Charles Lyell’s research often questioned ‘known’ facts

Up to the time of Charles Lyell, born in England in 1797, there was general belief that the world was made in 4004 B.C.

After his life work in geology, a new concept of the earth and its life was spreading.

The scion of a well-to-do family Farfarshire, England, he had a good schooling but early began to show signs of an unusual bent for checking out what seemed “obvious.”

For instance, why did a city he was visiting show on the maps as a seaport when it was now four miles inland? Everyone “knew” that it was so.

Lyell originally planned to train in law, but his eyes proved unequal to the amount of reading this required. And he had never given up his interest in geology.

So when he finished his schooling, he continued his study in the science and visited several established geologists and talked with them.

Already he was forming some new ideas. This upset a couple of them, but Lyell was seeing things that did not fit with what he was seeing in the field. When he had finished a couple of years of work, he began to travel and see what actually was out there.

He traveled a bit in the French Auvergne and then set out upon a trip to places in Italy. Proceeding in a simple horse-drawn carriage, he went to Italy sometimes with a guide. As he passed parts of the mountains where there had been first, deposits of shells, which he studied, and classified as to their place in collections and geological deposits.

There were times when the rivers flowing down the mountains had cut gorges hundreds of feet deep, and deposits of shells which also were of great thickness.

Lyell studied the relationship between the shells and how old they were, hundreds of feet deep, and when had they been laid down. He climbed Mount Etna to the rim of its crater, experiencing the bitter smoke and steam. This helped establish in his mind the relationship between the fossil shells he was finding in quantity and the erosion of the great cuts in the mountain’s flanks.

Back in England he presented his theory – the earth in constant change – at one of the professional societies. It was accepted, though not without argument.

Then he began work on a book on geology for non-professional people, work which engaged him for the rest of his life. It was the first indication I had found of writing for other than professionals. It was a work that engaged him for 33 years.

Ruth Moore (“The Earth We Live On”) concludes her chapter on Charles Lyell with an analysis of his work and its importance to people interested in geology.

Published in two large volumes in 1830, it was titled “Principles of Geology or the Modern Changes of the Earth and its Inhabitants.” It was followed in 1832 by the second volume, which would go through 12 editions in 45 years.

After his marriage, his wife often traveled with him and helped in is work.

Moore concludes her chapter on Lyell by describing his lifelong devotion to geology. He anticipated the interest in this science, which is found here in the Okanogan, and set a path for other writers. He was one of the many giants in the field.

Elizabeth Widel is a columnist for

The Chronicle. This is the 2,857th column in a series. She may be reached at 509-826-1110.


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