3.  Europe & USA: early government–funded geological surveys

The claim has often been made to the effect that the British Geological Survey was the first of its kind in the world.

This claim has been rightly contested by several writers (e.g. the Survey’s own Victor Eyles, 1937 & 1950; Harry Wilson, 1985) who describe or allude to earlier government-funded geological surveys in France, the United States, Ireland and Scotland.

1822: France

To France belongs the honour of having undertaken the world’s first official geological survey on a national scale (Eyles, 1950).

A plan for preparing a geological map of the country along systematic lines was formulated by the government Corps des mines in 1822 and placed under the supervision of the École des mines (School of Mines).

Two of its mining engineers, Léonce Élie de Beaumont and Armand Dufrénoy, under the direction of André Brochant de Villiers, were given the task of undertaking the survey.

For this purpose they looked to England to provide a model of how such an undertaking should be attempted.

Although French geologists were aware of William Smith’s map, it was Greenough’s more detailed map which they now aspired to emulate.

The three men thus began in 1823 by spending six months on a fact-finding mission in England to learn something of the methods of geological mapping employed by Greenough’s collaborators.

The following year was devoted to writing up their observations and classifying the numerous specimens they had collected.

Work on an initial Carte géologique générale began in 1825 and was completed by 1835 (Brochant de Villiers, 1835).

However, delays caused by the need to engrave a specially prepared topographical base-map meant that publication, in six sheets at a scale of 1:500 000, was not achieved until 1841.

Département funding

It was further proposed that more detailed geological mapping should be funded by the regional Départements, preferably under the supervision of local mining engineers from the School of Mines.

In practice, however, the maps that were produced lacked unity, being issued at a variety of cartographic scales, while the grouping, definition and representation of rock formations were frequently inconsistent.

After 1845 the project lost momentum as Departments became less inclined to allocate the necessary funds for surveying and publication.

The establishment of the Geological Survey of France in 1868, under the directorship of Élie de Beaumont, was in large measure prompted by the failure of the Departmental mapping project.

The involvement of local government in the business of geological mapmaking had proved ineffectual (Savaton 2007).

1823: United States

Figure 2. Title page from De la Beche’s copy of Edward Hitchcock’s 1833 report on the geological survey of Massachusetts.

In the USA, eight state-funded geological surveys were initiated between 1823 and the middle of 1835, although these were of short duration.

The first was undertaken in North Carolina in 1824-28 (the authorising Act being dated 31 December 1823).

Other early state surveys were those of South Carolina (1825–26), Massachusetts (1830–33), Tennessee (1831–50), Maryland (1833–41), New Jersey (1835–40), Virginia (1835–42), and Connecticut (1835–42).

In Pennsylvania there had been regular but unsuccessful submissions to the legislature to provide for a geological survey of the state from 1832, but approval did not come until 1836.

The oldest continuously functioning state Survey is said to be that of New York, established in 1836, although its status after 1843 is questionable. (Sources: Clark 1897, Merrill 1920, Socolow 1988, Stuckey 1965; Hendrickson 1961 provides a useful overview focusing on the role of government).

Among these early state surveys, that of Massachusetts is of special significance because it was the first to be formally published and widely disseminated.

The state geologist was Edward Hitchcock, who despatched a copy of his full report (Figure 2) to Henry De la Beche on 28 December 1833 as a mark of appreciation for the value he had derived from reading the latter’s Geological Manual published in 1831 (letter in Sharpe & McCartney 1998, item 690).

A renewal of the survey of Massachusetts, with emphasis on agricultural benefit, was enacted in 1837. The commission included the laudable instruction that ‘that which is practically useful will receive a proportionally greater share of attention than that which is merely curious; the promotion of comfort and happiness being the great end of all science’ (Merrill 1920, 155).

Advice from De la Beche

It is worth noting that Henry Darwin Rogers, the first state geologist of both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, received field instruction from De la Beche in the spring of 1833 during a visit to England.

De la Beche was at that time engaged in a geological survey of Devonshire with financial assistance from the Board of Ordnance.

Rogers, who up to then had been unsure about the future course of his career, was inspired to set about conducting a state geological survey on his return home.

When it became clear towards the end of 1834 that the New Jersey legislature was considering such a survey, Rogers made known his interest, ensuring that the governor of New Jersey was made aware of his qualifications for undertaking ‘field research of a scientific kind such as I have witnessed with De la Beche’ (Gerstner 1994, pp.44–7).

Maclure and Featherstonhaugh 

Mention should also be made of William Maclure (1763–1840), at one time called ‘the father of American geology’ (Dean 1989), and George William Featherstonhaugh (1780–1866), ‘the first U.S. government geologist’ (Berkeley & Berkeley 1988).

The former, born at Ayr in Scotland, published his ‘Observations on the geology of the United States’ in 1809, with a coloured geological map of the regions east of the Mississippi River, surveyed and financed by himself.

This map, though highly generalised, later earned him a reputation as the ‘William Smith of America’. The other notable pioneer of American geology was English by birth, reputedly related to the Fetherstonhaughs of Fetherston Castle (there are variant spellings) in Northumberland.

In December 1832 he made an approach to the U.S. government requesting financial support for a complete geological survey of the United States.

In the event he received commissions to undertake reconnaissance surveys over the eastern states from 1834 to 1838.

He afterwards returned to England and was appointed in 1844 as British Consul at Havre. During the revolution in France in 1848 he smuggled King Louis Philippe to England by disguising him as Mr William Smith, a half blind uncle.

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Bate, D G.   2010  Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche and the founding of the British Geological Survey.  Mercian Geologist, 17 (3). 149–165.