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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Abraham Gottlob Werner

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ABRAHAM GOTTLOB WERNER (1750-1817), father of German geology, was born in Upper Lusatia, Saxony, on the 25th of September 1750. The family to which he belonged had been engaged for several hundred years in mining pursuits. His father was inspector of Count Solm's iron-works at Wehrau and Lorzendorf, and from young Werner's infancy cultivated in him a taste for minerals and rocks. The boy showed early promise of distinction. He began to collect specimens of stones, and one of his favourite employments was to pore over the pages of a dictionary of mining. At the age of nine he was sent to school at Bunzlau in Silesia, where he remained until 1764, when he joined his father at Wehrau with the idea of ultimately succeeding him in the post of inspector. When nineteen years of age (1769) he journeyed to Freiberg, where he attracted the notice of the officials, who invited him to attend the mining school established two years previously. This was the turning point in Werner's career. He soon distinguished himself by his industry and by the large amount of practical knowledge of mineralogy which he acquired. In 1771 he repaired to the university of Leipzig and went through the usual curriculum of study, paying attention at first chiefly to the subject of law, but continuing to devote himself with great ardour to mineralogical pursuits. While still a student he wrote his first work on the external characters of minerals, Von den iiusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien (1774), which at once gave him a name among the mineralogists of the day. In 1775 he was appointed inspector in the mining school and teacher of mineralogy at Freiberg. To the development of that school and to the cultivation of mineralogy and geognosy he thenceforth, for about forty years, devoted the whole of his active and indefatigable industry. From a mere provincial institution the Freiberg academy under his care rose to be one of the great centres of scientific light in Europe, to which students from all parts of the world flocked to listen to his eloquent teaching. He wrote but little, and though he elaborated a complete system of geognosy and mineralogy he never could be induced to publish it. From the notes of his pupils, however, the general purport of his teaching was well known, and it widely influenced the science of his time. He died at Freiberg on the 30th of June 1817.

One of the distinguishing features of Werner's teaching was the care with which he taught lithology and the succession of geological formation; a subject to which he applied the name geognosy. His views on a definite geological succession were inspired by the works of J. G. Lehmann and G. C. Fuchsel (1722-1773). He showed that the rocks of the earth are not disposed at random, but follow each other in a certain definite order. Unfortunately he had never enlarged his experience by travel, and the sequence of rock-masses which he had recognized in Saxony was believed by him to be of universal application (see his Kurze Klassifikation and Beschreibung der verschiedenen Gebirgsarten, 1787). He taught that the rocks were the precipitates of a primeval ocean, and followed each other in successive deposits of world-wide extent. Volcanoes were regarded by him as abnormal phenomena, probably due to the combustion of subterranean beds of coal. Basalt and similar rocks, which even then were recognized by other observers as of igneous origin, were believed by him to be water-formed accumulations of the same ancient ocean. Hence arose one of the great historical controversies of geology. Werner's followers preached the doctrine of the aqueous origin of rocks, and were known as Neptunists; their opponents, who recognized the important part taken in the construction of the earth's crust by subterranean heat, were styled Vulcanists. R. Jameson, the most distinguished of his British pupils, was for many years an ardent teacher of the Wernerian doctrines. Though much of Werner's theoretical work was erroneous, science is indebted to him for so clearly demonstrating the chronological succession of rocks, for the enthusiastic zeal which he infused into his pupils, and for the impulse which he thereby gave to the study of geology.

See S. G. Frisch, Lebensbeschreibung A. G. Werners (Leipzig, 1825); Cuvier, Eloge de Werner; Lyell, Principles of Geology; and Sir A. Geikie, Founders of Geology (1897; 2nd ed., 1906).

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Abraham Gottlob Werner'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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