A Scientist's Scientist:  A Brief Examination of the Life and Work of William Hyde Wollaston

by Mark A. Tinsley
in partial fulfillment for the course GO 521, History of Geology
April 2007

Biographical Information
Historical Context
Major Contributions
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 precedent.

Biographical Information

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)," 2007). 

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 endowment for 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 loved.

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 boundaries.

Figure 1:  William Hyde Wollaston.
Taken from "William Hyde Wollaston" (2006).

Historical Context

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 orchestrated.

Major Contributions to the Geological Sciences

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," 2003). 

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 a scientist.


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," 2007).  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," 2007).  Though 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 Press.

Encyclopaedia Britannica.  (2007).  "William Hyde Wollaston" & "Wollastonite."  Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com.

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 Brunswick:  Rutgers.

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 http://periodic.lanl.gov/default.htm.

"Society Medals and Awards."  (2007).  Retrieved from the Geological Society of London website at http://www.geolsoc.org.uk/template.cfm?name=Awards.

Virta, Robert.  (2006).  "Wollastonite Statistics and Information."  Retrieved from the USGS website at http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/wollastonite.

"William Hyde Wollaston."  (2006).  Retrieved from the Institute and Museum of the History of Science website at  http://brunelleschi.imss.fi.it/museum/esim.asp?c=300604.

"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 http://www.zeiss.de.