Category Archives: About Lyell

Lyell Inspires!

This month we learn that Erin, one of our Lyell project volunteers, has had her eyes opened to the present-day natural world – thanks to inspiration from our Sir Charles Lyell Collection.

We have all caught the Lyell / Geology bug here at the Sir Charles Lyell Collection Project HQ. Each of us has developed a preoccupation with spotting and identifying pebbles, fossils, gneiss, and schist and so on. Our work and personal libraries groaning with the additional weight of multiple biographies of Lyell, and an almost absurd array of spotters guides to rocks, minerals and fossils. Even our twitter feeds are increasingly populated with evidence of geological time lines (mostly pebbles with veins). No return from a trip to the beach complete without a pocketful of geological specimens; pebbles of grey granite, ovoid pebbles of slate with quartz vein running through it, fragments of whitish chert, and things we used to know, simply, as shells.

A digital photographic image showing a handwritten, in pencil and in ink, list of shells which were sent to Bedford Place, dated 5 February 1840. from Sir Charles Lyell’s Notebook, No. 80, 5 February – 25 June, 1840, Ref: Coll-203/A1/80)

A list of shells sent to Bedford Place, dated 5 February 1840, from Sir Charles Lyell’s Notebook, No. 80, 5 February 1840 – 25 June, 1840, (Ref: Coll-203/A1/80)

On my desk, as I type, are an assortment of granite, quartzite, and possibly metamorphic mud – a recent haul from Point beach on the Isle of Lismore. It is one of the great privileges of working so intimately with historical collections: we are repeatedly offered a unique opportunity to develop knowledge and interest in a person, subject, or era that, most likely, would have eluded us had we chosen a different line of work. Earlier this week I read, in the New York Times, Dennis Overbye’s review of the renovated hall of gems and minerals at the American Museum of Natural History. He suggests that ‘Geology Is Our Destiny’.1 For all of us working together to interpret, catalogue and make accessible the Sir Charles Lyell Collection, it would certainly seem so.

Project volunteer, Erin, has developed only a little infatuation with molluscs (to the extent that her new found knowledge required the creation of its very own data-set – Erin is a qualified archivist after all). In working with the Lyell notebooks, Erin has begun to see the world through Lyell’s nineteenth-century geological wisdom. The present-day natural world has opened up to Erin in a way she had never imagined possible. Here, Erin tells us more about her work transcribing Lyell’s notebook indexes and how it has fuelled her growing obsession.

“Transcribing Sir Charles Lyell’s scientific notebook indexes has been a sometimes ruffling but always captivating journey. The one thing I never expected was that like Lyell, I found myself becoming fascinated with molluscs. The Mollusca phylum is:

“one of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, with at least 50,000 living species (and more likely around 200,000) [and it] includes such familiar organisms as snails, octopuses, squid, clams, scallops, oysters, and chitons”.2

Lyell often took note of the different genera and species he found during his travels. In notebook 80, for instance, I found a list of shells belonging to various molluscs which Lyell had identified and had sent to his home in London.

I felt like both an amateur detective and biologist as I hunted for these bivalves and gastropods on the World Register of Marine Species and MolluscaBase (a global species database, covering all marine, freshwater and terrestrial molluscs, both recent and fossil). As I transcribed, I felt compelled to document them and my new found knowledge about them in an Excel data-set. Some of them proved very elusive and some others are still a mystery. The excitement I felt each time I was able to find a mollusc Lyell had listed was extremely gratifying, particularly when the name he had recorded had fallen out of accepted or general use.

What I have loved most about transcribing Lyell’s notebook indexes is how much I am able to learn from only one index entry; nineteen molluscs in a single page that I had the pleasure of trying to find and learn about! This is what I feel is the most rewarding part of being an archivist. Through this amazing collection we are given the opportunity to explore the life and times of Sir Charles Lyell while presenting his knowledge, research, ideas and wondrous curiosity to a wider audience.

Now, each time I go to Yellowcraigs or North Berwick for a wild swim, I can’t help but stop and examine the rocks, the shells, the crab skeletons, the little pools full of marine life and of course the molluscs. I never would have stopped to explore in this way had I not first discovered so much through the eyes of Sir Charles Lyell.”

We hope you enjoyed reading about how the Sir Charles Lyell Collection has inspired our project volunteer, Erin, to observe and learn about her natural surroundings with new-found enthusiasm.  Erin’s story is just one example of the power of historical collections to enable, support and enhance the acquisition of new knowledge, learning and understanding. We would love to know how you might use the collection to aid learning, teaching and research. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks to Dr. Gillian McCay, assistant curator at the Cockburn Geological Museum, for her help in identifying the Point beach pebbles. Look out for our next blog post, (coming very soon), when we will be taking a bit of a deep-dive into Lyell’s indexes and hearing from another of our project volunteers, Michael. Thanks for reading!

Elaine MacGillivray, Senior Lyell Archivist
Erin McRae, Lyell Project Volunteer

Sources and further information:
1. Dennis Overbye, ‘Why Geology Is Our Destiny’, The New York Times, 22 June 2021 (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/22/science/natural-history-museum-gems-minerals.html), [accessed 25 June 2021].
2. Paul Bunje, ‘Lophotrochozoa: The Mollusca: Sea slugs, squid, snails, and scallops,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society B274(1624):2413-2419 (https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/taxa/inverts/mollusca/mollusca.php), [accessed 25 June 2021] .
World Register of Marine Species
MulluscaBase

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In Lyell’s Own Words

This month we hear from Lyell Project Archivist Elise Ramsay and Project Volunteer Erin McRae. Elise and Erin each reflect on their recent progress transcribing the Sir Charles Lyell notebooks using ground-breaking AI and machine learning, and their work together to develop this incredible AI tool for further use with the Lyell collections. 

Elise Ramsay, Project Archivist, holding an open scientific notebook and smiling

Elise Ramsay
Lyell Project Archivist

For me, the written word is the most captivating and characterful element of the Sir Charles Lyell collections. When reading Lyell’s own words on the page in graphite and ink, I can tell when he is writing from a desk, or in the field. In decoding his idiosyncrasies, I have come to understand a bit of the man himself. Understanding Lyell’s handwriting is the key to opening up this internationally significant collection. But it is also the first barrier. Lyell’s handwriting is of his time; often liberally abbreviated, topic specific, and faded. Complete transcription of the collection is paramount to accessibility, and recently, we have made some exciting progress towards this goal.

In early March 2021, the Charles Lyell Project team took part in hosting the EDITOR Transcription virtual workshop. In preparation for the workshop, two digitised notebooks from the Lyell collections (MSVII and Notebook No 4) were selected to be trialled with the Transkribus platform. Over 8 weeks, EDITOR project interns Evie Salter and Nicky Monroe transcribed these notebooks word for word. With this data, an algorithmic model of Lyell’s handwriting was created, effectively teaching Transkribus to recognise Lyell’s words on the page, and to decipher them automatically. This innovative work by the EDITOR Team, has revolutionised our systems and methods of cataloguing. Already we can see this balance of machine learning and human input has introduced new efficiency (and enjoyment!) to the task of transcription.

To build on this momentum, we were delighted to offer a remote volunteer opportunity aimed at trialling the newly created Transkribus model and testing the many features Transkribus offers. In this capacity, Erin McRae joined us in March, contributing to key cataloguing efforts and scoping the features of Transkribus for further use with the collections. Erin is a recent graduate from the MSc in History programme at the University of Edinburgh and holds an MA in Archives and Records Management from University College Dublin in Ireland. In only two months, Erin has produced tremendous material, and we are indebted to her. Here, Erin reflects on her first impressions of the Sir Charles Lyell collections and using Transkribus:

Profile Picture, Erin McRae, Volunteer

Erin MacRae
Lyell Project Volunteer

When I think of Sir Charles Lyell, I see a man in constant motion and possessing a thirst for knowledge that knew no boundaries. I can picture him observing the volatile Mount Etna, or immersed in the identification of mollusc species, or exploring geologic formations and petrified fossils millions of years old. I imagine him pausing to scribble down his observations in notebooks in his own inimitable style (a combination of English, French, Italian and Latin), so he wouldn’t miss any detail.

The detail of the collection is of untold value to researchers and presents interesting challenges as we describe the collection. In addressing these challenges, the Transkribus platform is an invaluable tool.  

Transkribus  is “a comprehensive platform for the digitisation, AI-powered text recognition, transcription and searching of historical documents – from any place, any time, and in any language.”1 Using the algorithmic handwriting model developed on the EDITOR project, we were able to upload more raw material from the Lyell collections to the Transkribus platform. In my recent work with Sir Charles Lyell’s notebooks, I found that Transkribus was able to decipher Latin species names with which I was unfamiliar. This saved me a significant amount of time and gave me the ability to transcribe much faster.  An example of this occurred when Transkribus identified “Fissurellagraeca”.2 A species of mollusc, this name has since been replaced by the accepted name “Diodora graeca3 . It is remarkable that it was correctly interpreted by the software in the first place. 

A screenshot of the Transkribus platform. On the left is a digitised image of a page of Charles Lyell's notebook 65. The handwriting is in ink, and an untidy scrawl. On the right is typed words, corresponding to each line in the image. The words are a word for word transcription.

An example of transcription output from the Transkribus platform.
From Sir Charles Lyell Notebook, No. 65
(Ref: Coll-203/A1/65) – (with apologies for the poor quality image).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The transcriptions that Transkribus produces require minor to moderate spellcheck amendments, primarily where vowels are mistaken. There were some instances of errors in phrases, names, and once a whole line of text. In this case I transcribed this line myself which I had done previously with indexes in two other notebooks. These issues are minor and they  do not detract from the immense amount of time I saved  using Transkribus compared to transcribing without the aid of the algorithmic model. In particular, we were all struck by the accuracy of the model in recognising and deciphering antiquated species names. This was invaluable and changes the role of the transcriber.

The overall benefit of the Transkribus software is that it is helping us to develop a much more comprehensive approach to describing and interpreting the Sir Charles Lyell Collections. To a much greater degree than previously possible, we can document and unlock the life and travels of this principal figure in the evolution of the discipline of geology.  

Elise Ramsay, Lyell Project Archivist
Erin McRae, Lyell Project Volunteer 

Sources and further information:
1.
Transkribus.” Read Coop. Accessed April 19, 2021.
2. “Fissurella graeca (Linnaeus, 1758).WORMS: World Register of Marine Species. Accessed April 19, 2021.
3. Ibid.

You can learn more about our revelatory transcription work on the Sir Charles Lyell Collections, part of the EDITOR project, on YouTube:
Editor Transcription Workshop: Day 1/Session 3 – Video 3 of 10 – YouTube
Editor Transcription Workshop: Day 2 /Session 3 – Video 6 of 10 – YouTube 

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30 Days In

Senior Lyell Archivist, Elaine MacGillivray, reviews her first month in post and shares some of the exciting work and plans afoot for the internationally significant Sir Charles Lyell archive.   

The Sir Charles Lyell archive is of international importance and attracts great interest from academics and researchers from around the world. A key aim of our Lyell project is to make the archive as openly accessible as possible. To achieve this aim, we are progressing a number of areas of project work.

Colour digital image of the spines of the Charles Lyell notebooks situated on shelf, showing notebook 213 onwards (Ref: Coll-203/A1)

The Charles Lyell Notebooks, 1825-1874
(Ref: Coll-203/A1)

Our project archivist, Elise Ramsay’s cataloguing work continues apace and Elise is aiming to complete the cataloguing of Lyell’s 294 notebooks by the end of July 2021. Between January and March 2021, Elise also undertook a pilot project to transcribe a sample of Lyell’s notebooks using ground-breaking transcription technology, Transkribus. Elise and I were delighted to showcase the Lyell archive, our project plans, and to share our learning from the pilot with 150 international delegates at the EDITOR Transcription Workshop held earlier in March 2021.  (More on that exciting development in a future blog post).

While Elise has been diligently cataloguing, I have been busy mapping all of the Lyell archive. We now have a really useful and comprehensive overview of the location, extent, scope and content of the four main elements of the collection, which feeds into our newly devised cataloguing work plans.

On completion of the first phase of cataloguing, the subsequent focus will be Lyell’s vast working correspondence and notes allocated to the University of Edinburgh in Lieu of Inheritance Tax in 2020. We have already migrated some of the existing descriptive data for this series to an electronic data-set which we can use to undertake a stock-take. This work will allow us to enhance the existing item level descriptions which we will then import into our online archives catalogue ArchivesSpace. With almost 1200 letters and a further 54 folders of papers including lecture notes and field-work we expect this work to keep us busy for some time!

Detail of a letter to Sir Charles Bunbury from the newly acquired Sir Charles Lyell archive. Stamped envelope, with address, black script handwriting on aged paper.

Letters from Sir Charles Lyell from the Sir Charles Lyell archive.
Photo © David Cheskin
(Ref: Coll-203/Uncat)

Lyell’s correspondence includes letters between Lyell family members from as early as 1806 (when Charles Lyell was only 9 years old), as well as over 640 letters received by Charles Lyell between 1829 and 1874. 65 of those letters are from botanist, explorer and close friend of the naturalist Charles Darwin, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911). They cover almost 40 years (1846-1874) during which time, Hooker was appointed botanist to the Geological Survey of Great Britain, undertook expeditions to India, the Himalayas, Syria, Palestine, and Morocco, and was latterly appointed Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. We can’t wait to discover how these letters further illuminate the relationships and ideas shared between Lyell, Darwin and Hooker. We will be sure to share our findings with you here – watch this space.

Thanks to generous funding from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, supplemented by philanthropic donations we are delighted that a comprehensive conservation and preservation project will commence, we hope, later in the summer of 2021 (global pandemic permitting). I have been working closely with our Special Collections conservator to pull together a work-plan for our incoming project conservator. The conservation project will see all of the Lyell archive cleaned, repaired, consolidated, stabilised, rehoused and the conservation work fully documented.  This work will serve to stabilise the collection, preventing the exacerbation and risk of further deterioration. Expect more updates on this work later this year.

Other work for me has centred around developing our project plans for the next three years: looking at how we can best enable collections access and bring to light the fascinating stories, ideas and knowledge from within the Lyell collections, to support learning, teaching and research. With this in mind, we quietly launched our public engagement account on Twitter on 8 March 2021.  We were somewhat overwhelmed by the warm welcome we received and are delighted to have amassed 184 friendly followers already.  You can follow us @LyellTime for more regular project highlights and chat from the project team as we work to preserve, catalogue, digitise and engage with the Sir Charles Lyell archive.

As well as plans for the development of our online resource ‘Charles Lyell’s World Online’ (thanks to generous funding from the International Association of Sedimentologists), we have a high profile, impactful and collaborative exhibition and engagement programme in our sights for the second half of 2023.

Our plans also include a significant programme of collections digitisation. We have completed a trial of photographing at high resolution 12 of Lyell’s notebooks. This means that you can now view over 1500 pages from these 12 notebooks via the University of Edinburgh Image Collections website. These images are CC-BY licensed supporting the University of Edinburgh’s open education activities and initiatives. You can find more information on CC-BY licensing on the Centre for Research Collections Image Licensing website pages.

Digitisation helps us to protect and preserve this unique archive collection whilst simultaneously enabling and enhancing access. Completing the digitisation programme means that digital images of the Lyell collections will be openly accessible online. Digitised content is also critical to our plans to generate transcriptions of the Lyell collections using Transkribus. Our ambition is to build on our existing transcription pilot to build a significant body of transcribed material, making the collections more broadly accessible to all levels of scholar.

We hope you have enjoyed reading about our news from the last month.  Please share your thoughts in the comments. Next month, Elise and our project volunteer Erin McRae, will be bringing you an update on our pilot transcription project – stay tuned!

Elaine MacGillivray
Senior Lyell Archivist

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The Lyell Project Team is Growing!

22 February marks the anniversary of the death of renowned Scottish geologist, Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Newly appointed Senior Lyell Archivist, Elaine MacGillivray, says ‘hello’ and reflects on Lyell’s contribution to our understanding of the world.  

Headshot of Elaine MacGillivray, newly appointed Senior Lyell Archivist at the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh

Elaine MacGillivray
Senior Lyell Archivist

Hello Everyone! My name is Elaine MacGillivray and I am very happy to introduce myself as the newly appointed Senior Lyell Archivist at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections.

I am a registered archivist and bring to the project almost 20 years of experience working across archives in the local authority, business, community, and higher education sectors. I have worked at the University of Edinburgh since 2014, first as the archive lead on the School of Scottish Studies Archives refurbishment project and later, managing two Wellcome-funded, collaborative, archive cataloguing projects. In 2019, I was awarded ‘Record Keeper of the Year’ by the UK Archives and Records Association. I am a trustee of, and professional advisor to, a number of rural heritage organisations.

I enjoy the meticulous organisation of what often seems to others like utter chaos, and I love to connect people and their research interests to each other and to archive collections. When I am not knee-deep in project management and archive metadata, you will find me outdoors; up a hill, or exploring the back roads of Perthshire on my bicycle.

It is a real privilege to be entrusted with responsibility for the Sir Charles Lyell archive collections. Prior to the collections being transferred to the Centre for Research Collections, it is clear that the Lyell family invested a great deal of time and care in preserving and organising the collections whilst in their care. This places our archives and conservation team on a great foothold as we progress conserving and cataloguing the collections further, in order to ensure that they are preserved for posterity and, at the same time, made more widely accessible.

Lyell’s notebooks, correspondence, papers and objects are an immense and invaluable body of evidence. Collectively, they serve to illustrate how Lyell and others in his vast network came to formulate, interrogate and revise their ideas and their understanding of the world around them. Lyell is renowned for his contributions to geology, but the collections bring to light yet more about his own and others’ thinking, across a range of subjects and disciplines.

Earlier this week, Europe’s most active and iconic volcano, Mount Etna in Sicily, erupted once again. The 3,350m tall mountain has the longest recorded history of volcanic eruptions, dating back to 1500BC. The historic lava flows are considered to date as old as 300,000 years. It was Lyell’s systematic and methodical observations of Mount Etna from 1828 onwards that led him to develop his theories around geological time and to argue that the Earth was much older than had been previously believed. Lyell’s work throughout the nineteenth century was key to a monumental shift in our understanding of time and our place in the universe.

In 2021, Mount Etna is still one of the best-studied and monitored volcanoes in the world and its significance endorsed by its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site of Outstanding Universal Value.

Detail of a hand-drawn watercolour map of Mount Etna from the Sir Charles Lyell archive (Ref: Coll-203/Uncat).

Detail of a hand-drawn watercolour map of Mount Etna from the Sir Charles Lyell archive (Ref: Coll-203/Uncat).

One of my favourite items from the collection thus far is a hand-drawn watercolour illustration of Mount Etna. My colleague and Head of Special Collections, Daryl Green, discovered the drawing in August 2020 as he sifted through part of the collection shortly after it arrived at the Centre for Research Collections. The drawing forms part of the continuous record of observations of Mount Etna dating from 1500BC to the present day. I suspect that it is only the first of many remarkable finds to come.

I am looking forward to working with colleagues, building on the fantastic work already undertaken in cataloguing, digitising and making the collections more accessible. We will continue to share our discoveries and project progress here.

We want to hear from you!

What else would you like to see on the ‘Through Lyell’s Eyes’ blog? Would you like to hear from our volunteers and interns? Perhaps you would like to read guest posts from academic experts? Would you like to meet more of our team? What about a ‘behind the scenes’ look at some of our cataloguing, transcription or conservation work? Should we include more visual content illustrating some of the items from our the collections? Would you be interested in more audio-visual content?

Let me know your thoughts and ideas in the comments below – I look forward to hearing from you.

Elaine MacGillivray
Senior Lyell Archivist

 

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From the Stores #3: Notebook No. 13

This week I spent some time working with the following notebook, No. 13, which Charles Lyell kept during his tour in southern France in 1828. This tour was originally started with Roderick and Charlotte Impey Murchison, and was foundational in Lyell’s decision to devote his work to geology over law, and also to begin work to write Principles of Geology. It was in comparing the rock formations of Paris to the south of France, Montpellier, Nice, and Italy that he found common fossilised shellfish, and concluded that these areas must at some point have been underwater, and have since been slowly lifted. (Maddox, p. 42) It was here, too, that in writing to Murchison from Naples 15 January 1829, he devoted himself to the study of geology, “I shall never hope to make money by geology, but not to lose, and tax others for my amusement.”

The notebook is filled with journal style writing, daily entries, with full page detailed sketches, as pictured below. Lyell writes in ink and pencil. Subjects include: Valley of Magna, Etangs, Comparison of Montepellier calcium deposits to those in Paris.

References:

Maddox, Brenda. Reading The Rocks. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

 

Elise Ramsay

Project Archivist (Charles Lyell Collection)

Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh

enewcome@ed.ac.uk

From the Stores #2: Gideon Mantell

This week in the stores, I began to delve into the box lists which describe the new-to-us collection of further papers of Charles Lyell and the family which was received by the University in the summer through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. These are 18 boxes of papers and correspondence of Lyell, and I have embarked on scanning these box lists which will prepare for more in-depth cataloguing in the short to medium term. Here is what most box lists look like:

Gideon Mantell was a frequent correspondent of Lyell, and their life-long relationship started with a bang in 1821, when Lyell casually called on Mantell while visiting his old school at Midhurst. Having heard tell of the doctor from some workmen in the nearby quarry, Lyell rode the 25 miles over the South Downs and knocked on Mantell’s door nearly at dusk. Presumably they might have known each other’s names from the Geological Society, but one would imagine the visit would still have come as surprise at best. However, common interest prevailed, a well-stocked fossil cabinet provided great amount of conversation, and the two reportedly gossiped until morning. (Bailey, p. 48) Their published letters cover all from scientific theories, discoveries, to the latest gossip and accounts from the GeolSoc and Royal Society, of which they were both members.

In a week which is dominated by a race for a vaccine, we see similar scientific rivalries in the early years of geological science. Today Mantell is known for bringing to light and describing dinosaur reptiles. These letters from 1851 with Lyell may relate to a legendary dispute between Mantell, Lyell, and Sir Richard Owen surrounding a reptile fossil which was found in ancient rock, which previously had only yielded fish. At this time, years before Darwin’s Origins of the Species, views of the evolution of life were split into two camps; progressionists (today, this sect is called orthogenesis) believed that organisms have an innate tendency to evolve to a particular goal, and most followers believed this to mean a trend of increasing biological complexity through time. Any description of a tree of life usually falls within this hypothesis. Lyell and Mantell opposed this belief, identifying as anti-progressionists. A famous dispute occured between Lyell, Mantell, and Owens when Mantell and Owens wrote opposing descriptions of this curious fossil. The legend resolved with Owens in the wrong, and Lyell and Mantell in the right, but research using the archival collections of Owens and Mantell proves the legend wrong, revealing that Lyell urged Mantell, thought infirm and ailing, to write the description long after Owens had already been tapped to view and describe the fossil, and it was Mantell and Lyell who were in the wrong. This is a woefully clipped version of events, but I find the true value of work with archives here: with access and research to correspondence archives such as this one, the true stories of history are told, and legends can be found faulty.

References:

Charles Lyell, Sir Edward Bailey, 1962

For more about this progressionist dispute, see Michael J. Benton’s Progressionism in the 1850s: Lyell, Owen, Mantell and the Elgin fossil reptile Leptopleuron (Telerpeton)

 

Elise Ramsay

Project Archivist (Sir Charles Lyell Collection)

Discoveries in the Charles Lyell Collection

“[Charles Lyell’s] cultivated mind and classical taste, his keen interest in the world of politics and in the social progress and education of his country, and the many opportunities he enjoyed of friendly intercourse with the most leading characters of his age, make the letters abound in lively anecdotes and pictures of society, constantly interspersed with his enthusiastic devotion to Natural History.” -Katherine Lyell, Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart, 1881

To mark 7 months working with the Lyell collection, I’d like to share some discoveries I’ve made while cataloguing these amazing notebooks, and researching Lyell’s published works. Lyell today is known for his great discoveries of the Earth, and the elevation and establishment of the science. Here, we see Lyell’s other interests.

Discoveries:

  1. Charles Lyell was deeply interested in the role of universities and education in society. He writes in his notebooks extensively about the religious requirements at Oxford and Cambridge, to which he objected. In  Notebook 4 he  makes  this  list:

An image of a notebook page written in pencil or light pen in which Charles Lyell writes his thoughts on University education. Transcript: What is the portion of those who ought to have a Univ[ersit]y Ed[ucatio]n in England. Who really have one? 1. Learn number Att[ourn]ys & their cle-rks. Barristers not Oxf[or]d or any Univ[ersit]y men - Dissenter who an barrister, attournies, or spe-cial pleaders &c [etc] 2. Engineers, Architects, Surveyors 3. Physician dissenters how many Surgeon d[itt]o. Discipline was intended. ought not those below 16 to be required to go to church.

Notebook No 4, p. 106, one instance of Lyell’s notes on Universities and education.

Transcription: “What is the portion of those who ought to have a Univ[ersit]y Ed[ucatio]n in England. Who really have one? 1. Learn number Att[ourn]ys & their cle-rks. Barristers not Oxf[or]d or any Univ[ersit]y men – Dissenters who an barrister, attournies, or spe-cial pleaders &c [etc] 2. Engineers, Architects, Surveyors 3. Physician dissenters how many Surgeon d[itt]o. Discipline was intended. ought not those below 16, to be required to go to church.”

 

2. Dante’s Inferno was a constant reference in Lyell’s notebooks, though it’s not clear yet for what purpose, other than the geologist’s keen interest. In the midst of notes on other subjects, Lyell often makes brief abbreviated citations of the parts and lines of Dante. These must have been important to him, because he regularly references these citations in his table of contents. His father being a Dante scholar, this is intriguing for further research to understand how Dante’s poetry influenced Lyell’s understanding of the earth.

Excerpts from Notebook No. 4 (1827), where Lyell cites Dante.

3. Lyell wasn’t the only naturalist in his family, his sisters and father were keen on insect collecting and naming. In those days, much of the flora and fauna of Scotland had no official name, and therefore budding lepidopterists “discovered” and named the insects they caught. We hope to describe illuminating family letters like this in the newly acquired papers of Lyell.

Letter to Marianne from Charles Lyell concerning the Lyell sisters’ prowess and interest in identifying insects

4. Lyell’s eyesight is known for being poor and limiting his abilities all his life, but the reason why is now contested. Most biographies cite that his eyesight worsened while studying the law by candlelight, but in a letter to Murchison in preparation for their Grand Tour to France and Italy, Lyell writes that his eye injury was caused by the long days in the Tuscan sun on holiday with his family. On that Grand Tour, to appease his father, Lyell brought with him a clerk named Hall to aid him in his work and treatment of his eyes – though no detail of the treatment has yet been found.

Excerpt from a letter to Murchison, April 29, 1828, explaining his father’s wishes for Lyell to bring his clerk with him, to make up for his troubles with his eyes.

 

References:

Lyell, C. (2010). Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart (Cambridge Library Collection – Earth Science) (K. Lyell, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511719691

Bailey, E., 1962. Charles Lyell, F.R.S., (1797-1875). Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.

Charles Lyell Notebook No. 4, digitised here: https://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/cennww

 

Earth Day

Lyell, his notebooks, and the quote "The past is the key to the present."

Of the many celebrations of Earth Days, Earth Day 2020 will be remembered.

Not only because it is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, but that it occurs during this unprecedented public health crisis; the parades, marches, and demonstrations characteristic of Earth Day have now been moved online, in the form of Earth Day Live. This intersection of Earth Day and COVID-19 is significant, as it comes at a time when we likely have heightened awareness of the power of nature, and its ability to stop humanity in our tracks, and shift our focus to the natural world we live in (which, here in Edinburgh, is springing to life in truly magnificent ways).

Sir Charles Lyell, known as a founder of modern geology, was innately interested in the course of nature, and keenly observed natural phenomena to form and prove theories about the Earth’s age, and continuous processes. Today, our understanding of climate change is built upon the concepts laid down by early geologists

like Lyell. Only with the concept of the Earth’s continuous process of deposition and erosion are we able to understand how our actions have consequences on the Earth and climate. Daryl Green, Head of Museums and Special Collections, writes,

“Lyell made acceptable the theory that the earth was millions of years old and that it was shaped by geological processes still active in the modern era.  He made it possible for people to think about the earth as a dynamic and developing planet in the way we do today.”

-Daryl Green, Head of Special Collections, Deputy Head of Centre for Research Collections

In his seminal book, Principles of Geology, Lyell constructed a main, pivotal point: “The present is the key to the past.” This keenly illustrates his outlook on geology, as he observed modern phenomena, data, and formations to interpret the geological history of the Earth. His book was key to implementing evidential methods to geology, but also to illustrating these ideas in a way that the public could understand. Dr. Gillian McCay, Curator of the Cockburn Museum writes,

“He was one of the first to open up the development of science through publishing books aimed at a more general reader, allowing lay people to access ideas, and thus allowed more people to examine the world around them and draw conclusions.”
– Dr. Gillian McCay, Curator, Cockburn Museum
On this landmark Earth Day, we highlight the outstanding work of Charles Lyell, through his observation and writing, which allows us to study the Earth and make conscious decisions in our daily lives. In the weeks to come, we will be sharing more from our collection of his scientific notebooks, and correspondence.

Two new films on Charles Lyell and his notebooks

Professor Withers and others viewing a selection of Charles Lyell notebooks, University of Edinburgh’s Playfair Library, February 2020

There are two new films on Charles Lyell and his notebooks: The Travels of His Own Mind – Travels of His Own Mind where Professor Charles Withers, Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Edinburgh and Geographer Royal for Scotland, discussing the importance of Charles Lyell’s notebooks.

Also ‘Two Hundred and Ninety Four Notebooks, One Thousand One Hundred Donors’ – 294 notebooks, 1,100 donors where Professor Withers and Jacky MacBeath, Head of Centre for Research Collections and Head of Museums, University of Edinburgh, on why we are excited about Lyell!

 

Professor Richard Fortey on Lyell

  Lyell expert and enthusiast

Professor Richard Fortey is one of the most authoritative and engaging experts on the importance of Charles Lyell. A welcome supporter in the Lyell notebook campaign, he has recently been interviewed by Professor Brian Cox for the joint BBC and Royal Society series People of Science. Watch here for a persuasive account of Lyell’s scientific significance: People of Science

We’d also recommend Richard’s fascinating article on Lyell and deep geological time for the Geological Society (of which he is a past President): Lyell and Deep Time