear when he was in the 1830s when he was very much still a young man. But his very poor eyesight deteriorated, helped along no doubt by having to do this highly intricate work.

edward lear toucan

edward lear crane

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The Royal Society is based at 7 – 9 Carlton House Terrace, near Pall Mall. This has only been its homes  since 1967, however. It kicked off in 1660s at Gresham College. Then, when William Chambers’s Somerset House was built the society moved there and later – like the Royal Academy – de-camped to Burlington House. But what they always lacked was space. After World War 2, the old German Embassy in St James’s came up for grabs and this is where the institution has been based to this day. As you would expect, the place is festooned with busts and portraits of very brainy men, most of them famous for their braininess. But I was particularly pleased to find a model for the British Library’s monumental Newton statue by Paolozzi. I love a good maquette, I do.

Royal Society

The President’s Staircase. Marble abounds.

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Brainy Roster

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Newton, by Sir Edward Paolozzi after Blake.

Officially Edward Lear and the Scientists finishes tomorrow. But I’m advised that the Royal Society doesn’t plan to disassemble the display for a week or two, so you can still see it and it’s free. Just call them up first to let them know when you’d like to come. 020 7451 2606 or email library@royalsociety.org.

I had a discussion about a LH guided tour there early part of next year. Very much look forward to that.

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