The Alum-Maker’s Secret

This essay review first appeared in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society, vol. 53: 2 (1999).

The Floating Egg: Episodes in the Making of Geology. By Roger Osborne. London, Jonathan Cape, 1998.  Pp. 372, £15.99 (Hardback).  ISBN: 0 224 05028 1

In the 1820s, as ‘the father of stratigraphy’ William Smith (1769-1839) was pleased to note, the people of Scarborough were ‘very fond of talking on Geology’. That this seems still to be the case is in no small way a measure of his influence, for the town’s Rotunda Museum (with some of the specimens that filled it until their move to the Scarborough Natural History Museum in the 1950s) remains a permanent monument to Smith’s unparalleled impact on the newly consolidating sciences of the earth. And, as this book demonstrates, it could only have been in Yorkshire, and particularly along its coast, where a contribution such as Smith’s might have found a fitting arena.

Although, like Smith, the author of The Floating Egg might appear at first to have become preoccupied with an overly-specific corner of the history of geological science, his range in fact could hardly be broader; for the book’s real concern, developed engagingly by Roger Osborne over twenty-five loosely linked narrative sections, is with episodes in the history of problem solving. The sixty-five miles or so of Yorkshire coast – extending from Saltburn down to Flamborough Head – where each section of the book begins and ends, and where a number of formative dramas of geology (and geological personality) are seen to unfold, soon gives way to the bazaars of Constantinople, the Gran Chaco Gualamba in what is now Argentina, and the vast uncharted Pacific Ocean of Cook and Joseph Banks. The seemingly unhindered project of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific communication is traced as if following its progress on a globe. Yet all of Osborne’s voyages begin or end in Whitby, Scarborough or Staithes, and the great cliffs of the Yorkshire coast are shown repeatedly to have contained secrets and solutions whose discovery had the power to shape the histories of science and technology.

Much of this material stems from incidents connected with the alum trade of early modern Europe. Alum (a double sulphate of either potassium-aluminium or ammonium-aluminium) had been used since antiquity in a wide variety of industries, from textiles to gunpowder, yet its extraction was a difficult, large-scale and expensive business. In particular the last stage of its manufacture depended on a correct gauge of the specific gravity of the solution from which it could then be isolated by heat. This required not only great skill and application but also a certain amount of luck. A chance discovery, however, allowed the precise specific gravity of the hot alum liquor to be known easily, and thus for it  to be first manufactured in Britain on an industrial scale. The wealth and political influence that flowed from this discovery should not be underestimated: it aided Britain’s rise to power as an agrarian economy and helped lay the foundations for the coming scientific and industrial revolutions. The floating egg of Osborne’s title – and the overriding symbol of the book – refers to this discovery, for a hen’s egg will rise to float in the alum solution only when that solution has achieved exactly the desired specific gravity. This was the alum-maker’s secret: an absurd discovery, perhaps, yet one from which the early prosperity of Britain largely depended.

The alum trade required enormous deposits of alum-bearing shale to be quarried, as they were along a thirty-mile stretch of the north Yorkshire coast. Tiny fishing settlements such as Whitby and Saltburn developed rapidly in the early seventeenth century into towns and ports, serving the demands of the new industry. The coming of prosperity to the region in turn brought science and learning, and when the alum workings began to expose first fossils, then entire fossil skeletons, there were men and women on hand to place a value on their preservation. This value was both intellectual and commercial, and one of the book’s strengths is to illustrate so well and so convincingly the powerful dynamics of this relationship. The new science of geology arose, in part, through the agency of the new industrial economy. Great fossil skeletons were exposed by the direct actions of an industry which then paid, albeit less directly, for their collection, preservation and permanent display in newly-built museums and institutions. Some of these institutions, such as the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, had much to gain from prestigious fossil acquisitions, not least as veils to cast over the fact that the new intellectual culture of pursuits such as palaeontology and stratigraphy had come about partly as a by-product of an increasingly commercial culture. This relationship was (and is) the source of a certain amount of anxiety and friction, and as Osborne excavates the story of these famous finds, he is careful also to excavate the concerns of the culture that sought to preserve them, revealing the complex of motives and interests at work.

Osborne tells the stories of ten entire reptile fossils that were discovered in the alum shale between 1758 and 1960. Mostly  plesiosauri and ichthyosauri, they are now to be found in major museums in London, Dublin, Houston, Cambridge and, of course, in Whitby and Scarborough. The stories, interspersed with the other narratives of the book, add up to an overview of two centuries of palaeontological discovery. This is not the only study of the cultural impact of palaeontology to have been published in recent months (The Last Dinosaur Book, by the literary critic W.J.T. Mitchell is an account of the grip on the public imagination currently exercised by the rise and fall of Jurassic-era biology[i]), although Osborne’s is the better book, for it allows us to view the subject from a host of competing outlooks, from every corner of the scientific, technical and commercial folds. Rarely has the nineteenth-century scientific mind been so thoroughly and impressively contextualised.

Major geological personalities such as William Buckland and Adam Sedgwick move within the narratives alongside lesser-known characters such as Louis Hunton and Edward Topham. Topham, whose waning fortunes looked suddenly up when a meteorite fell loudly to earth on his property near Wold in North Yorkshire in 1794, is one of an entire cast of opportunists who populate the fringes of the history of science. If Osborne has a weakness for these figures, it is only because they help him better to render the stories at the heart of his book.

It is this story-telling urge that marks out Osborne’s book from other, academic and institutional, histories of science. If the subtitle echoes Roy Porter’s pioneering study The Making of Geology, the book itself owes little to Porter’s style, methods or interests.[ii] The distinction is felt not so much in the tone of voice as in the leaps of narrative daring. One chapter, for example, recalls William Smith’s journey of 1794 through York and Newcastle on behalf of the board of the Somerset Coal Canal, by recourse to a fictional memoir, cast in the voice of Samborn Palmer, one of the three members of the party. His voice is recruited, or rather invented, in order to demonstrate the early effect of Smith’s ideas on informed contemporary opinion, an effect that Smith’s own account, transmitted through the work of his nephew John Phillips, singularly fails to perform.

Similar devices are used elsewhere in the text, and perhaps the most impressive piece of such narrativising is the account of William Buckland’s exploration of the Kirkdale Cave in 1821. This was a key event in the history of geology and although Buckland, in his Reliquiae Diluvianae of 1823, was careful to reconcile his findings with the theory of the Noachian flood, his methods nonetheless revealed a new, inductive, departure in observational science. Osborne, struck by the structural similarities of the incident to an early episode of Holmesian detection, recounts the story from the point of view of a ‘Watson’ narrator, shadowing the personas introduced in A Study in Scarlet. As the debuts of Holmes and Buckland were indeed of a piece, it is a remarkably successful and insightful experiment.

The reason that this interlude works at all is because of the tribute it pays to intellectual history. Conan Doyle’s understanding of deduction (or rather, induction) derived from the science emerging all around him. His insight – and from it, his inestimable contribution to world culture – was to transform a scientific process into the means of literary entertainment. Sherlock Holmes, the product of Conan Doyle’s design ‘to build up a scientific detective’ was a model of a new kind of intellect exemplified by pioneers such as Buckland.[iii] A century later, as Osborne reverses the precedent, he allows us to enjoy not only the unfolding of a geological mystery as if it were an urbane Holmesian riddle, but the archaeology of an idea itself: deduction (or rather, induction). While it might not fully stand up as history of science, as an anatomy of a breakthrough in thought it is a commendable piece of writing. Roger Osborne’s conviction that ‘science may not always be concerned with the dissolution of myth; it can live alongside some other kinds of understanding’ [p.61] is fully borne out by the manifold successes of his approach. This is an ambitious and fascinating book.

Richard Hamblyn


[1]  W.J.T. Mitchell, The Last Dinosaur Book, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

[2] Roy Porter, The Making of Geology: Earth Science in Britain 1660-1815, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

[3] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 26


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