Tytler was born in 1745 in Forfarshire, the son of a Church of Scotland minister. He studied at a local school but was also instructed by his father in Theology, Latin and Greek. Although he was clearly expected to study for the ministry, Tytler had wider interests too and at Edinburgh University he studied medicine. After serving as surgeon in a whaler for a year, he opened a pharmacy in the port of Leith, but this venture was a failure and left him with debts. He married in 1765 but had to flee his creditors the next year and (possibly using his wife's capital; she was the orphan of a successful solicitor) set up another pharmacy in England. He returned to Edinburgh in 1773 with a wife and five children, and tried to make a living by writing and editing. Most of this work was published anonymously, and was very likely to have been poorly paid. He separated from his wife in 1775, in which year he again became bankrupt.
There seems little doubt that Tytler was addicted to alcohol; the poet Robert Burns, himself no stranger to a glass of whisky, described him as "an obscure, tippling though extraordinary body", and there are other records of his fondness for the bottle. It seems likely that his business failures and familial problems were in part due to his excessive drinking.
In 1777 Tytler was offered the job of editing the second edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a momentous task which was to occupy him over the next seven years. During this period he was paid sixteen shillings a week, less than half of the rate paid to his predecessor. Tytler worked at his home in Duddingston, just outside the town, using an upturned washtub as his writing desk. It was whilst engaged in this work that he became fascinated by the articles on hot air ballooning, a new mode of transport that was capturing imaginations the world over. Tytler read of the Montgolfier Brothers' historic ascent of 1783 with enthusiasm, and immediately began work designing his Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon, Despite the huge costs involved this was revealed to the public in 1784.
Tytler's Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon
At first Tytler had little luck in raising either public interest or his balloon. Early attempts to inflate it were dogged with problems, and before long he was being widely dismissed as a failure. However, on August 27, 1784, at Comely Gardens, an open area north-east of Holyrood in Edinburgh, Tytler inflated his balloon with coal gas and climbed into the tiny wicker basket underneath, wearing a cork jacket for protection. The restraining ropes were released, and to the delight of the small crowd who had maintained faith he ascended some 350 feet, drifting over half a mile before coming to rest in Restalrig village. This was the first balloon flight ever undertaken in Britain. News of the event spread rapidly, and a huge crowd was assembled to see a repeat attempt four days later. It was not quite as successful, reaching only about 100 feet and landing 400 yards away, but the watching public were impressed; Tytler became, briefly, a local celebrity. Later attempts were dogged by the man's customary bad luck and disastrous finances, however, and he was forced to give up his ambitions in the air. Tytler became overshadowed by the brilliant showman balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi, who came to Scotland in 1785 and made five stunning ascents. The flamboyant Italian's daring and good looks created a balloon fad which even influenced the fashions of the day: the 'Lunardi Bonnet' is mentioned by Robert Burns in his poem 'To a Louse'.
The above sketch by John Kay, entitled 'Fowls of a Feather', shows Tytler (centre left) and other Edinburgh enthusiasts meeting the celebrated balloonist Lunardi.
In 1785 Tytler went bankrupt again, and was obliged to leave Edinburgh. He was sued for divorce in 1787 by his wife, on the grounds that he had lived with Jean Aitkenhead since 1779 and had twin daughters with her. His troubles increased; in 1791 he returned to Edinburgh, but Tytler's outspoken support for the French Revolution and the cause of republicanism saw him condemned by the city magistrates in 1793, and to escape arrest for sedition he fled to Belfast and later to the United States. In Salem, Massachusetts, whilst walking home from a drinking session, Tytler fell into the sea and drowned in 1804.