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The earth sciences in the 19th and 20th centuries

Jim Secord

Up until recently, books and articles devoted to the history of the earth sciences were dominated by Darwin (in the nineteenth century) and plate tectonics (in the twentieth). Much of the field remains uncultivated, and there are dozens of major topics awaiting historical research. Karl A. von Zittel, Geschichte der Geologie und Paläontologie bis Ende des 19. Jahrhundert (1899) – the translation of 1901 is helpful but lacks footnotes – has references to many controversies and episodes, as do many other older histories. If you read French, German or Italian, try to choose a topic that makes use of your knowledge.

A reasonably comprehensive and up-to-date guide to the existing secondary literature is in P. Bowler, The Fontana History of the Environmental Sciences (1992), pp. 580–85, 596–98. D. Oldroyd, Thinking about the Earth: A History of Ideas in Geology (1996) is unusual in its thematic treatment of a wide range of subjects, and is a good place to start for topics such as seismology, petrology, and geophysics.

Bibliographies and essay reviews

  • R. Porter, The Earth Sciences: An Annotated Bibliography (1983)
    Short, with references to most of the important literature in a variety of languages. The comments in the brief introduction (pp. xi–xviii) give a good picture of the field.
  • W.A.S. Sarjeant, Geologists and the History of Geology: An International Bibliography from the Origins to 1978 (1980, plus supplement volumes)
    Huge, multinational, unwieldy and essential; especially helpful for biographical information and for details on the economic relations of the earth sciences.
  • J. Challinor, The History of British Geology: A Bibliographical Study (1971)
    Divided into brief sections listing the primary literature on a variety of subjects, including many on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The analysis is dated, but a good place to find topics.
  • D.N. Livingstone, The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise (1992)
    pp. 359–410 provide a bibliography of the literature on the history of geography and exploration.
  • M. Greene, 'History of geology', Osiris, ser. 2, vol. 1 (1985)
    A critical essay review with references to the literature on American geology.
  • E. Mills, 'The historian of science and oceanography after twenty years', Earth Sciences History, vol. 12 (1993), pp. 5–18
    A comprehensive literature review. pp. 2–4 of the same issue include the same author's 'A handlist of printed sources on the history of oceanography'. Available in the Whipple box files.

Amazingly, the history of meteorology is only beginning to be investigated: the few existing works are listed in Bowler, History of the Environmental Sciences (1992), pp. 596–97. Reference to more recent literature, as always, can be found in the appropriate sections of the Isis current bibliography and in the Bulletin Signaletique 522: Histoire des sciences et des techniques, both in the Whipple.

Biographical sources

W.A.S. Sarjeant, Geologists and the History of Geology (1980) is the main specialist work; otherwise the usual sources (Dictionary of National Biography, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Poggendorf, etc.) are the best places to look; a good collection of these is in the Whipple and in the main reading room in the University Library.

R.J. Cleevely, World Palaeontological Collections (1983), despite its title, is in fact a biographical dictionary of fossil collectors, many of whom are otherwise obscure.

Primary works

The box files in the Whipple Library contain an outstanding selection of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century works, including many photocopies relating to debates about theories of the earth, the origin of fossils, and the making of geology. Reading through these is an ideal way to get a sense of the origins of the subject.

Cambridge has a strong tradition in the earth sciences, so that library resources are excellent. Printed primary works are available in the University Library, in the library of the Geography Department, and in the Sedgwick Library in the Department of Earth Sciences. The latter also has a fine collection of off-prints.

G. Bridson et al., Natural History Manuscript Resources in the British Isles (1982) lists most of the manuscript collections relating to geology in Britain; for the famous figures, see the standard Manuscript Papers of British Scientists (1982). Although the recent literature on the history of geology in Britain has been dominated by manuscript study, work on printed material is likely to prove at least as fruitful.


History of Science, British Journal for the History of Science, Isis and other general history of science journals publish most of the best work, with scattered articles appearing in scientific periodicals. The only specialist journal is Earth Sciences History (1982–), which is not yet available in Cambridge but may be consulted in London at the Science Museum and the Royal Society.

Other perspectives

Not surprisingly, tools designed for researching the earth sciences can reinforce a narrow view of the subject, a point emphasised for the eighteenth century in R. Porter, 'The terraqueous globe', in G.S. Rousseau and R. Porter, The Ferment of Knowledge (1980), pp. 285–326. There are many other literatures that border on the earth sciences, among them imperial history, the history of religious beliefs, the histories of travel and collecting, and various forms of economic and political history. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Environmental history: this is a field that is growing fast, particularly in the U.S. For a sampling of current debate, read 'A roundtable: environmental history', Journal of American History, vol. 76 (1990), 1087–1147; see also the journal Environmental History Review and the collections edited by Donald Worster, The Ends of the Earth (1988), and William Cronon, Uncommon Ground (1995).
  2. Art history: geology and geography are visual sciences, as Martin Rudwick emphasised in a classic article of 1976, 'A visual language for geology, 1760–1840', History of Science, vol. 14 (1976), pp. 149–95. Try reading M. Baxandall's Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (1985) – or, better yet, his work on The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (1980) – to see how effective this kind of analysis can be.
  3. Historical geography: links between historians of science and historical geographers are becoming increasingly fruitful, especially in analyses of place and space. For a sampling of recent work, see D. Cosgrove and S. Daniels (eds), The Iconography of Landscape (1988), and F. Driver and G. Rose (eds), Nature and Science: Essays in the History of Geographical Knowledge (1992). For background see Livingstone, The Geographical Tradition (1992). The Journal of Historical Geography and Ecumene publish new research and reviews.