Yet almost singlehandedly, and quite brilliantly, he created the science of geology and transformed our understanding of the Earth. Hutton was born in 1726 into a prosperous Scottish family, and enjoyed the sort of material comfort that allowed him to pass much of his life in a genially expansive round of light work and intellectual betterment.
He studied medicine, but found it not to his liking and turned instead to farming, which he followed in a relaxed and scientific way on the family estate in Berwickshire. Tiring of field and flock, in 1768 he moved to Edinburgh, where he founded a successful business producing sal ammoniac from coal soot, and busied himself with various scientific pursuits. Edinburgh at that time was a center of intellectual vigor, and Hutton luxuriated in its enriching possibilities. He became a leading member of a society called the Oyster Club, where he passed his evenings in the company of men such as the economist Adam Smith, the chemist Joseph Black, and the philosopher David Hume, as well as such occasional visiting sparks as Benjamin Franklin and James Watt.
In the tradition of the day, Hutton took an interest in nearly everything, from mineralogy to metaphysics. He conducted experiments with chemicals, investigated methods of coal mining and canal building, toured salt mines, speculated on the mechanisms of heredity, collected fossils, and propounded theories on rain, the composition of air, and the laws of motion, among much else. But his particular interest was geology.