Geology, How it Began & Other Stories

When did Geology Begin

When did Geology Begin?   Not as silly as it sounds!  Geology can trace its origins to ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle for example.  There is also a report on the Mount Vesuvius eruption in AD79 by Pliny the Younger.  Pliny was a lawyer and author in Ancient Rome.  This points to an early origin of the subject.   Such is the detail of the report that modern volcanologists have named eruptions like Vesuvius’ ‘Plinian’.    Despite this, geology is one of the more recent scientific disciplines to emerge.  So when did geology begin?


when did geology begin - Vesuvius?

When did geology begin – Pliny’s account of Vesuvius?


James Hutton (read about him on Wikipedia), an 18th Century Scottish polymath is credited as the ‘Father of Modern Geology’.   His work helped to establish geology as an independent science.

Geology, James Hutton

More Intellectual than heart throb, James Hutton

One of Hutton’s lasting ideas is known as ‘Uniformitarianism’.   Uniformitarianism is a long fancy word for ‘the present is the key to the past’.   The idea is that we can study and understand the past and what happened in the Earth’s history by studying and understanding what is  happening now.  Hutton’s idea was developed by John Playfair.  It was also popularised by the release of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology in 1830, a book which inspired Charles Darwin .  (See very readable book by Richard Keynes ) on Darwin’s notorious Beagle voyage in 1831!

Geology, Charles Darwin

The Daddy, Charles Darwin

Where were we?  Oh yes, when geology began.  Geology gathered pace and achieved significance during the dawn of the industrial revolution.  With it, the desire to extract coal and fossil fuels from underground.  An understanding of different rock formations and layers  was named as Stratigraphy (- see Wiki).  Stratigraphy became important.   The principle is that younger rocks are deposited on top of older rocks along with the fossils present in them.  The sequence and order of the rocks could be used to determine relative ages of the formations.   In the early 19th century fossils were being widely used to identify formations.   The best fossils to use are known as index fossils.  For a fossil to be an index fossil it needs to be easy to identify.  It also must be  found throughout most of a particular landmass.  It should  only appear in one or two formations to be a perfect ‘index fossil’.  Such as ‘Persiphinctes’ in our header photo.

Maybe geology began in earnest the late 19th century when radiometric dating of rocks using chemical isotopes was pioneered by British scientist , Professor Arthur Holmes.

Geology Arthur Holmes

Durham Geologist, the genius Arthur Holmes


Arthur Holmes was appointed in 1924 – 42 as Reader in Geology at Durham University.   The Geological Society at Durham is still named after him.  So is the  Isotope Geology Laboratory at the university.   And a crater on Mars!  Holmes wrote an important book on the subject, The Principles of Physical Geology  .   His work led to the conclusion that the Earth is at least 2 billion years old.  Current estimates are now at 4.5-4.6 billion.   Prior to this estimates were in the order of thousands or millions of years.  Such a vast age opened up debate and  discussion on what processes were at work over such a long period of time.  Processes which created the present day configuration of continents and everything else.   It was no longer valid to conclude that the continents had been in their current position for such an enormous length of time.

Throughout the 19th century a lot of funding went into geology by numerous countries including Britain, America, Canada and Australia.  Consequently geology continued to progress as a science with numerous discoveries.  However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that a major leap in theory and understanding took place.

Stay tuned to our blogs for the rest of the story….