to the Geological Sciences
In the history of geology, many persons are cast as founders,
inventors, standard-bearers, and visionaries. Yet few truly rise
to the top as the creme de la creme of the geological sciences.
When a scientist does deserve such a designation, however, it is only
fitting that his life be examined and his contributions be
lauded. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries,
Renaissance England experienced one such extraordinary scientist by the
name of William Hyde Wollaston. Though his name is oftentimes
lost in the study of history, his legacy is most certainly not.
As a physicist, chemist, biologist, astronomer, mineralogist,
metallurgist, and geologist, Wollaston's impact on science (in general)
and geology (specifically) has been and continues to be
immeasurable. A brief summary of his life and work will go far in
giving due credit to a man whose devotion to science was without
William Hyde Wollaston was born in East Dereham, Norfolk, England,
on August 6, 1766.
The son of a rather influential clergyman, Wollaston was afforded the
best education that 18th century England had to offer. In fact,
he earned the highly-regarded M.D. degree from Cambridge University in
1793 ("William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828)," 2007).
Wollaston began practicing medicine soon thereafter; however, his
interests in science quickly expanded beyond the boundaries of human
anatomy and biology. As early as 1801, Wollaston relocated
himself to London where he began devoting his studies to a wide-range
of scientific disciplines including chemistry, physics, mineralogy, and
astronomy (Dictionary of Scientists, 1999). As Wollaston's
knowledge of these subjects grew, so did his notoriety. Even
before his arrival in London, Wollaston's potential for serious
scientific research was recognized by
an invitation to join the ranks of England's prestigious Royal
Society. Furthermore, from 1804 to 1816, he served as the Royal
Society's Secretary, and in 1812, he was admitted to the Geological
Society of London where he became an extremely active and influential
member (Faul & Faul, 1983; "William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828),"
In general, Wollaston's life was marked by scientific discovery and
invention, not eccentricity or controversy. However, there are
two interesting tangents to his life that deserve note. First of
all, Wollaston did become embroiled in one controversy with a famous
colleague named Michael Faraday. Apparently these two gentlemen
could not agree on who should receive credit for designing the first
electric motor. Though few would disagree that Faraday was
"the first to produce a workable electrical motor design," it was
Faraday's "[reticence] to grant Wollaston credit for his earlier"
electrical experiments that caused the debate to persist ("William Hyde
Wollaston (1766-1828)," 2007). Had Faraday merely given credit
where it was due, there is little doubt that Wollaston would have
conceded the original design to him.
A second intriguing highlight of Wollaston's life was his
platinum-ware business. Though he was decisively engaged in his
scientific endeavors, he nonetheless found time to produce
platinum-based houseware and market it to his fellow Londoners.
In fact, it was this business venture that eventually made Wollaston an
extremely wealthy man and allowed him to create the first major
the Geological Society of London in the amount of 1000 pounds (Faul
& Faul, 1983). In this regard, then, even Wollaston's private
interests demonstrate his undying commitment to the science that he so
Unfortunately, Wollaston's scientific pursuits could not persist
forever. He died in London, England, on December 22, 1828, at the
age of 62 ("William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828)," 2007). However,
Wollaston's legacy did not die with him. It lives on to this day
and continues to inspire scientists in nearly every scientific
discipline. Though this website will concentrate primarily on his
contributions to the geological sciences, it must be noted that
Wollaston's brand of science included the full spectrum of the
universe. He was, in the truest sense, a scientist with few
|Figure 1: William Hyde
Taken from "William Hyde Wollaston" (2006).
The late 18th and early 19th centuries were the "boom years" for all
branches of science, including geology. It was during this time
that many geological theories and methodologies were proposed and
debated. Some of these would go on to be foundational to the
geosciences, while others would be exposed as erroneous and/or
impractical. A few of the more notable issues that emerged during
this time were the study of geodesy (i.e. the figure of the Earth and
geomagnetism), Wernerism, Neptunism, Hutton's subterranean heat model
and predictive theory, various biostratigraphic methods, and the
fledgling uniformitarian vs. catastrophism debate (Gohau, 1990).
Yet, during this period of constantly shifting paradigms and often
embittered infighting, Wollaston stayed a relatively steady
course. That is, he did not largely become entangled in these
time-consuming engagements. Wollaston favored the scientific
enterprise itself over the egotistical dogmatism that many of his
impassioned collegues attempted to pass off as science. This is
not to say that Wollaston was without controversy during his career
(see above); however, it is to say that during a period when scientific
controversy and personal rivalries were at their height, Wollaston
maintained a professional demeanor and scientific purity that were
above reproach. For this he should be given much credit.
Wollaston's life was also marked by a watershed, politico-social
event in world history, namely, the Industrial Revolution. This
is important to understanding Wollaston's career because it
provides a possible causative factor for many of his scientific
pursuits. In other words, the Industrial Revolution likely
explains his keen interest in fields such as metallurgy,
crystallography, and mineralogy. Expertise in these areas was
crucial to mining, manufacturing, and energy production. As such,
intelligent and innovative men like Wollaston capitalized on industry's
needs in order to explore science in new and unprecedented ways.
In this regard, then, Wollaston was definitely a man ripe for his
time--a person whose place in history could not have been better
Wollaston's contributions to science were tremendous. In terms
of the geological sciences, his major contributions can be adequately
summarized in three areas. First, Wollaston developed various
"powder-metallurgy techniques [that] served as [models] for the modern
industrial processing of platinum, tungsten, molydenum, and other
transitions metals" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2007).
Furthermore, during his studies and experiments with platinum,
Wollaston discovered two additional transition metals, namely,
Palladium (1803) and Rhodium (1804) ("William Hyde Wollaston
(1766-1828)," 2007). These
two metals have become extremely important in the electrical, optics,
and surgical instrument industries ("Periodic Table of Elements,"
Secondly, Wollaston invented the world's first reflecting goniometer
in 1809. This was a breakthrough piece of technology in the field
of mineralogy, for it "permitted highly accurate and precise
measurements of the positions of crystal faces" (Klein & Hurlbut,
1993). Whereas previous goniometers had allowed for the study of
crystal symmetry, the reflecting goniometer provided for accurate
measurements of both naturally occuring and artificial crystal faces
(Klein & Hurlbut, 1993). Reflecting goniometers are still
used by mineralogists today, and even though they have been improved
considerably, Wollaston's basic design principles endure. This is
no doubt testimony to his ingenuity as an inventor and his foresight as
|Figure 2: Reflecting
goniometer invented by William Hyde
Wollaston in 1809.
Taken from Klein & Hurlbut (1993). This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Finally, one cannot ignore Wollaston's contributions as a
namesake. As recognition for his work in the geological sciences,
Wollaston has been given attribution in three ways. First, the
calcium metasilicate (CaSiO3) mineral
Wollastonite is named in honor of him (Virta, 2006). This mineral
is used in many ceramic products to include floor tiles, electrical
insulators, and porcelain fixtures (Encyclopaedia Brittanica,
2007). Furthermore, the Wollaston Medal is awarded annually by
the Geological Society of London. "This is the highest award of
the Geological Society. This medal is normally given to
geologists who have had a significant influence by means of a
substantial body of excellent research in either or both 'pure' and
'applied' aspects of the science" ("Society Medals and Awards,"
Lastly, the Geological Society of London also awards the Wollaston Fund
annually "to contributors to the Earth sciences on the basis of
noteworthy published research" ("Society Medals and Awards,"
these may seem like insignificant memorials for such a significant
scientist, they nevertheless serve as tangible reminders of the respect
and admiration that Wollaston garnered among the geological
community. They also act as a vehicle to propel his name into the
future, ensuring that his accomplishments are never forgotten.
Much more could be said about William Hyde Wollaston. For
instance, in the field of astronomy, he was the first to discover black
absorption lines in the solar spectrum. These are still used
today to determine chemical elements by spectral analysis (Zeiss,
2007). What is more, as a physicist, Wollaston established the
equivalence of galvanic and frictional electricity in 1801 (Columbia
Encyclopedia, 2006). Again, as a physicist, he "established that
visual acuity decreases when the wearer [of eyeglasses] looks through
the peripheral areas of biconvex eyeglass lenses" in 1804 (Zeiss,
2007). In fact, Wollaston was such a prolific scientist
that his list of accomplishments could go on practically ad infinitum. He was, in the
strictest sense of the phrase, a "Renaissance man"--one whose knowledge
and abilities spanned a wide-range of disciplines. In short, he
was a scientist's scientist.
Columbia Encyclopedia. (2006). "William Hyde
Wollaston." 6th ed.
Dictionary of Scientists. (1999). Oxford University
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2007). "William Hyde
Wollaston" & "Wollastonite." Retrieved from
Faul, Henry & Faul, Carol. (1983). It Began with a Stone: A History of
Geology from the Stone Age to the Age of Plate Tectonics.
New York: Wiley & Sons.
Gohau, Gabriel. (1990). A History of Geology. New
Klein, Cornelis & Hurlbut, Cornelius S. (1993). Manual of Mineralogy. New
York, Wiley & Sons.
"Periodic Table of the Elements." (2003). Retrieved from
the Los Alamos National Laboratory website at
Virta, Robert. (2006). "Wollastonite Statistics and
Information." Retrieved from the USGS website at
"William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828)." (2007). Retrieved from the University Coalition for Atmospheric Research website at http://www.hao.ucar.edu/Public/education/bios/wollaston.html.
Zeiss, Carl. (2007). "Wollaston's Contributions to
Optics." Retrieved from the Zeiss Corporation website at