Kelvin’s Influence: The Initial Reception

  • Joe D. Burchfield


Speaking before the geological section of the British Association in 1899, Archibald Geikie reminded his audience oi how geologists in the 1860’s had been “startled by a bold irruption into their camp from the side of physics.”1 He referred, of course, to the publication of Kelvin’s papers on the age of the earth. But time had telescoped events in his memory, and his recollections were somewhat distorted. By 1899 Kelvin’s influence had produced a major change in geological thought. The more radical implications of uniformitarianism had been left behind, and the infinite or vaguely indefinite time scales of the midcentury had given way to an earth of finite and calculable antiquity. By 1899, indeed, Kelvin’s original estimate of 100 million years for the earth’s age had become so entrenched among geologists that they were sharply at odds with his more restrictive later results. But such changes had hardly been sudden. Far from taking geology by storm, Kelvin’s chronology had been adopted gradually by individual scientists, and nearly a decade passed before its full impact began to be felt.


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  1. 1.
    eikie, A. (1899), Presidential Address, p. 198.Google Scholar
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    Examples of those geologists supporting Hopkins and Kelvin on the solidity of the earth include: Fisher (1868b), Elevation of Mountain Chains;Google Scholar
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    Phillips was in fact responsible for several of the first public statements recognizing Kelvin’s work. (See: Phillips (1864), Address to the Section of Geotogy, pp. 175–180;Google Scholar
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    Wallace sent a prepublication copy of “Geological Climates,” which was a review of the new editions of Lyell’s Principles and Elements, to Darwin early in 1869. Darwin immediately responded with the opinion that Wallace had not placed as much confidence in Croll’s work as he, Darwin, was willing to do. (See: Marchant (1919), Letters of Wallace, I:242. Letter dated 14 April 1869.) There can be little doubt that this opinion was in some degree influential in Wallace’s subsequent about-face and his adoption of Croll’s hypothesis in “Geological Time.”Google Scholar
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    Marchant (1916), Letters of Wallace, I:250–251. Letter dated 26 Jan. 1870. Actually, Darwin was confusing Wallace’s argument for rapid climatic change due to alterations of astronomical conditions with Kelvin’s argument for greater past meteorological and plutonic activity due to higher temperatures in the earth and sun. The two arguments have little in common, but I have found no record of Wallace correcting Darwin.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 329. Huxley’s allusion was to the Bible, Acts 18:17. Gallio, the Proconsul of Achaea, refused to try Paul under Roman law for breaking Jewish law. Jewish law was not his province and he “cared for none of those things.” Huxley’s reference was perhaps more pointed than it appears at first.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 89–90.Google Scholar

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© Science History Publications 1975

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  • Joe D. Burchfield

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