Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tytler, James

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Dates 1747 to 1804 in the ODNB.

800539Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 57 — Tytler, James1899Thomas Finlayson Henderson

TYTLER, JAMES (1747?–1805), miscellaneous writer, commonly known as ‘Balloon Tytler,’ born about 1747, was son of George Tytler, minister of Fearn in the presbytery of Brechin, by his wife, Janet Robertson. Henry William Tytler [q. v.] was his younger brother. After receiving a good education under the direction of his father, James became apprentice to a surgeon in Forfar. He then succeeded in attending medical classes at the university of Edinburgh, defraying his expenses by voyages as a surgeon to Greenland during the vacations. But, having married during his medical course, he resolved to commence practice as a surgeon in Edinburgh. Failing in this, he opened an apothecary's shop in Leith, trusting mainly to the custom of the religious sect the Glassites, which he had joined through the persuasion of his wife; she was a daughter of James Young, writer to the signet, a prominent member of the sect. A quarrel with his wife, who deserted him, and his severance from the sect, had, however, such a ruinous effect on his business that an accumulation of debts compelled him to remove, first to Berwick, and then to Newcastle. At Newcastle he opened a laboratory, but here also fortune failed to shine on him, and, driven by debt from England, he in 1772 resolved to venture back to Edinburgh, where he took refuge from his creditors within the privileged precincts of Holyrood House.

From this time properly begins the peculiar career of Tytler as literary hack and scientific dabbler, in which he showed abilities that under favourable auspices might have brought him fame and fortune, but as a matter of fact never did more than barely save him from destitution; so that he was described by Burns as ‘a mortal who drudges about Edinburgh as a common printer, with leaky shoes, a sky-lighted hat, and knee-breeches as unlike as George-by-the-grace-of-God and Solomon-the-son-of-David.’ While in the debtors' refuge at Holyrood he succeeded, by means of a press of his own construction, in printing in 1772 a volume of ‘Essays on the most important subjects of Natural and Revealed Religion.’ It was followed by ‘A Letter to Mr. John Barclay on the Doctrine of Assurance,’ directed against a religious sect called the Bereans. Next appeared the ‘Gentleman's and Lady's Magazine,’ published monthly, but soon discontinued. He also commenced an abridgment of ‘Universal History,’ of which, however, only one volume appeared. These efforts having attracted the attention of the booksellers, he soon obtained a variety of literary work at the current hack pay. In 1776 he was engaged to edit the second edition of ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ at the astounding salary of seventeen shillings a week, and at this rate of pay he not only edited it, but wrote about three-fourths of the whole work. He was also engaged (according to Stenhouse, on more liberal terms) ‘to conduct the third edition of that work, and wrote a larger share in the earlier volumes than is ascribed to him in the general preface.’

In 1780 Tytler commenced a periodical, ‘The Weekly Mirror,’ but it was soon discontinued. Some time afterwards he was employed in constructing a manufactory of magnesia, but, after having placed it in full working order, he was dismissed by the propropietors. His scientific bent then took the turn of constructing a fire balloon (after the pattern of the Parisian Montgolfières of 1783), with which on 27 Aug. 1784 he made an ascent at Comely Gardens, Edinburgh, to a height of 350 feet (see Gent. Mag. 1784, ii. 709, 711). Attributing his want of perfect success to the smallness of the stove, he constructed another with an enlarged stove, in which he endeavoured to ascend one morning unwitnessed by any one. It began to ascend with great force, but coming in contact with a tree the stove was broken, and Tytler found himself unable to prosecute the experiment further. He was ‘the first person in Great Britain to navigate the air,’ and, with the exception of Smeath in 1837, the only aeronaut to use a Montgolfière in this country (cf. Turnor, Astra Castra, p. 56; and art. Lunardi, Vicenzo).

In 1786 he published ‘The Observer,’ a weekly paper, extending to twenty-six numbers and comprising a series of essays; and in 1788 he published a system of geography. Other works by him are ‘The Hermit, imitated from Virgil's “Silenus”’ (Edinburgh, 1782); a ‘History of Edinburgh;’ ‘The Edinburgh Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar;’ and ‘A Dissertation on the Origin and Antiquity of the Scottish Nation’ (London, 1795, 8vo). His abilities as a writer of verse are shown in various songs signed ‘T.’ contributed to Johnson's ‘Musical Museum,’ including ‘The Bonnie Bruckel Lassie,’ with the exception of the first two lines; ‘As I came by Loch Erochside;’ ‘As I went over yon meadow;’ and ‘One night I dreamed.’

In 1792 Tytler joined the ‘Society of the Friends of the People,’ and shortly afterwards he published ‘A Pamphlet on the Excise,’ exposing the abuses of the government. The same year he started ‘The Historical Register, or Edinburgh Monthly Intelligencer,’ in which he set forth advanced views in regard to reform; and, having at the close of the year published ‘A Handbill addressed to the People,’ a warrant was issued for his apprehension. Learning the intentions of the authorities, he suddenly left Edinburgh, and, crossing over to Ireland, sailed thence to America. Failing to appear at the high court of justiciary, Edinburgh, he was outlawed on 7 Jan. 1793. Shortly after his arrival in America he proceeded to Salem, Mass., where he conducted a newspaper until his death in 1805 in his fifty-eighth year.

[A Biographical Sketch of the Life of James Tytler, Edinburgh, 1805 (with engraved portrait), is attributed to Robert Meek. See also Kay's Edinburgh Portraits; Laing's edition of Stenhouse's Notes to Johnson's Musical Museum, 1853; Anderson's Scottish Nation.]

T. F. H.