1902 Encyclopedia > Abraham Gottlob Werner

Abraham Gottlob Werner
German geologist
(1750-1817)




ABRAHAM GOTTLOB WERNER (1750-1817), the father of German geology, was born in Oberlausitz, Saxony, 25th 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 Mehrau and Lorzendorf, and from young Werner's infancy cultivated in him a taste for minerals and rocks. The boy showed early promise of distinction. In his fourth year he had learnt to read; in his fifth he could write and cipher; and by the time he was six or seven years old he had grown to be a great reader. Already, when only three years of age, he had begun to collect specimens of stones, and, when he could read, 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, with the idea of ultimately succeeding him in the post which the latter held there. In his eighteenth year ill-health compelled him to seek the mineral waters of Carlsbad. In journeying thither by way of Freiberg he showed such enthusiasm and knowledge in an excursion in that neighbourhood as to attract the notice of the officials there, who invited him to attend their mining school which had been established two years previously. This was the turning point in Werner's career. He came to Freiberg in 1769 when he was nineteen years of age, and found the school in its merest infancy. 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 Leipsic and went through the usual curriculum of study, but continued to devote himself with the greatest ardour to mineralogical pursuits. While still a student he wrote his first work on the external characters of minerals (Ueber die äussern Kennzeichen der Fossilien, Leipsic, 1764), which at once gave him a name among the mineralogists of the day. His friends in Freiberg, who had watched his progress with much gratification, called him at the close of his college life to be inspector in the mining school and teacher of mineralogy there. To the development of that school and to the cultivation of mineralogy and geognosy he thenceforth 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 had the art of infusing into those who listened to him some of his own ardent enthusiasm. His disciples accordingly left his rooms with the determination to preach his doctrine everywhere. They became ardent partisans, and carried on an active propaganda in most countries of Europe. He died at Freiberg on June 30, 1817.

One of the distinguishing features of Werner's teaching was the care with which he taught the succession of geological formations. 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 m Saxony was believed by him to be of universal application all over the globe. He taught that the rocks were the precipitates of a primeval ocean, and followed each other in successive deposits of worldwide 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. 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, Leipsic, 1825 ; Cuvier, Eloge de Werner; and Lyell, Principles of Geology.







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