Charles Lyell, a Scottish geologist, was born Nov. 14, 1797. Between 1830 and 1833, Lyell published the 3 volumes of his Principles of Geology, surely the most influential geological text of the century, at least in English-speaking countries. Most geologists of Lyell’s day were catastrophists, which means they explained earth history by violent events, such as floods, cataclysms and “revolutions of the earth,” to use a term popular at the time. Lyell proposed in his book that invoking extraordinary phenomena such as catastrophic floods was not only philosophically unsound, but also unnecessary, since one can explain all of the changes undergone by the earth using small forces, such as erosion and uplift, acting over long periods of time. Time, of course, is the crucial factor; you need lots of it for small forces to do their job, and not everyone was willing to grant the earth such a lengthy history. But Charles Darwin was convinced; he took the first volume of Lyell’s book with him on the HMS Beagle, and by the time he returned, he was a thoroughgoing uniformitarian, as disciples of Lyell were called. Lyell was happy to have young Darwin as a protégé, and the two became fast and lifelong friends.

The frontispiece to volume 1 shows the Temple of Serapis at Pozzuoli, which had slowly subsided in the 2000 years since the Romans built it, which was used by Lyell as an emblem for uniformitarianism (see first image above), and which in later editions of the Principles was embossed in gold on the front cover (see third image above). For the frontispiece of volume 2, he displayed an image of Mt. Etna, which seems old on the human scale of years, but is geologically very recent (second image above), and thus represents geological time. We displayed Lyell’s Principles in both our Theories of the Earth exhibition of 1984 (not online, but printed catalogues are still available), and in Vulcan’s Forge in 2004. Lyell published 11 editions of the Principles in his lifetime (he died in 1875), each one carefully revised and updated. We have the whole caboodle in the History of Science Collection. The lithograph portrait of Lyell (fourth image above) appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Science in 1867, in the very year that the completely revised 10th edition of the Principles was issuing from the press.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City