Charles Hutton was born in Newcastle in 1737; I wonder what he himself would have cited as his greatest achievement? He had much to be proud of: good at maths, his first teaching post was in Jesmond, for how many now would that represent a ‘good life’? But he then sets up a school in the ‘Flesh Market’ (now known as the Big Market: the boozing quarter nationally renowned for bare flesh of another sort).
At 27, he comes to wider attention through writing textbooks. His second: “A Treatise on Mensuration” was illustrated by Thomas Bewick (his first commission).
Another string to his bow is land-surveying and in 1770 he creates a ‘Plan of Newcastle and Gateshead’. The Lit and Phil’s copy is in a poor state, it feels wrong to be handling its 16 fragile segments with varnish the colour of peat laden burns or nicotine stained fingers, but it is still legible. There is some hachuring around steeper aspects and for want of more accurate indications of altitude he writes:
“It is from the River to St. Nicholas’s Church a very steep ascent, but from thence it is moderate enough.”
Just as the map was due to be engraved, disaster struck and Hutton quickly responded by adding a P.S. “The accurate Plan of the Bridge over the River is drawn as it stood entire at the Time of taking the survey; but during the time of engraving this Plan, the Bridge having been in Part thrown down by a great Flood, I have added at the bottom of the Plan a View of its Ruins as it now appears. This Flood was the most dreadful Inundation that ever happened in this Part of the Country.”
The following year he wrote and published: “The principles of bridges: containing the mathematical demonstrations of the properties of the arches, the thickness of the piers, the force of the water against them, &c.: together with practical observations & directions drawn from the whole”.
Another year passes and Hutton competes for and wins the role of professor of mathematics at The Royal Military Academy in Woolwich (Nevil Maskelyne – the Astronomer Royal – is on the panel) and in 1774 he is made a Fellow of the Royal Society. I doubt he was thinking about his career trajectory when he published: “The force of fired gunpowder and the velocity of cannon balls” for which he received the Copley Medal. But this also brings us to the time in which he became involved in Maskelyne’s Schiehallion Experiment and thus Hutton’s invention of contour lines.