Sir William Hamilton – Lava Walker


Image source
Image source

Let’s be upfront about the most awesome thing (in modern eyes) this apparent fop ever did: He walked on lava.

Look at his eyes. You know he did.

Lava walking is something that occasionally can but shouldn’t be done unless you have a compelling reason (hits on your YouTube video don’t count; death does).

Sir William did it to save his life, according to William Herschel:

In the spring of that year [1779], it [Vesuvius] began to pour out lava; and on one occasion, when Sir William Hamilton approached too near, the running stream was on the point of surrounding him; and the sulphureous vapour cut off his retreat, so that his only mode of escape was to walk across the lava, which, to his astonishment, and, no doubt, great joy, he found accompanied with no difficulty, and with no more inconvenience than what proceeded from the radiation of heat on his legs and feet from the scoriae and cinders with which the external crust of the lava was loaded; and which in great measure intercepted and confined the glowing heat of the ignited mass below.

It sounds like that may have been a’a lava.

Hamilton knew what he was doing when he hot-footed it in 1779.

Back in the 1760s, he says, he was on one of his first visits to Vesuvius during another eruption and decided to play with a stream of what might have been pahoehoe lava:

…the heat of the lava was so great, as not to suffer me to approach nearer than within ten feet of the stream, and of such a consistency (though it appeared liquid as water) as almost to resist the impression of a long stick, with which I made the experiment; large stones thrown on it with all my force did not sink, but, making a slight impression, floated on the surface, and were carried out of sight in a short time; for, notwithstanding the consistency of the lava, it ran with amazing velocity…

Keep in mind that Sir William had to be close enough to that rapid flow to heave “large stones” onto it, and in the 18th century he couldn’t dress for that infernal heat the way Maurice and Katia Krafft did in the 20th century:

The second most awesome thing this Scotsman ever did was find a cushy job on the Mediterranean with few duties so he could soak up the rays and follow his personal interests for over three decades.

The third most awesome thing Sir William did (and, sadly, it’s mostly what he is remembered for today) was to let Admiral Lord Nelson – who was having an affair with Hamilton’s second wife Emma – stay with him and Emma in his own home after Hamilton retired. When this “modern Pliny” died in 1803, he left a good income for Emma and her mother. He willed Nelson a beautiful portrait of Emma.

A remarkable man all around. Let’s just look at his study of volcanoes.

The modern Pliny

Back then, you could be born into a wealthy old family, pal around with a kid who would grow up to be King George III, and still be out of luck simply because you weren’t the firstborn son, who inherited most of the family wealth.

William Hamilton was the aristocrat’s fourth son and so had to make his own way.

William and Catherine Hamilton.  Source
William and Catherine Hamilton. Source

He started a military career at age 16 (as an officer – it was good to be a nob even if you didn’t hit the birth jackpot) and then left the army to marry Catherine Barlow, the daughter of a member of Parliament. In 1763 she inherited her father’s estates. The Hamilton’s now had a steady income for life.

In 1764 Sir William became Britain’s Envoy Extraordinary to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (the court of Ferdinand and Maria Carolina at Naples). It was such a congenial posting that Hamilton abandoned his political ambitions and stayed until he retired in 1800.

When William Hamilton arrived in Naples, his hobbies included music and collecting art and ancient artifacts. And, like most people, when he had the opportunity, he was attracted to a volcano’s fires.

Nearby Vesuvius, the volcano that still dominates the Bay of Naples, was more active than it is today. It had had a major eruption in 1760 and was now undergoing periodic convulsions.

In the mid-1770s, an artist captured this view of Vesuvius erupting.  Source
In the mid-1770s, an artist captured this view of Vesuvius erupting. Source

Unlike most of us, William Hamilton turned that attraction into a lifelong study of volcanoes.

It was the Age of Reason, and although Hamilton isn’t classed among the greatest minds of the Scottish Enlightenment (perhaps because of his foreign location and the later scandal), he became famous in his own time for empiric studies and sample collecting of Vesuvius and other volcanoes.

In 1766 Sir William sent London’s Royal Society rock samples and a letter about Vesuvius. It so impressed the Royal Society, they elected him a fellow.

In 1767 Vesuvius had a bigger eruption and Hamilton sent in another report. Sir William’s two letters were then published as one in the Society’s journal.

Hamilton later earned the Society’s Copley Medal in 1770 for his report on Mount Etna. Two years later he published Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other volcanos.

In 1776, a collection of his letters on volcanoes appeared. This Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies has been called “one of the most aesthetically beautiful geological works ever published” because of the careful attention he and illustrator Pietro Fabris gave to the book’s drawings, which were almost photographic in their exactness.

Unfortunately, the text isn't readily available online.  Many of the Fabris illustrations are though.  Source.
Unfortunately, the text isn’t readily available online. Many of the Fabris illustrations are though. Source.

Sir William also described the effects of the deadly 1783 Calabrian earthquake series for the Royal Society.

It’s too bad that people today remember “that Hamilton woman” (his second wife) rather than him.

Sir William Hamilton, a product of the Age of Reason, dispassionately described and collected samples from the many eruptions of Vesuvius and other volcanoes that he personally experienced. His work helped lay the foundation of modern volcanology.

Also…he walked on lava.

Of course he did.
Of course he did.

Edited March 22, 2019


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