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Abstract

The Geological Society was the world’s first formal learned society to be devoted to the earth sciences, but these sciences were already flourishing in other social forms. In Continental Europe, state-supported ‘academies of sciences’, natural history museums, mining schools and universities all supported many ‘savants’, who would now be classed as professionals. In Britain and Ireland, in contrast, mineral surveyors and managers of mines worked entirely in the private sector. Throughout Europe, however, all such professionals relied on an infrastructure of ‘amateur’ observers and collectors (often very far from ‘amateurish’), including groups of lower social status such as miners and quarrymen, to provide local information and specimens. The leading figures regarded themselves as belonging, despite the wars, to an informal and cosmopolitan network of savants; they used the international language of French to communicate across national boundaries, and treated Paris as the centre of their intellectual world. The Geological Society modelled itself first on other informal scientific clubs and then on the botanical Linnean Society. It chose to model its periodical on the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions rather than the more utilitarian Journal des Mines edited in Paris. It considered adopting the well-established epithet ‘mineralogical’, but chose instead the rather novel and previously contentious word ‘geological’, in order to signal its intended focus on careful outdoor fieldwork rather than indoor work with specimens. At the same time it rejected the speculative ambitions of the genre of ‘theory of the Earth’ in favour of an ostentatious focus on supposedly atheoretical ‘facts’.

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