Gunpowder and Geometry

The Life of Charles Hutton, Pit Boy, Mathematician and Scientific Rebel

This is the story of a miner’s lad from Newcastle, who left the coal pits to become a teacher, a professor, and a scientist of international fame.

In 1756 Charles Hutton, aged 18, dropped out of his career as a coal hewer on north Tyneside. He’d hurt his right arm in an accident years before, and it wasn’t strong enough for the coalface. He was a clever boy, and coincidence gave him the opportunity to take up teaching instead, in a local school. 

It was a momentous decision, and it took him on a journey he could never have imagined. By the end of his life the miner’s lad was Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Military Academy and a fellow of learned societies in four countries. Admired, loved, even revered by three generations of students, he’d successfully defied the Royal Society of London and become the leader and spokesman for British mathematicians. His books were read from Pennsylvania to Calcutta, and if a British cannon was pointed at you in America, France, Spain or India it was probably being pointed by one of Hutton’s students. When he died, the Duke of Wellington and the Lord Chancellor of England led the tributes, saying that England would be forever in his debt.

Gunpowder and Geometry tells the story of this remarkable man, who overcame injury, family tragedy and the prejudice of the London scientific establishment to become the foremost British mathematician of his age. It traces his career and his colourful family and personal life from the Newcastle coalfields to the corridors of the Royal Military Academy, the Royal Society of London and the court of St James.

For a quick taste of Charles Hutton’s life, see Benjamin’s article ‘Who was Charles Hutton’ in History Today.

Gunpowder and Geometry is published by William Collins in the UK, and in Germany as Schießpulver und Geometrie – Das Leben von Charles Hutton: Grubenjunge, Mathematiker und wissenschaftlicher Rebell.


‘engaging and skilfully handled’ – Nature

‘meticulous yet lively’ – Sunday Times

‘a brilliant job’ – Northern Echo

‘spirited and elegantly erudite’ – Telegraph

The complete bibliography mentioned in the notes to this book is available to download.