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Abstract

The leading lights of the Geological Society announced the birth of a newly scientific form of Earth science by claiming to dissociate geology from the grand theories, theological controversialism and flights of fancy that they felt had dominated eighteenth-century practice. For these gentlemen, geology was to comprise strict empirical induction. They cultivated a historical myth according to which their predecessors had been hopelessly romantic theory-mongers with overactive imaginations, while they themselves were sensible, sober men of science.

But if this was so, how did geology succeed in winning such an enormous middle- and upper-class public by the late 1830s? Public support required public interest, and public interest in this period was most easily stirred by the romantic, the speculative and the poetical. Older theories of the Earth remained popular for this very reason, as did biblically literalist reconstructions of Earth history. The challenge for the new school of geology was to dissociate Earth science from the content and methodology of such theories while retaining their accompanying sense of excitement, wonder and pleasure. This paper explores how members and allies of the Geological Society negotiated (or ignored) their own suspicions about the deceptive power of the ‘imagination’ when promoting geology as a science worth the public’s attention.

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