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Global Geology and the Tectonics of Empire

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What does it mean to be ‘global’? In the decades around 1900, the answer to that question emerged through the natural sciences, and especially in geology. The era of high imperialism witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of attempts to explain the history and structure of the Earth. These drew upon long-standing colonial surveys, which used European standards to develop a global strata sequence. The new syntheses also relied upon results from oceanographic surveys, telegraph networks, and seismological stations to understand the structure of mountains, the character of ocean basins, and the nature of the planet’s interior. This talk examines the rise of theorizing about the Earth in the context of fin-de-siècle liberal imperialism. Theories were formulated in diverse places, in academic centres and at the heart of the great empires, from Vienna to Beijing. The most significant synthesis, Eduard Suess’s Das Antlitz der Erde (The Face of the Earth, 1885-1909) elaborated a perspective drawn from the collections in the natural history museum on the Vienna Ringstrasse and the high Alpine peaks of the late Hapsburg Empire. The Prussian geophysicist Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, first published in 1912, was originally an idiosyncratic contribution to the ongoing debate about a global science of the Earth. In the interwar era, drift became increasingly attractive, especially among increasingly confident colonial geologists. After 1945 the flowering of imperial geology was largely forgotten, but Wegener’s speculations offered a connecting link with the new phase of instrument-based, ocean-based theorizing during the Cold War, which culminated in the plate tectonics revolution of the 1960s.

This talk is part of the Lady Margaret Lectures series.

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