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Clarence Edward Dutton (1841–1912): soldier, polymath and aesthete

By
Antony R. Orme
Antony R. Orme
Department of Geography
,
University of California
,
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1524
,
USA
(e-mail: orme@geog.ucla.edu)
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Published:
January 01, 2007

Abstract

Clarence Edward Dutton (1841–1912) was one of several scientists who laid the foundations for modern geology from their work in North America during the late nineteenth century. Dutton was a career soldier who fought in the American Civil War and remained with the US Army Ordnance Corps to his retirement in 1901. Despite military obligations, Dutton developed a profound interest in geology and, on secondment first to the Powell Survey and later to the fledgling US Geological Survey, made important contributions to volcanic geology, seismology and physical geology. His lifelong fascination with volcanism led to improved understanding of the volcanic geology of the American West, Hawaii, and Central America. This work linked naturally with the emerging science of seismology, as reflected in his study of the 1886 earthquake in Charleston, South Carolina, and he is often credited with introducing the ‘new seismology’ to American scientific audiences. Awareness of volcanic and seismic hazards in turn led him to caution against a proposed sea-level canal across the Nicaraguan isthmus. His contributions to physical geology are most evident in several reports on the American West, notably the Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah (1880), the Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District (1882), and Mount Taylor and the Zuni Plateau (1885). These reports, presented in colourful prose, reveal both the author's scientific acumen and his aesthetic appreciation of nature.

Whereas most of Dutton's work must now be placed in its historical context, in his recognition of isostasy, a term he coined in 1882 to reflect the debate then raging concerning Earth's crustal behaviour, his ideas were remarkably prescient. Dutton's interest in isostasy derived in part from his studies of volcanic geology, seismology, and crustal behaviour, and in part from his fieldwork in the American West. Initially, however, it was Dutton's description of the great denudation of the Colorado Plateau, rather than any isostatic implications, that influenced geomorphology during the earlier twentienth century, dominated as it was by Davis' cycle of erosion. The subsequent demise of Davisian geomorphology, and the ensuing quest for alternative models, led to a reawakening of interest in isostasy as a concept basic to the explanation of Earth's surface features. Somewhat belatedly, Dutton's concept of isostasy is once again at the centre of debate regarding denudation and crustal behaviour. Wherever these debates focus, they confront a problem fundamental to geology, geodesy and geophysics, namely the extent to which the Earth's present relief reflects a quest for balance between the subsurface forces generating uplift, subsidence and mass transfers at depth, and the climate-induced processes responsible for denudation and mass transfers of rock waste across the surface. Dutton's probing of isostasy predated modern debate in geomorphology by more than a century.

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Contents

Geological Society, London, Special Publications

Four Centuries of Geological Travel: The Search for Knowledge on Foot, Bicycle, Sledge and Camel

P. N. Wyse Jackson
P. N. Wyse Jackson
Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
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Geological Society of London
Volume
287
ISBN electronic:
9781862395350
Publication date:
January 01, 2007

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