Field of Science

James Hutton (3 June 1726 - 26 March 1797): we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.

March 7, 1785, fifty members of the Royal Society gathered in the library of the University of Edinburgh to hear a lecture from the "famous philosopher of the fossils" -  agronomist and self-taught geologist James Hutton.

James Hutton (left) and Joseph Black portrayed as "philosophers" or early "geognosts": caricature publsihed in 1787 by John Kay (Edinburgh).

However, Hutton wasn’t there, as a sudden illness made it impossible for him to attend the meeting, but fortunately the strict rules of the society imposed that the content of the lecture, with the promising title"Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and Stability", had also to be submitted in written form and so a friend of Hutton, Joseph Black, read it.

"The purpose of this dissertation is to provide some estimates of the dating of the Earth, from its origin when it became a world able to sustain plants and animals, and reflect on the changes that it has suffered since then..."

Black will later remember "The truth is that the theory attracted attention very slowly, so that it took a few years before someone showed publicly interest in discuss it, as opponent, or as supporter."

Hutton proposed for the first time in public and based on observable geological evidence that earth was much older than 6.000 years. Observing the different tilted layers of rocks at Siccar Point along the Scottish coast he realized that the gap between these layers was telling a complex geologic history:

- 1) Once the strata of the first formation had to be slowly deposited horizontally in the sea,
- 2) then uplifted and tilted.
- 3) Once again above the sea level, erosion took place, working slowly but incessant to remove the rocks.
- 4) Again tectonic movements took place and pushed the remaining rock-formation below the sea level.
- 5) Here again sedimentation slowly accumulated layers of sediments to form a new geologic formation.
- 6) Finally, the two formations were pushed again above sea level, where eventually geologist could observe and study them for a brief (geological) time before future erosion will again dismantle the rocks…

The angular unconformity at Siccar Point, one of the key outcrops for Hutton to demonstrate the validity of his theory. This illustration was made by Sir James Hull in 1788, during an excursion lead by Hutton.
The outcrop at Siccar Point demonstrated a vast period of time, not even considering the time lost in the missing, because eroded rocks. As Hutton will write in his “Theory of the Earth” in 1788: “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.

In 1968 a descendant of John Clerk, the artist that accompanied Hutton and sketched the most important outcrops to illustrate Hutton's theory between 1785 and 1788, discovered a bunch of 70 illustrations that never got published. The figure shows a trench for an artificial canal near Frederick Street in Edinburgh. We can recognise a sequence of sandstone, marls and limestone, cropped by erosion and a soil overlying the rocks in the upper part, and on the left an intrusion cutting from below the single layers.


DALL´OLIO, N. (2004): Vedere il tempo. L´interpretazione dei fossili e degli strati nella scienza tra ´600 e ´700. Monte Universitá Parma Editore: 257
HUTTON, J. (1785): Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and Stability. Abstract of a dissertation read in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, upon the seventh of March, and fourth of April, MDCCLXXXV, Edinburgh: 30
HUTTON, J. (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: 209-304.

HUTTON, J. (1899): Theory of the Earth: With Proofs and Illustrations Vol.1. Geological Society, London.
LEWIS, T.A. (ed) (1985): Volcano (Planet Earth). Time-Life Books: 176
REPCHECK, J. (2004): L´uomo che scoprí il tempo. James Hutton e l´eta della terra. Raffaello Cortina Editore : 233

1 comment:

  1. Siccar point is on the east coast of southern Scotland. James Hutton was Scottish. He was a farmer, an explorer and ultimately a geologist. This is often not mentioned, in fact he is overlooked far too often. James Hutton discovered that the earth could only have been formed over a vast period of time, therefore debunking the ridiculous idea of it being just 6000 years, as was being taught religiously. We can see why his discovery and ideas were rejected at the time.

    However, it is shocking that even today, Hutton is often not acknowledged as having actually discovered, via his work at Siccar point in Scotland, and in the Scottish borders, as well as in Edinburgh, that the earth is billions of years old.


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