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Werner, Abraham Gottlob


(b. Wehrau, Upper Lusatia [now Osiecznica, Poland], 25 September 1749; d. Dresden, Germany, 30 June 1817), geology, mineralogy.

Werner was the only son of Abraham David Werner and Regina Holstein Werner. He had one older sister, Sophia. His family had a long history of association with various ironworks, and his father was inspector of the Duke of Solm’s ironworks in Wehrau and Lorenzdorf. The family was well off financially. According to his own “Biographical Notes,” Werner received his first formal education from his father, who encouraged his early interest in mineralogy. He also studied with a private tutor before entering the Waisenschule at Bunzlau (now Boleslawiec, Poland) at the age of nine. He remained at the Waisenschule until 1764, when his mother died and his father took him out of the school and made him a Hüttenschreiber1 in the ironworks. After five years of this work, in 1769, Werner was enrolled in the recently founded Bergakademie Freiberg and began studies intended to prepare him for the administration of the Duke of Solm’s ironworks.

However, in Freiberg, he was induced to enter the Saxon mining service; and since no one could expect to achieve an advanced position in the service without a degree in jurisprudence, Werner left the Bargakademic after two years to enter the University of Leipzig, where he studied for three years. During his first two years at the university, he devoted himself mainly to the necessary courses in law, but he became increasingly interested in the study of languages and what is now called historical linguistics, and his interest in mineralogy persisted, until he abandoned the study of law altogether, leaving the university in 1774 without a degree.

In 1773, however, he had written his first book, Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien, which was published in 1774. On the strength of its immediate success, his friend and former teacher K. E. Pabst von Ohain suggested to the Board of the Bergakademie that he be offered a position as teacher of mining and curator of the mineral collection there. Werner accepted the offer, joining the faculity in 1775, and remained at the school for the rest of his life. During his forty-two years there, largely because of his fame as a mineralogist and his skill as a teacher, the little mining academy became one of the most famous schools in the world. And in turn Werner came to be acknowledged as the foremost geologist of his day. He moved in a brilliant circle of friends and was received at the Saxon court. Among his many illustrious students, he counted not only such noted geologists and mineralogists as Leopold von Buch, Alexander von Humboldt, Jean d’Aubuisson de Voisins, Robert Jameson, and Friedrich Mohs, but also such romantic philosophers and writers as Gotthilf Heinrich von schubert, Henrik Steffens, and Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis).

National and the Institut Imperial of France, the Imperial Society of Physics and Medicine of Moscow, the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, the Royal Stockholm Academy of Sciences, and the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh.During his last years he suffered increasingly from ill health, going frequently to take the waters at various health resorts. He never married, and the will that he dictated shortly before his death bequeathed most of his estate to the Bergakademie Freiberg, which had been such an important part ofhis life and work.

Although Werner is best known for his contribution to the founding of geology as a science, he first achieved recognition as a mineralogist. He considered mineralogy to be the basis for all study of the earth, dividing it into five branches, of which geognosy (historical geology) was one and oryctognosy (descriptive mineralogy) another. And during all the years in which his theories on geognosy were arousing so much interest and controversy, he continued to work on his mineral system, the final version of which appeared after his death in 1817. His first important mineralogical work, however, Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien, was not a mineral system but a classification of external characteristics of minerals, designed to aid the worker or the student in the field. In it Werner gave an unprecedented number of external characteristics with definitions, usually accompanied by homely examples which could be understood by both the layman and the natural philosopher. He also attempted to establish some standards of quantification and thus to clear away the vagueness in the terminology, then in use. As chemistry and crystallography developed, mineralogists came to rely more on chemical analysis and less on external characteristics, but Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien, published when werner was twenty-five years old, continued to be an important work into the nineteenth century. Thomas Weaver’s translation into English was published in Dublin in 1805, and a revised translation by Charles Moxon appeared in 1849.

Werner remained convinced of the importance of external characteristics, not only in the identification of minerals but also in the study of their composition. He reasoned that since the appearance of a mineral changes when its chemical composition is changed, there should be a correlation between chemical composition and external characteristics. On the other hand, he recognized that external characteristics cannot form the basis of a mineral system. He wrote: “One can indeed recognize in the external character of minerals the differences of their composition, provided both are previously determined, but the correlation between these two features cannot be discovered in them,”2 He was convinced that ultimately mineral systems must be based on chemical composition, and to that end he kept abreast of developments in chemistry and helped to bring about the building of a chemical laboratory at the Bergakademie and the engagement of W. A. Lampadius as teacher of chemistry. He himself analyzed minerals in his laboratory and stayed in close contact with M. H. Klaproth, who has been called the founder of quantitative mineral analysis.

In his later years, however, Werner took the position that chemistry was still not sufficiently developed for mineralogy to rely upon it completely. In his own system he retained the four traditional classes—earths, salts, combustibles, and metals—and he began to give priority to geological rather than chemical considerations. A good example is his classification of the diamond among the earths rather than the combustibles, even though he was well aware that the diamond is a carbon. He wrote:

The diamond…, is by nature, according to its exterior, characterized wholly as an earthy mineral, as a stone. Its geognostic occurrence also speaks for its place among the earths, because the diamond, as far as is known, occurs only with and among stones, and not among combustible minerals, among which it has recently been classed. All uses which are made of it are as a stone. And finally, its identification is not aided in any way by placing it, in lectures and mineral collections, among earth pitch, the three coal species, graphite, and so forth; but it is helpful to place it with the far more similar zircon and the other gems. Let the mineralogical chemist regard this stone as one of the coals and place it among them; but he should permit the oryctognost to act according to the purpose he has in mind in placing the diamond in an oryctognostic system.3

Werner considered crystallography to be only a branch of mineralogy, which, although important to the study of mineralogy, is unsuitable as a basis for a mineral system and of limited practical value. However, he did study crystallography himself. He emphasized its importance in his lectures, and urged his students to study it. He was well acquainted with the work of Romé de l’Isle and Haüy, being especially interested in the study of primary crystal forms, especially with what Haüy came to call laws of decrement (décroissement). In his own system he incorporated crystal form as an external characteristic.

In spite of his abiding interest in the practical aspects of mineralogy, Werner was not merely a practical mineralogist. Throughout his scientific life, he was concerned with the philosophical aspects of classification in general and of mineral classification in particular. His fullest exposition of his ideas on this subject was published without his permission in 1816 under the title “Werner’s oryctognostische Classifikationslehre.” In a manuscript of this treatise, Werner wrote that the work represented more than forty years of reflection and research.

The article is especially concerned with the various classificatory categories which Werner understood and the three fundamental tasks of the classification of minerals: Gattierung, Gradierung, and Reihung–that is, the determination of species, which he considered to be the cornerstone of a mineral system; the establishment of categories more general and less general than species; and the establishment, wherever possible, of kinships among the members of a particular classificatory category. Werner believed that there are only two possible kinds of kinship among minerals. One leads to a complete transition, or Ubergang, in which “the crystalliztion suite of one species is so closely related to that of another that both are able to cross over completely into the other.”4 In the other, which he called Aneinanderstossen (“coming in touch with one another”), the minerals are related to one another interruptedly, making a complete transition impossible.

Werner’s mineral system, complete as it stood at the time, was published three times, once in 1789, once in 1816, and again in 1817. In addition, parts of it appeared incorporated in other works. In 1780 Werner’s partial translation of Axel Cronstedt’s Försök til Mineralogie was published. Werner believed that, at the time, Cronstedt’s work was the best available on the subject. He translated only the portion dealing with earths and stones, however, correcting errors, adding information on the constitution of minerals, and making extensive additions concerning external characteristics. His comments and additions so enlarged Cronstedt’s work that his translation became a textbook of mineralogy in its own right and was widely used as a teaching aid and reference work.

In 1791-1793 Werner’s two-volume catalog of Pabst von Ohain’s mineral collection appeared. In this work Werner not only incorporated his mineral system but also put into practice his ideas of what should constitute a complete mineral cabinet, a subject which he had discussed in a 1778 article, “Von den verschiedenerley Mineraliensammlungen, aus denen ein vollständiges Mineralinkabinet bestehen soll.” In the article Werner emphasized that a mineral collection should be more than a systematic arrangement of minerals: it should further the understanding of the entire mineral kingdom. He therefore cataloged Pabst von Ohain’s collection in five separate collections according to external characteristics, the natural order of minerals in a mineral system, the historical development of the earth’s crust, the places of origin of minerals, and the uses of minerals. Von Ohain’s collection was ultimately sold to the government of Portugal and shipped to Brazil, where it was used in the teaching of geology and mineralogy in Rio de Janeiro. And the catalog, which was widely used in Europe, was one of the important avenues through which Werner’s influence on mineralogy and geology was spread.

None of the complete editions of Werner’s system was prepared by Werner himself. The 1789 version was prepared under his supervision by his student C. A. S. Hoffman and was published with Werner’s permission. It was also Hoffman who, along with another student, A. W. Köhler, revised the system in 1812 (this is the version which was published in 1816). The 1817 edition, which was published posthumously by order of the Saxon government, was prepared from Werner’s notes by his students J. C. Freiesleben, August Breithaupt, and Köhler.

It is interesting to took at the 1789 and the 1817 versions together, for they show not only the changes in Werner’s system but also the progress that mineralogy had made in the intervening years. The most striking difference between them is that the earlier work covers only 183 species, whereas the later one covers 317. Of these 317, Werner had independently discovered eight and had given names to numerous others. The names of the eight minerals that he discovered, as well as twenty-six other names which he employed, are still used today to designate the same minerals to which Werner applied them.5

Werner’s scientific life spanned a time of unusual interest in mineralogy, an interest not confined to scientists but fostered to a large extent by romantic conceptions on the one hand and utilitarian considerations on the other. The store of mineralogical knowledge was rapidly increasing; and advances in chemistry, crystallography, and geology were opening new paths for the study of mineralogy. Through his own research Werner added to the knowledge of mineralogy and helped to systematize that knowledge. Through his teaching and writing he contributed greatly to the dissemination of knowledge. Conservative and cautious, he was always hesitant to add a “new” mineral to his system until he was certain that it was really a mineral and really new; and, although he was willing to employ new methods, he was always reluctant to abandon old ones which he felt had proved their worth. Thus, Werner was a steadying influence at a time of great and varied activity. His work represents the culmination of a long development in mineralogy and the beginning of a new mineralogy, of which he was fully conscious.

Although many earlier writers had speculated on the origin of the earth’s crust, Werner is rightly called the father of historical geology, for he was the first to work out a complete, universally applicable geological system. It was he who, more than any other, made geology into a science and an academic discipline. According to William Brande, “…to him belongs the principal merit of pointing up the order of succession which the various natural families of rocks are generally found to present. and of having himself developed that order to a considerable extent, with a degree of accuracy which before his time was unobtainable.…”6

Werner’s interest in historical geology stemmed partly from his interest in mineralogy and partly from his interest in mining. But it also reflected his interest in history, for he believed that natural history is an important branch of the history of man, and he felt that the earth’s crust is a more reliable source of history than written histories. His system was based on the principle of geological succession, as Brande indicates, and all his geological work was consistent with this historical principle as he saw it.

Werner was well versed in the mineralogical and geological literature of his day, being familiar with the writings of the leading exponents of both fire and water as the major agent in the creation of the earth’s crust. A list of writers on geology that he prepared includes among others Steno, Lehmann, Ferber, Hamilton, Füchsel, Saussure, Buffon and Moro. His own ideas were undoubtedly influenced in one way or another by what he had read and, in fact, his theories bear a rather striking resemblance to those of Steno, with whose work he was apparently familiar.7 But whatever the background of his theories. Werner thought, on the basis of the geological knowledge of his day, that they were firmly supported by the evidence—a fact which goes far to explain the popularity of his system. Unlike Steno, Lehmann, Moro, and many other earlier and even contemporary writers on geology, he felt no need to fit his theories into the biblical story of creation. There is no indication in his writings, published or unpublished, that any of the floods which are an important part of his theory was the biblical flood. His early religious background was Pietist, at the university he was accused of being an atheist, and in general his attitudes reflected the deism of the eighteenth century. Thus, although his theories, being basically neptunistic, were more acceptable to the defenders of the biblical account of creation than those of the vulcanists, he himself was in no way engaged in the religious aspects of the controversy.

The two basic postulates of the Wernerian theory were that the earth was once enveloped by a universal ocean and that all the important rocks that make up the crust of the earth were either precipitates or sediments from that ocean. Werner placed the rocks in four (later five) classes according to the period in which they were formed, believing that characteristics of the rocks were the result of the depth, content, and conditions of the universal ocean at the time when they were formed. His classification was basically historical. As he himself put it.

I had to be guided completely in the classificatory presentation or tabulation of these masses by the discoverable time sequence of the particular formations if I wanted to remain true to my plan to sketch through this classification a foundation for a complete canvass of the universal formation of these masses.8

Although he did not conceive of the immensity of geological time on the same scale as present-day scientists do, he did write of a time “when the waters, perhaps 1,000,000 years ago, completely covered our earth …” and in his lectures he spoke of the history of the earth “in contrast to which written history is only a point in time.”9 In order to discover the time sequence of rock formation, he used various means, such as compositional and textural features and, especially, the structure of rocks and stratigraphic relations, which he considered the most important clues to the understanding of the history of the earth’s crust. His theory included two unexplained general risings of the universal ocean as well as some local floods; but he believed that, in general, the waters had receded very slowly but steadily. The four periods of formation and their corresponding classes of rocks were the primitive, the floetz, the volcanic, and the alluvial.

At the beginning of the primitive period, according to Werner’s theory, the universal ocean was very deep and calm; and the first rocks were chemical precipitates which adhered to an originally uneven surface, granite being the first rock formed. Gradually the waters became less calm, so that later rocks of the primitive period are not as crystalline as the older ones; and toward the end of the period there was a general rising of the waters, followed by a comparatively rapid recession, which explains the position of some of the later primitive rocks relative to the older ones. No life existed during the primitive period, and thus the primitive rocks are entirely free of fossils.

The floetz period was characterized by storms in the then low-standing ocean and by the development of life in great abundance, the storms destroying much of the newly developed life as well assome of the older rocks. Once again there was a general inundation, with the waters this time reaching a greater height than ever before. It is with these variations from stormy to calm to stormy and the general inundation that Werner explains the relative position of the floetz rocks and their often broken stratification.

The volcanic and alluvial periods are almost contemporaneous and both extend into the present (as does the floetz period). The volcanic and alluvial rocks, however, are not deposits from the universal ocean but the result of local conditions.

Werner added the transition period and the class of transition rocks to his system after the discovery that some rocks which he had previously classified as primitive contain fossils. According to his explanation, the relatively low-standing waters toward the end of the primitive period were calm at first, but gradually they became increasingly stormy, destroying some of the previously formed rocks as well as some living organisms, which had just begun to develop. Some of the rocks formed from these stormy waters are chemical precipitates and some mechanical depositions.

Thus the Wernerian system in its final form included five periods of formation: primitive, transition, floetz, volcanic, and alluvial. The rocks of the first three periods, which constitute most of the earth’s crust, were precipitates or deposits from the universal ocean, those of the two later periods the result of local conditions.

Since Werner believed that the contents of the universal ocean had varied from time to time and from place to place, his theory could account for variations from the general principle that the rocks had been laid down by the universal ocean in layers one above the other. For instance, if the essential contents had at some time been missing from some part of the ocean, an entire formation might be missing from the corresponding area of the earth’s crust. Also, there is nothing in the theory to preclude the formation of similar rocks at different times. Thus, it is only in an idealization of the system that the rocks of the earth’s crust can be envisioned as enveloping the earth in layers much like the layers of an onion. In fact, the theory was flexible enough that, with the addition of factors such as differential settling and the subsequent effects of erosion, cave-ins, etc., it could explain virtually all the phenomena which were observable in Werner’s time. Through his personal magnetism and skill as a teacher, Werner was able to inspire a host of eager students and admirers to go out to attempt that complete canvass of the earth’s crust which he had hoped that his system would make possible.

Werner’s geological theories were first included in his teaching in the introduction to the course on mining, which he had taught since his arrival at the Bergakademie. By the academic year 1778-1779 he had recognized that he could not cover this theoretical part of the course as thoroughly as he wished in one year and at the same time give sufficient practical instruction. He therefore announced that he would offer the theoretical introduction as a separate course entitled “Lehre von den Gebirgen,” Although this was the course which eventually attracted students from all over Europe and from the Americas, bringing fame to the Bergakademie and spreading Werner’s theories, it did not attract many students at first; and it was not until the academic year 1786-1787 that it began to be offered yearly. In the meantime, Werner had written his “Kurze Klassifikation und Beschreibung der verschedenen Gebirgsarten,” which was published in the 1786 volume of Abhandlungen der Biihmischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften and subsequently in at least two pamphlet editions.

Short though it is, the “Kurze Klassifikation” is important to the history of geology for a number of reasons. Although it contains no discussion of Werner’s theories, it exemplifies them; and it is the only printed presentation of those theories to come from Werner’s own hand. The principle of geologic succession is implicit in it. The rocks are classified according to the period of formation, and virtually all are assumed to be of aqueous origin. The “Kurze Klassifikation” was the first work to separate rock classification from the classification of minerals, and thus it did much to establish petrography as an independent branch of the geological sciences. It gave clear definitions of rocks, many of which had not previously been generally agreed upon. And it inspired the research of many geologists, including many who did not accept Werner’s theories, well into the nineteenth century. But the “Kurze Klassifikation” is also important in another way. In a note on the section dealing with volcanic rocks, Werner asserted for the first time that all basalt is of aqueous origin, thus precipitating the great basalt controversy.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, it was generally agreed that granite is of aqueous origin; and many other rocks now considered to be magmatic played only a minor role in discussions of the origin of volcanoes. Therefore, for a long time, the whole question of the relative importance of fire and water as agents in the creation of the earth’s crust revolved about the origin of basalt, since basalt is so abundant and so widely distributed. There had long been differences of opinion on the matter; but at the time when Werner entered the debate, the weight of opinion seemed to favor igneous origin. Werner’s assertion received a great deal of publicity, however; and the debate was resumed with a fervor not shown before, as a host of geologists rushed into the field to seek evidence for one theory or the other.

As early as 1776 Werner had maintained that not all basalt is volcanic in origin. He had previously felt that the theory of the volcanic origin of basalt was “paradoxical,” and an examination of the basalt mountain at Stolpen in Saxony had convinced him that that formation at least was of aqueous origin. Further investigations had strengthened his convictions, so that by the time of the publication of the “Kurze Klassifikation” he apparently felt prepared to defend his position. In the spring of 1787, he examined the basalt deposit at Scheibenberg, in the Erzgebirge, where he found layers of sand, clay, and wacke below basalt. He took this as indisputable evidence of the correctness of his assumption and subsequently wrote an article explaining his discovery. This article appeared in the Intelligenzblatt of the Allgemeine Litteraturzeitung of Jena in the autumm of 1788. In the meantime, the Magazin für die Naturkunde Helvetiens had offered a prize for the best essay in answer to the question “What is basalt?” Two of Werner’s students entered entered the competition: J. C. W. Voigt, who advocated the volcanic origin of basalt, and J. F. W. Widenmann, who defended aqueous origin. With the appearance of Werner’s article, Voigt wrote a letter to the Intelligenzblatt “cor recting” Werner; Werner replied with some heat. Subsequently Werner wrote seven more short articles on the subject, all but one of which appeared in Bergmännisches Journal in the spring of 1789.10 In September of the same year the Magazin fur die Naturkunde Helvetiens published both Voigt’s and Widenmann’s essays in the same issue that carried Werner’s article on the origin of volcanoes.11 Widenmann won the prize; but neither essay settled the controversy, and the matter continued to be debated and investigated with keen interest for many years. Werner, however, took no further part in it except to explain in his Neue Theorie von der Entstehung der Gänge (1791)that basalt veins. like others, are the result of settling from above.

At the time, neither side had any means of proving conclusively that it was right. Petrography alone could not provide sufficient proof; microscopic methods were not then available; and chemical analysis, which showed great constitutional uniformity among basalts but great diversity among lavas, was hardly convincing. Werner’s theory was better substantiated by evidence and reasoning than those of his opponents. at least until the 1790’s. And it is to his credit as a teacher and investigator that his own students. trained in his methods of research, who had originally gone out to prove him right, were in many instances in the forefront of the investigations that ultimately proved him wrong.

Werner could never bring himself to place basalt among the volcanic rocks. He shifted it from the primitive to the floetz period; but to go further would have been to remove one of the cornerstones of his system, something that few scientists have ever been willing to do.

As a result of his interest in mineralogy and his long association with mining and smelting, Werner was of course interested in ores and ore deposits. But in order to remain faithful to his idea of a universally applicable geological system into which all observable phenomena would fit, he had to work out a theory of the origin of ore deposits which would be consistent with his general theory of the origin of the earth’s crust. The result of his work in this area was the Neue Theorie von der Entstehung der Gäng, published in 1791.

In this work Werner defined veins as “particular mineral depositories of tabular shape, which in general traverse the strata of rocks …and are filled with mineral masses differing more or less from the rocks in which they occur.”12 He distinguished between veins and ore beds, giving an explanation which is in principle historical: minerals which occur in veins are very diverse and give every indication that they were formed during different periods than the surrounding rocks, whereas those in ore beds have the same direction as the strata among which they are found, indicating that they are of contemporaneous origin. He also gave a historical definition of the concept of a vein formation: “I designate all veins of one and the same origin as a vein formation …whether they are close together in one region or widely separated from one another in distant countries,…”13

Werner built his theory of the formation of veins on two major premises. The first of these is that “all true veins are really rents which (of necessity) were originally open and were only later filled from above.”14 He supported this premise on the basis of the structure of veins, comparisons of the structure of veins with that of the country rock, the structure of druses in veins, fragments of country rock in veins, analogy with existing rents, and the laws of mechanics. He explained the formation of rents as a result of diagenetic settling–compaction of the originally wet rock masses and the simultaneous loss of the support of the high-standing waters as these receded–shrinkage, and earthquakes. He thought that on the basis of his first premise the relative age and order of succession of veins, metals, ores, and vein minerals could be determined; and he formulated three criteria for determining the relative age of veins and vein stuff: (1) a vein is always newer than another which it traverses; (2) the materials in the center of a vein are newer than those near its walls. and those that are in its upper parts are newer than those in its lower parts: (3) a mineral which occurs above others in a specimen is newer than the others, and one that appears to be grown into others is older than they.

The second premise is that “the same depositions from water that formed the beds and strata of rock masses, and among these produced many orebearing ones, also formed the vein stuff; this took place during the time when the solution which contained such substances was standing above the already existing rents, which were wholly or partly open”15 Werner pointed out that the materials in veins are structurally different from the same materials in beds and strata. In veins they are usually coarser and better crystallized because in veins they were not so much affected by the activities of the waters, and thus the deposition of materials in veins could proceed much more calmly than the depositions in beds and strata. On the basis of the structure of the vein stuff and the pattern of association of certain minerals, metals, and ores in veins, he tried to establish their relative ages and the sequence of their formation. Thus, he considered tin to be one of the oldest metal formations, since it occurs in granite, and bog iron-ore to be the newest, since it occurs in the alluvial lowland formations.

Neither of Werner’s major premises was new. and his theory met with opposition even in his own day and was later discarded. However, many of its elements were of lasting value. Werner formulated basic questions about the origin and history of veins and their contents, established criteria for determining the relative age of veins and vein materials, and presented a comparative study of the structure of veins and rock masses. His student Breithaupt was probably the first to stimulate widespread research on the paragenesis of minerals, but it was Werner who set up the problem and gave impetus to a search for a solution. Perhaps the most important contribution of Von der Entstehung der Gange, however, was that it made the study of vein formation an integral part of historical geology.

After the appearance of the second volume of his catalog of Pabst von Ohain’s mineral cabinet in 1793. Werner published little on geology. In 1794, he published a fifty-page article, “Über den trapp der Schweden,” and a lecture which he had given before the Gesellschaft für Mineralogie zu Dresden was published after his death under the title “Allgemeine Betrachtungen über den festen Erdkorper.” This work, however, was nothing but the introduction to his course on geognosy. A collection of works on mining and ferrous metallurgy, for which Werner had written three articles and coauthored another, appeared in 1811; however, all the articles had been written much earlier. before 1785.

In his later years. Werner devoted himself to his teaching and his duties as Councillor of Mines. He was always surrounded by students and received numerous visitors. The manuscripts that he left to the Bergakademie are extensive; but during the last twenty years of his life. his contributions to geology were made known largely by word of mouth. Yet he remained a towering figure in his field. Probably no other geologist has ever been so extensively eulogized by followers and opponents alike as he was during the two decades following his death.


1. Hiitlenschreiber was something of a combination book-keeper, secretary, assayer, and payroll clerk.

2.Äusserliche Kennzeichen, 26–27.

3. S. G. Frisch, Lebensbeschreibung …Werners, 62–63.

4. Werner MSS.

5. Guntan and Rösler, Werner Gedenkschrift, 56–57.

6. W. T. Brande, Outlines of Geology, 20.

7. Two copies of Steno’s Prodromus, one the 1763 ed., are among the books that Werner left to the Bergakademie library.

8. Unpublished reply to a review of the “Kurze Klassifikation.” Werner MSS.

9. Geognosy, Werner MSS.

10. Of the six articles published in the Berginannische Journal (1789), four were letters annotated by Werner, in which other geologists gave examples supporting his position. The seventh article. “Von den Burzen-Wacken Zu Joachims-that.” was published in Crell’s Chemische Annalen, 1 (1789).

11. Werner admitted that the concept of Volcanoes resulting from the inflammation of coal beds was old, but he maintained that his elaboration of this concept and the proofs that he offered to support it were new.

12. Werner, Neue Theorie von der Entstehung der Gänger, 2–3.

13.Ibid., 5–6.

14.Ibid., 51–52.

15.Ibid., 52.


I. Original Works. Werner’s writings include Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien (Leipzig, 1774), English trans. by Thomas Weaver (Dublin, 1805). rev. trans. by Charles moxon (London, 1849); “Von den verschiedernerley Mineraliensammulungen, aus denen ein vollstindiges Mineralienkabinet bestehen soll…, “in Sammlungen zur Physik und Naturgeschichte von einigen Liebhabern dieser Wissenschaften, 1 (1778), 387–420; Axel Kronstedts Versuch einer Mineralogie. Aufs nerve aus dem schwedischen iibersetzt uncd nudist verschidenen Aninerkungen rorziiglich rant aeussern Beschreibungen der Fossilein vermehrt von Abraham Gottlob Werner, 2 , pt. 1 (Leipzig, 1780); “Kurze Klassifikation und Beschreibung der verschiedenen Gebirgsarten.” in Abhandlungen der Böhmischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, 2 (1786), 272–297; “kanntmachung einer am Scheibenberger Hugel uber die Entstehung des Basaltes gemachten Entdeckung” in Allgemeine Litteraturzeitung, Intelligenzblatt (1788), no. 57, 484–485; “Antwort auf Herrn Bergsekretar Voigts im Intelligenzhlatte der allgemeinen Litteraturzeitung...eignerückte sogennante Berichtigung meiner …neuen Entdeckung,” ibid. (1789), no. 23, 179–184: “Mineralsystem des Herrn Inspektor Werners mit dessen Erlaubnis herausgegeben von C. A. S. Hoffman,” in Bergmännisches Journal, 1 (1789), 369–398: and “Versuch einer Erklärung der Entstehung der Vulkanen durch die Entzündung mächtiger Steinkohlenschichten, als ein Beytrag zu der Naturgeschichte des Basalts,” in Magazin für die Naturkunde Helvetiens, 4 (1789), 239–254.

Further works are Neue Theorie von der Entstehung der Gänge, mit Anwendung auf den Bergbau besonders den freigergischen (Freiberg, 1791): Ausführliches und sistematisches Verzeichnis des Mineralienkabinets des Herrn Karl Eugen Pabst von Ohain, 2 vols. (Freiberg, 1791-1793): Kleine Sammlung Berg- und Hüttemännischer Schriften (Leipzig, 1811); “Mineral-System des Herrn Bergrath Werner vom Jahre 1812,” in Neues Bergmännisches Journal, 4 (1816), 204–231; “Werners oryctognostische Classifikationslehre,” in Hesperus (1816), 345–349, 377–381 414–416, 428–430: Abraham Gottlob Werners letztes Mineral-System. Sus dessen Nachlass auf oberbergamtliche Anordnung herausgegeben und mit Erläuterungen versehen (Freyberg. 1817); and “Allgemeine Betrachtungen über den festen Erdköoper,” in Auswahl aus den Schriften der unter Werners Mitwirkiung gestifteten Gesellschaft für Mineralogie zu Dresden, 1 (1818), 39–57.

A complete collection of Werner MSS is in the archives and library of the Bergakademie Freiberg. These have now been cataloged. Photostatic copies of some of these MSS are in the History of Science Collections of the University of Oklahoma. in the library of Oklahoma State University. and in the author’s private collection. The catalog of the Bergakademie Freiberg collection has been published; Karl-Fritz Zillman, Bestandsübersicht des handschriftlichen wissenschaftlichen werner-Nachlasses, publication no. 24 of the Library of the Bergakademie Freiberg (Freiberg. 1967).

II. Secondary Literature. See Abraham Gottlob Werner Gedenkschrift aus Anlasz der Wiederkehr seines Todestages nach 150 Jahren am 30. Juni 1967 (Leipzig, 1967), which contains the most extensive published bibliography on Werner; Richard Beck. “Abraham Gottlob Werner. Eine kritische Würdigung des Begründers der modernnen Geologie. Zu seinem hundertjährigen Todestage.” in Jahrbuch für das Berg und hüttenwesen im Königreich Sachsen (1917), A3–A50; J. P. van Berghem-Berthout and J. H. Struve, Pricipes de minéralogie, or exposition succincte des caractères extérieurs des fosiles, d’apreès les leçons du Professeur Werner, augmentés d’additions manuscrites fournies par cet auteur (Paris, 1795); Heinrich Bingel. Abraham Gottlob werner und seine Theorie der Gebirgsbildung (Marburg, 1934); Karl August Blöde, “Kurzer Nekrolog Abraham Gottlob Werners,” in Auswahl aus den Schriften der unter Werners Mitwirkung gestifteten Gesellschaft für Mineralogie zu Dresden, 2 (1819), 252–304; William Thomas Brande, Outlines of Geology (London, 1829); Leopold von Buch, Leopold von Buch’s Gesammelte Schriften. J. Ewald. J. Roth, and H. Eck. eds., 4 vols. (Berlin, 1867-1885); Albert Carozzi, trans., On the External Characters of Minerals, by A. G. Werner (Urbana, III., 1962); and Jean François d’Aubuisson de Voisins. Traité de géognoise, ou exposé desconnaissances actuelles sur la constitution physique et ineérale du globe terrestre, 2 vols. (Strasbourg. 1819: 2nd ed., Paris, 1828-1835).

See also Walther Fischer, “Abraham Gottlob Werner,” in Mitteliungen des Roland. nos. 4–5 (July–Oct, 1936), 54–60; and Mirseralogie in Sachsen von Agricola bis Werner. Die ältere Geschichte des Staatlichen Museums für Mineralogie und Geologie zu Dresden (1560-1820). (Dresdem, 1939); Samuel Gotlon Frisch. Lebensbeschreibung Abraham Gottlob Werners (Leipzig, 1825); C. A. S. Hoffman and August Breithaupt, Handbuch der Mineralogie, 8 vols. (Freiberg, 1811-1817); amd Traigptt L. Hasse, Denkschrift zur Erinnerung an die Verdienste des in Dresden am 30. Juni 1817 verstorbenen K. S. Bergrath’s Werner und an die Fortschritte bei der Bergakademie zu Freiberg nebst einer übersichtlichen Nebeneinanderstellung der Mineralsyteme Werner und seiner Nachfolger bei dieser Akademie … (Dresden, 1848).

Further works are Robert Jameson, System of Mineralogy, Comprpehending Oryctognosy. Geognosy, Mineralogical Chemistry, Mineralogical Geography, and Oeconomical Mineralogy, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1804-1808): John Murray, A Comparative View of the Huttonian and Neptunian Systems of Geology: In Answer to the Illustrations of the Huttonian theory of the Earth, by Professor Playfair (Edinburgh, 1802): Alexander M. Ospovat, “Abraham Gottlob Werner’s Influence on American Geology,” in Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science, 40 (1960), 98–103; “Abraham Gottlob Werner and His Influence on Mineralogy and Geology” (doctoral diss., Univ, of Oklahoma, 1960), available from University Microfilms, Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich.: “Abraham Gottlob Werners Gedanken über Wissenschaft und Bildung,” in Neure Hütte, 12 (1967), 308–313; and trans, of Abraham Gottlob Werner, Short classification and Description of the Various Rocks, with intro. and notes (New York, 1971); Franz Reichetzer, Anleitung zur Geognosie insbesondere zur gebirgskunde. Nach Werner für die K. K. Berg-Akademie (Vienna, 1812); Franz Ambrosius Reusz, Lehrbuch der Mineralogie nach des Herrn O. B. R. Karsten mineralogischen Tabellen, 4 pts. 8 vols. (Leipzig , 1801-1806); and Otfried Wagenbreth. “Abraham Gottlob Werner und der Höhepunkt des Neptunistenstreits um 1790,” in Freiberger Forschungsheft, ser. D. 11 (1955). 183–241.

Alexander Ospovat

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Abraham Gottlob Werner

Abraham Gottlob Werner

The German naturalist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817) wrote the first modern textbook of descriptive mineralogy and was the major proponent of the Neptunian theory of the earth.

Abraham Werner was born on Sept. 25, 1749, at Wehrau in Upper Lusatia (Prussian Silesia). His ancestors had been employed in the mining industry for several hundred years, and his father was the overseer of a foundry in Wehrau. When he was 10 years old, Werner went to school at Bunzlau, Silesia, but five years later he returned home to become his father's assistant. However, his interest in mineralogy became so strong that he abandoned this practical career and in 1769 entered the Mining Academy of Freiberg. After two years there he matriculated in 1771 at the University of Leipzig.

Investigations in Mineralogy

During his stay at Leipzig as a student, Werner became acutely aware of the unsatisfactory character of the numerous systems used at the time to describe and classify minerals. Two conflicting approaches, based respectively on the chemical composition and on the physical characters of minerals, had created a confused association of unrelated observations, imprecise definitions, and impractical tabular arrangements. In the amazingly short time of a year, Werner wrote and then published Vonden äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien (1774; On the External Characters of Fossils, or of Minerals), the first modern textbook of descriptive mineralogy. Although Werner recognized that a true and final classification of minerals should be based on their chemical composition, he emphasized that it should be preceded by a method which would allow a precise identification of the various minerals by means of their external characters and physical properties.

Werner's description of the external characters of minerals, which occupies the major part of his book, remains an outstanding illustration of his unusual gift of observation and his knowledge of minerals. However, the quality of his work on mineralogy decreases abruptly with the discussion of the crystalline forms, for he was a practical or applied mineralogist to whom the mathematical aspect of mineralogy was superfluous. He never realized the basic importance of crystallography, which he thought was applied mathematics rather than a branch of mineralogy.

Geognosy and Neptunism

Upon publication of his book on minerals, Werner left Leipzig and returned to his home in Wehrau, where he became involved in the preparation of field trips to collect minerals and visit mines. However, the Mining Academy of Freiberg, strongly impressed by his performance, appointed him in 1775 inspector and teacher of mining and mineralogy. His dogmatic but stimulating teaching filled his students with enthusiasm, and they returned to their respective countries zealously spreading Werner's geological concepts. Therefore, a full account of his ideas is obtainable only through their writings and particularly those of his foremost follower, Robert Jameson.

Werner's concept of the earth's crust may be visualized as an extension of his great desire for rigid classification. He had only contempt for the speculative naturalists who were concerned with theories about the origin of the earth, and therefore he called his subject "geognosy, " or "earth knowledge, " which he defined as the science concerned with the arrangement of minerals in the various layers, and with the relationship of such layers, in order to reach an understanding of the constitution of the earth. He emphatically stressed the precision of his observations but did not hesitate to make sweeping generalizations about the whole earth from his very limited experience in Saxony. He gradually changed his hypotheses into so-called "facts" by the simple process of repeating them many times with unshakable confidence. Therefore, Werner's system, which pretended to avoid speculation, actually became the most speculative and erroneous attempt at explaining the origin of the earth.

Werner subdivided the earth's crust into a series of superposed and distinct "formations." He believed that these formations could be recognized all over the world and would therefore provide the key to the understanding of the geology of any country. He adopted the old idea that the earth originally consisted of a solid core completely surrounded by a universal ocean, which was at least as deep as the highest mountains and contained great quantities of mineral matter. Since the sea played a fundamental role in this system, the name of Neptunism was given to Werner's school. In this universal body of water, chemical precipitation took place, generating and depositing all forms of rocks in a constant succession.

Because Werner did not believe that the earth had any kind of internal fire or other deep-seated source of energy, he was forced to consider volcanic rocks as recent and accidental products, which he explained by means of the old concept of the combustion of underground coal beds. A further strange characteristic of Werner's was his denial of the disturbances of the earth's crust, such as folding or tilting, as proofs of the internal energy of the earth. Beds were supposed to have been deposited essentially in a horizontal position, and those dipping more than 30° were considered as having been "locally disturbed" by processes which were not elaborated upon. This refutation of mountain-building processes as an expression of internal energy was naturally coupled with Werner's equally dogmatic refutation of the occurrence of past volcanic activity.

Origin of Ore Deposits

Werner's ideas on the origin of ore deposits were corollaries of his general theory on geognosy. He stated that mineral veins were due to the filling by precipitates of fissures developed on the bottom of the universal ocean. The fissures were formed either by contraction or by the effects of earthquake movements. Consistent with his negation of the earth's internal fire, he refuted the idea that veins could have been filled by the products deposited by solutions or vapors originating from within the earth. Despite his ever present dogmatism, Werner did, however, demonstrate the value of a geometrical classification of veins, and he also gave excellent descriptions of their internal structures.

In bad health, Werner retired to Dresden, where he died, a bachelor, on June 30, 1817. His death was felt by most of the profession as a relief from a unique example of scientific despotism during which a man of genius tried unsuccessfully, for his entire life, to mold nature into an inflexible framework.

Further Reading

Biographical accounts of Werner are in Sir Archibald Geikie, The Founders of Geology (1897; new ed. 1962); Karl A. von Zittel, History of Geology and Palaeontology (1901); and Frank D. Adams, The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences (1938; new ed. 1954). □

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Werner, Abraham Gottlob (1749-1817)

Werner, Abraham Gottlob (1749-1817)

German geologist

One of the founders of stratigraphy , Abraham Werner was one of the first to apply the modern scientific method to many geological problems, had a powerful and positive influence on his scientists, and was one of the first to attempt a description of the geological history of the world free from religious and mystical explanations.

Werner was born in Wehrau, Silesia (now Germany), although some sources suggest it was the Wehrau in Upper Lusatia, (now Osiecznica, Poland). His father was the inspector of the Duke of Solm's ironworks, and much of Werner's education was designed to prepare him to follow in his father's footsteps. After being taught at home by his father and private tutors he enrolled in the new Bergakademie (Mining Academy) in Freiberg in 1769. While there, he was recruited into the Saxon mining service, but needed a law degree (jurisprudence) in order to advance in his career, and so began studies at the University of Leipzig. Werner found himself distracted by other subjects, especially the history of languages and mineralogy .

In 1774, he abandoned his law degree, and left university, but by then he had already published a book, Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien, which was a practical and orderly mineral identification manual. On the strength of his book he gained a teaching position at the Mining Academy in Freiberg. Werner kept the job for the rest of his life, teaching there for over 40 years. He was justly famous for his lectures, and his courses attracted students from all over the Western world.

Werner is remembered most for his water-based theory of the creation of Earth's crust . Named Neptunism (after the Roman god of the oceans ), Werner's ideas, while incorrect, were nonetheless based firmly on the physical evidence of his day. He argued that all older rocks were sedimentary in nature, and had been laid down by an ancient, universal ocean. The different rock types and strata were explained by changes in the depth and turbulence of the universal ocean. Werner was one of the first to think of the earth as a whole, and called his new approach "geognosy." Werner's field work, which was mainly in Saxony, convinced him that the opposing view, that ancient rock had a volcanic origin (Vulcanism), was incorrect. In particular, he was sure that basalt , a very common rock, was sedimentary, despite strong opposition. To prove his ideas were truly universal many of his students set out across Europe looking for supporting evidence. However, many found that outside of Saxony Werner's ideas were not supported at all, and the rival notion of Vulcanism became dominant. It is a tribute to Werner's teaching methods that these students placed such a high degree of importance on what they saw, rather than slavishly following the doctrine of their teacher. Werner tried to tinker with his theory, attempting to make it fit with the new evidence while still retaining the basics, but in doing so it lost much of its simplicity and logic. However, while Neptunism was a dead-end, Werner can be credited with inspiring scientists to think about the natural forces that had created Earth's crust, and with training a generation of inquiring European geologists who went beyond his initial investigations.

He suffered from ill health in his later years, and after 1793 he published very few geological works. Instead he devoted his time to teaching, and a few official duties. Werner was elected to 22 scientific societies in his lifetime, and he was eulogized by followers and opponents alike after his death in Dresden in 1817. He never married, and left most of his estate to the Bergakademie, the school that had been his focus for most of his adult life.

See also Minerals; Sedimentary rocks

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Werner, Abraham Gottlob

Abraham Gottlob Werner (ä´brähäm gôt´lōp vĕr´nər), 1750–1817, German geologist. In 1775 he became inspector and teacher in the mining academy at Freiberg, which through his efforts became one of the leading schools in Germany. In the last part of the 18th cent. he was the most notable figure in the investigation of rocks and minerals; he called the new science geognosy and defined it as the study of the layers of mineral matter. He was the first to classify minerals systematically. According to his theory of neptunism, the earth was originally an ocean of water from which were precipitated the solid rocks now forming most of the dry land. Although much of his theory has been rejected, geology is indebted to him for the application of chronology to rock formations as well as for his precise definitions.

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Werner, Abraham Gottlob

Werner, Abraham Gottlob (1750–1817) Professor of mineral science at the Mining Academy, Freiberg, who developed a system of mineral classification which he called ‘oryctognosy’, based on the external characteristics of minerals. He used the term ‘geognosy’ in preference to geology. The theory of the Earth which he taught became known as neptunism. He published little but inspired mining students from all over Europe and much of his terminology was adopted even by those who rejected his theory.

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