Charles Hutton (1737–1823)
The youngest son of a coal-mining family in the north-east of England, Charles Hutton discovered an early talent for mathematics and was able to rise through the ranks of local schoolteachers and philomaths. He came to national notice as an author of textbooks and became Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, near London. From there he engaged in work including calculation for the Nautical Almanac and other projects supervised by Nevil Maskelyne, the compilation of mathematical tables and textbooks and a massive Dictionary (1795) of mathematics, as well as experimental work on the resistance of the air and the motion of projectiles.
Despite the successes of his career, Hutton is possibly best known today for incurring the dislike of Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society; the sources of the trouble are obscure, but probably included several social, political, and professional factors. Banks arranged for Hutton’s dismissal as Foreign Secretary to the Royal Society, and despite vigorous campaigning by Hutton’s friends the eventual result was the self-imposed exile of him together with a number of other mathematicians from the Society.
Hutton was influential and well known as a patron of younger mathematicians, and he corresponded with a range of important scientific figures including Banks, Maskelyne, and Henry Cavendish. As both the editor of the popular Ladies’ Diary and the focus of mathematical resistance to Banks, he was also the effective focus of a network of mathematicians that was growing in self-consciousness and organization during his lifetime. His surviving letters bear witness to every side of his rich and influential intellectual life.
Partners and Additional Contributors
The metadata for the Charles Hutton correspondence was supplied to EMLO by Benjamin Wardhaugh of the University of Oxford. It was collected as part of a biographical project on Hutton funded by the AHRC (grant ref. AH/L015196/1).
The 133 letters in this correspondence span the years 1770 to 1823. Nearly all were written in English, with the remainder in French.
Hutton’s papers suffered several rounds of dispersal and partial destruction towards the end of his life and after his death, and the result is that his surviving manuscripts and letters are thinly scattered across more than two dozen different collections in England, Scotland, and the USA. These include university archives, learned societies in London and Newcastle, local record offices, and private collections. About a quarter of the letters that survive are drafts; the remainder are the letters as sent, including many from Hutton in his own hand as well as — towards the end of his life — a number in the hand of his daughter Isabella.
The metadata for this catalogue has been deposited with the Oxford Research Archive (DOI: 10.5287/bodleian:1aDGwMyxr).
The Correspondence of Charles Hutton (1737–1823): Mathematical networks in Georgian Britain, ed. Benjamin Wardhaugh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Wardhaugh, Benjamin, ‘Charles Hutton and the ‘Dissensions’ of 1783–84: Scientific networking and its failures’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2016).
Wardhaugh, Benjamin, ‘Charles Hutton: “One of the greatest mathematicians in Europe”?’, Bulletin of the British Society for the History of Mathematics (2017).