V0026752 Sir Charles Lyell. Photograph by Mayall.
Sir Charles Lyell. Photograph by Mayall. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

This week’s entry looks at Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. While it is easy to think of a published work as the final result of an author’s research into a particular subject or the definitive word on a theory, Lyell’s project shows constant developments in scientific thought and some of the debates that occupied geological studies in the first half of the 19th century. The Whipple is fortunate in having several copies of the Principles and these can be used to illustrate the complex publishing history of this important work.

In the 1820s Lyell set out to establish the basic ‘principles’ of the science of geology. This term carried connotations of Newton’s Principia and it was not intended as a simple introductory work but a full-blown treatise on the causes of geological phenomena.[1] After several years of travelling on the continent researching and gathering data, the first volume of Principles of Geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation was published in January 1830 (STORE 116:3). As the title page makes clear, this was to be a two volume work. Printed on an iron hand press, the expensive octavo was published by John Murray, a leading British scientific publishing house of the day. The frontispiece of Volume I was engraved from Lyell’s own sketch, reduced from a drawing by archaeologist Andrea de Jorio. The first run was an impressive 1500 copies and sold well.[2]

Volume 1 title and frontispiece

Volume 1 edition 2 title page
Vol. I, 2nd edition. STORE 81:21

However, by the time the second volume appeared in January 1832 Lyell had found that two volumes would not be enough to fulfil his ambitions and in the Preface he explained the need for a third to complete the work. Meanwhile, sales of Volume I had gone so well that another edition, largely a reprint but with minor corrections and additions and a more open type to enhance the intelligibility for the reader, was called for. This was issued in the same month as Volume II.[3]

By January 1833, the second edition of Volume II was ready. This was soon followed by the first edition of Volume III, with enough copies to supplement all previous print runs of the first two volumes, a factor that can easily cause confusion.[4] In the Preface to Volume III Lyell explained the journey of his publication, from delivering the first MS. to the publishers in 1827, through his various fieldwork excursions and correspondence, to this volume. The work was remarkable in scope and also in the copious illustrations. Volumes II and III had hand-coloured frontispieces made from Lyell’s own sketches; woodcuts and diagrams also came from his drawings; coloured maps were often compiled from the works of others, sometimes from several sources. Plates of engravings made from drawings of geologist and conchologist Gérard Paul Deshayes in Volume III indicate his collaboration with others working in the field.[5]

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Reactions to Lyell’s project, whether favourable or critical, had arisen as soon as the first edition of the first volume was published, and he continually exploited the burgeoning work in the field of geology as it appeared in books and the increasing numbers of scientific journals, and as issues arose in private communication. The changing editions of the Principles were the result of the expansion of knowledge and ideas in geological science, and represent Lyell’s own perspective on these changing debates. The Whipple also holds a copy of the tenth edition, published in 1867 in two volumes (STORE 163:24-25). By this time the work had transformed to include Lyell’s response to the theory of evolution and the subtitle had changed to become Principles of Geology or the modern changes of the earth and its inhabitants considered as illustrative of geology. [6]

10th edition

[1] M.J.S. Rudwick, ‘Lyell and the Principles of Geology’, in Lyell and Darwin, geologists: studies in the earth sciences in the age of reform (Aldershot: Ashgate Variorum, 2005), p.2.

[2] Stuart A. Baldwin, ‘Charles Lyell and the extraordinary publishing history of his works’ Geology Today 113 (May-June 1998), p.114; Jim Secord’s introduction to Charles Lyell: Principles of Geology (London: Penguin, 1997) p.xxvii; Rudwick p.11; List of plates and wood-cuts in Volume I.

[3] Baldwin, p.114.

[4] Baldwin, p.114.

[5] See lists of plates and wood-cuts in corresponding volumes.

[6] See Rudwick, esp. pp.1-2, 19-20.