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Arthur Holmes (1890–1965) was a British geoscientist who devoted much of his academic life to trying to further the understanding of geology by developing a radiometric timescale. From an early age he held in his mind a clear vision of how such a timescale would correlate and unify all geological events and processes. He pioneered the uranium–lead dating technique before the discovery of isotopes; he developed the principle of ‘initial ratios’ thirty years before it became recognized as the key to petrogenesis, and he wrote the most widely read and influential geology book of the twentieth century. But despite all this, much of his contribution to geology has gone unrecognized in the historical literature. This paper attempts to redress this omission, to dispel some of the myths about Holmes’ life, and to trace his contribution to the development of the geological timescale.

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