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Abstract

In North America, prior to the Second World War, discussions on the age of the Earth were a minuscule part of the geological literature, as demonstrated by the small number of papers indexed to the subject in bibliographies. Indeed, during the first quarter of the twentieth century, there were few general papers on this topic circulating among those geologists who dealt with sedimentary rocks and fossils; nevertheless, evidence is provided that many geologists were aware of the ‘debate’ going on in Britain.

As the methodology for determining the length of geological time dramatically changed during the four decades represented here, so too did the evolution of ideas about the age of the Earth. These can conveniently be divided into three time periods: before, during and after the discovery that radioactivity could be applied to the dating of rocks. The first section reviews the attitudes of geologists in America to the age of the Earth in the 1890s. It is followed by their reactions to the discovery of radioactivity. The third part discusses two major publications on the age of the Earth which reflect the ultimate acceptance, by geologists, of the long timescale revealed by radioactivity. Because much of the early work on radioactivity was being done in Europe, American geologists were marginally later than their British counterparts in accepting the concept of radiometric dating, but by the end of the period under consideration they led the field in geochronology.

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