Artifacts from the history of geology

I had the good fortune last week to join a gathering of the Explorers’ Club at the great David Rumsey Map Center, a famous collection housed since 2016 in the Green Library at Stanford University. Laid out for our enjoyment were precious original maps from the 18th century West Coast exploring voyages of Vancouver, La Pérouse, Cook and more; maps from the 19th century Western surveys of Fremont, King, Powell and more; and two monuments of geologic mapping: William Smith’s 1815 map of England and Wales, and an edition of William Maclure’s 1809 map of the United States. I couldn’t resist a phone pic of that one.

macluremap

But you can examine the map online as closely as if you were holding a hand lens up to it, thanks to davidrumsey.com.

It’s hard to overstate how much effort it took to make this map, crude as it is. Geology was in a crude state at the time — Maclure distinguished only four classes of rocks, using the Neptunist scheme of Werner — and the territory of America could only be surveyed laboriously by foot, horseback, boat or coach. But this is how it began.

The 1815 Smith map, widely known as “the map that changed the world,” recently had a well-celebrated bicentennial, and strata-smith.com is where to get deeply into it. It was a rare privilege to take it in with my own eyes.

Another item that impressed me was a heavy lump of dark stuff encased in a silver box, engraved with the owner’s name in 1791. It was a genuine working lodestone.

lodestone1791

A lodestone is a naturally magnetized piece of the mineral magnetite. Not every piece of magnetite actually acts like a magnet, although of course a magnet will attract it strongly. It has to have a certain amount of impurities that, in effect, lock down its magnetization in a persistent state. It also appears to need its magnetization to be “set” by the strong field of a lightning bolt.

Lodestones were the first compasses. Mariners first learned to navigate with them around 1200. Later it was learned that you could magnetize ordinary iron by stroking it with a lodestone, although this was not permanent. Iron compass needles had to touched up periodically, and that was what this lodestone was for. A ship’s captain might keep one as a backup, but they’ve always been rare and expensive.

Not until the 1700s were truly permanent compass needles made using steel, and not until we mastered electricity did we no longer need lodestones. I have this magnetite specimen, about a thumbtip’s size, that acts as a magnet. I hesitate to call it a lodestone because nowadays you could make one by just zapping it.

lodestone

I was touched by these artifacts from a time when science was closely tied to artisanship, when everything was done by hand. Today, geologizing still benefits from the human hands and senses in ways that, say, physics and chemistry have long left behind.

The Rumsey Map Center is open to the public.

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2 Responses to “Artifacts from the history of geology”

  1. glasspusher Says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Nice post. I would argue that chemistry, at least, still can be a very hands-on science. I know that’s how I do my chemistry. Great to see the numbers and the spectra, but doing organic chemistry in the lab or building and testing fuel cells and batteries, to me, has always been stuff I’ve done by hand (at least until the kinks are worked out)

  2. Hollis Says:

    I enjoyed this post, being a big fan of the Rumsey digital collection. I use their maps in posts about scientific exploration of the American West. I didn’t know the Map Center is open to the public, would love to visit … one of these days.

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