Today, we look at a world that neither begins nor
ends. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
James Hutton was a Scottish
geologist, famous for his Theory of the
Earth, published in 1795. In 1795 scientists
were still trying to fit geological evidence into
Biblical chronology. Hutton's new theory was far
less friendly to Genesis than anything science
claims today. Hutton didn't extend the origins of
earth to millions or billions of years. He
eliminated origins entirely.
Hutton was part of a remarkable intellectual
circle. He met regularly with Adam Smith, David
Hume, and Joseph Black at Edinburgh's Oyster Club.
Hutton and Black would go off together into the
Scottish wilds. Black unraveled the mysteries of
heat and cold in that forbidding northern land. He
set the stage for the science of thermodynamics.
Hutton also gazed at the Scottish glens and crags
-- at the eerie world that was, even then, moving
Walter Scott to write,
But what Hutton saw was evidence for his
theory. He found it in formations that he called
"unconformities" -- substrata of rock standing at
right angles to the surface strata. And they, in
turn, were perpendicular to the next stratum below.
O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Hutton believed that earth is shaped by cyclic
deposits of silt, formed into rock, and followed by
upheaval. The drama repeated over and over. There
is "no vestige of beginning, no prospect of an
end," he said. Historian Stephen Jay Gould calls
Hutton's earth "a machine without a history."
Hutton himself likened earth to a cyclic mechanism.
So Hutton banished all history, Biblical or
otherwise. He failed to see that fossils progress
from one unconforming layer to the next. His prose
was so turgid he probably would've been forgotten.
But he had a powerful prophet in John Playfair,
another member of the Oyster club. Playfair wrote
brilliantly about Hutton's theories. He toned down
the rigid claims and forged a powerful influence on
It was Hutton who first opened our eyes to the idea
that time reaches back far, far beyond Biblical
family trees. But he did it by echoing the
Newtonian vision of a clockwork universe. A few
years later, thermodynamics would tell us that
nothing can ever cycle along like that forever.
I see Hutton's drawings -- the wild and beautiful
images of Scotland that fueled his vision of an
eternal present. And I hear Walter Scott saying to
him and to me:
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of
Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas --
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides!
Gould, S.J., Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987 (See
especially Chapter 3.)
Craig, G.Y., McIntyre, D.B., and Waterson, C.D.,
James Hutton's Theory of the Earth: The Lost
Drawings. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic
Press, 1978. (I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of
Special Collections, University of Houston Library,
for calling the Hutton drawings to my attention and
making them available to me.)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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