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Tracks to a new world: railway excavation and the extension of geological knowledge in mid-nineteenth-century Britain


The narratives of stratigraphy in mid-nineteenth-century Britain were greatly augmented by new rock exposures arising from railway construction. Leading geologists quickly registered this vast new array of potential scientific knowledge and pressed the BAAS and, later, HM Government, to regularize the recording of ‘railway sections’. Artists simultaneously found in these sometimes vast rock cuttings a rich source of subliminal imagery. A systematic examination of the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society reveals country-wide reporting and recording of railway sections. Leading geologists were among the contributors, but so too were railway engineers, demonstrating a growing alliance of practical and theoretical geology. Nor were leading geologists strangers to early rail travel. In the 1840s they ‘expressed’ to annual meetings of the British Association in all its varied provincial venues. William Buckland even gave classes on geology whilst travelling by train, in order better to display the successive rock strata to his students.

Ours is no coasting voyage by the sunny shores of some well-havened bay; we steer across the undiscovered oceans of truth, with compasses in need of correction, under the canopy of cloud and darkness which involves the origin of things.

J. Phillips, Esq., part of his presidential address to the Geological Society, 1859 See Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society (hereafter QJGS) (1859), 15, p. lxi.

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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