The Founders of Geology

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The Founders of Geology was written by Sir Archibald Geikie and originally published in 1897. It describes the evolution of the science of geology, highlighting notable contributors.



  • I was influenced by my experience of the limited acquaintance with the historical development of the science which has often been shown, even by those who have done good service in enlarging its boundaries. English-speaking geologists have for the most part contented themselves with the excellent, but necessarily brief, summary of the subject given by Lyell in the introductory chapters of his classic Principles, no fuller digest of geological history having been published in their language.
  • It appeared to me that it might be useful to recount the story of a few of the great pioneers during the momentous period... and to show, from their struggles, their failures, and their successes, how geological ideas and theories arose, and were step by step worked out into the forms they now wear.

Chapter XV[edit]

  • In order to trace the history of... petrographical resuscitation we must... transport ourselves to the workshop of an ingenious and inventive mechanician, William Nicol... Among his inventions was the famous prism of Iceland spar that bears his name. Every petrographer will acknowledge how indispensable this little piece of apparatus is in his microscopic investigations. was the same skillful hands that devised the process of making thin slices of minerals and rocks, whereby the microscopic examination of these substances has become possible.
  • Nicol hit upon the plan of cutting sections of fossil wood, so as to reveal its minutest vegetable structures. He took a slice from the specimen to be studied, ground it perfectly flat, polished it, and cemented it by means of Canada balsam to a piece of plate-glass. The exposed surface of the slice was then ground down, until the piece of stone was reduced to a thin pellicle adhering to the glass, and the requisite degree of transparency was obtained. Many of these were described by Henry Witham in his Observations of Fossil Vegetables (1831).
  • I am afraid that the geologists are about as difficult to move as their own erratic blocks. They took no notice of the possibilities put in their way by William Nicol.
  • When Nicol died, his instruments and preparations passed into the hands of the late Mr. Alexander Bryson of Edinburgh, who... made many additions to the collections which he had acquired. In particluar, he made numerous thin slices of minerals and rocks for the purpose of exhibiting the cavities containing fluid, which had been described long before by David Brewster and Nicol.
  • At last Mr. Henry Clifton Sorby came to Edinburgh, and...was particularly struck with the series of slices illustrating "fluid cavities," and at once saw that the subject was one of which the further prosecution could not fail to "lead to important conclusions in geological theory." He soon... made sections of mica-schist, and... threw his whole energy into the investigation for several years, and produced at last in 1858 the well-known memoir, On the Microscopical Structure of Crystals, which marks one of the most prominent epochs of modern geology.
  • William Nicol was never adequately recognised in his lifetime.
  • Sorby... for the first time, showed how, by means of a microscope, it was possible to discover the minute structure and composition of rocks, and to learn much regarding their mode of origin. He took us... into the depths of a volcanic focus, and revealed the manner in which lavas acquire their characters. He carried us still deeper into the terrestrial crust, and laid open the secrets of those profound abysses in which granitic rocks have been prepared.
  • The reproach that it was impossible to look at a mountain through a microscope was brought forward in opposition to the new departure which he [Sorby] advocated. Well did he reply by anticipation to this objection. "Some geologists, only to examine large masses in the field, may perhaps be disposed to question the value of the facts I have described, and to think the objects so minute as to be quite beneath their notice, and that all attempts at accurate calculations from such small data are quite inadmissible. What other science, however, has prospered by proposing such a creed? ...I ague that there is no necessary connection between the size of an object and the value of the fact, and that, though the objects I describe are minute, the conclusions to be derived from the facts are great."
  • From the beginning of its career, geology has owed its foundation and its advance to no select and privileged class. ...No branch of natural knowledge lies more invitingly open to every student who, loving the fresh face of Nature, is willing to train his faculty of observation in the field, and to discipline his mind by the patient correlation of facts and the fearless dissection of theories.
  • The history of geological science presents some conspicuous examples of the length of time that may elapse before a fecund idea comes to germinate and bear fruit. Consider for a moment how many years passed before the stratigraphical conceptions of [G.C.] Füchsel, Lehmann, and [the Abbé, Jean-Louis] Giraud-Soulavie took more definite shape in the detailed investigations of Cuvier, Brongniart and Smith, and how many more years were needed before the Secondary and Tertiary formations were definitely arranged and subdivided as they now stand in out tables. ...even after the principles of stratigraphy had been settled, a quarter of a century had slipped away before they were successfully applied to the Transition rocks, and a still longer time before the system of zonal classification was elaborated.
  • Note how long the controversy lasted over the origin of basalt, and how slowly came the recognition of volcanic action as a normal part of terrestrial energy... Mark also, in the history of physiographical geology, that though the principles of this branch of science were in large measure grasped by Desmarest, De Saussure and Hutton in the eighteenth century, their work was neglected and forgotten until the whole subject has been revived amd marvellously extended in our own day.
  • How slowly the key that now unlocks the innermost mysteries of rock-structure was made use of. Five and twenty years after William Nicol had shown how stony substances could be investigated by means of the microscope, before Mr. Sorby called the attention of geologists to the enormous value of the method thus put into their hands.
  • We are warned to be on the lookout for the unrecognized meanings and applications in the work of our own day and in that of older date. We are taught the necessity not only of keeping ourselves abreast of the progress of science at the present time, but also of making ourselves acquainted as far as we possibly can with the labours of our predecessors.
  • ...the permanent vitality of truth. The seed may be long in showing signs of life, but these signs come at last.
  • In the case of geological literature, a large mass of the writing of the present time is of little or no value for any of the higher purposes of the science, and... it may quite safely and profitably, both as regards time and temper, be left unread.
  • If geologists... could only be brought to realise that the addition of another paper to the swollen flood of our scientific literature involves a serious responsibility; that no man should publish what is not of real consequence, and that his statements should be as clear and condensed as he can make them, what a blessed change would come over the faces of their readers, and how greatly would they conduce to the real advance of science which they wish to serve!
  • It seems to me that one important lesson to be learnt from a review of the successive stages in the foundation and development of geology is the absolute necessity of avoiding dogmatism. Let us remember how often geological theory has altered. The Catastrophists had it all their own way until the Uniformitarians got the upper hand, only to be in turn displaced by the Evolutionists.
  • The Wernerians were as certain of the origin and sequence of rocks as if they been present at the formation of the earth's crust. Yet in a few years their notions and overweening confidence became a laughing-stock.
  • What seems to be a well-established deduction in one age may be seen to be more or less erroneous in the next.
  • Each of us has it in his power to add to this accumulation of knowledge. Careful and accurate observation is always welcome, and may eventually prove of signal importance.
  • While availing ourselves freely of the use of hypothesis as an aid in ascertaining the connection and significance of facts, we must be ever on our guard against premature speculation and theory, clearly distinguishing between what is fact and what may be our own gloss or interpretation of it.
  • Let us hold high the torch of science, and pass it on bright and burning to those who shall receive it from our hands.

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