Whitehurst, John

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(b. Congleton, Cheshire, England, 10 April 1713; d. London, England, 18 February 1788)


Whitehurst was a practical natural philosopher in many fields but was particularly celebrated as a clockmaker. In pure science he is important chiefly as a geological pioneer who did work in Derbyshire that was published in a well-known book (of which the first part is entirely speculative) in 1778. He established for the first time the succession of the Carboniferous strata: limestone, Millstone grit (named by him), and coal measures.

Whitehurst formulated the general proposition of a worldwide orderly superposition of strata, each with its characteristic lithology and fossils. Although the proposition was somewhat vaguely imagined, he here hit on the most significant of all geological generalizations. He investigated the origin of the Derbyshire “toadstones,” associated with the limestones, and in so doing examined by implication the origin of all rocks of a like kind. Whitehurst found the rock to be so similar to specimens of recent lavas he had seen that he had no hesitation in assigning to it a volcanic origin, although it was situated in a region–indeed, in a country–that showed not the slightest sign of any recent volcanic activity. He was among the first to recognize the true nature and origin of this great class of rocks, the basalts, and thus to establish the fact of volcanism in past geological times.

Whitehurst went further, however, and realized the possibility of igneous intrusion and recorded an instance of contact thermal metamorphism. In the second edition (1786) of his book he described the basaltic rocks of the Giant’s Causeway, on the north coast of Ireland, recognizing their volcanic origin and making a reasonable suggestion as to how they might have been erupted in that region.


I. Original Works. Whitehurst’s chief writings are An Inquiry Into the Original State and Formation of the Earth, to Which Is Added an Appendix Containing Some General Observations on the Strata in Derbyshire (London, 1778: 2nd ed., enl., 1786: repr. as 3rd ed., 1792) and An Attempt Towards Obtaining Invariable Measures of Length, Capacity, and Weight, From the Menstnration of Time (London, 1787). His writings are collected in The Works of John Whitehurst, F.R.S., With Memoirs of His Life and Writings, C. Hutton, ed.(London, 1792).

II. Secondary Literature. See E. I. Carlyle, in Dictionary of National Biography: J. Challinor, “From Whitehurst’s Inquiry to Farey’s Derbyshire: A Chapter in the History of British Geology,” in Transactions and Annual Report. North Staffordshire Field Club, 81 (1947), 52–88, esp. 53–65; and “The Early Progress of British Geology-II.” in Annals of Science, 10 (1954), 1–19, see 13–16: T. D. Ford, “Biographical Notes on Derbyshire Authors: John Whitehurst, F.R.S. 1713–1788,” in Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society, 5 (1974), 362–369; and W. D. White, “Derbyshire Clockmakers Before 1850; The Whitehurst Family,” supp. to Derbyshire Miscellany, 1 (1958).

John Challinor

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