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Tools of the Trade

Geologists once did it all by hand, in dirty clothes

Images courtesy Geological Survey Canada.
When you say the word scientist, the image that comes to mind—or what you might see on a screen—is someone in a white lab coat standing in a roomful of equipment. But Hollywood is kinder to geologists, and so is the public. The stereotype is someone outdoors in shirtsleeves holding a rock hammer. It's as if Earth scientists are less strange, more like ordinary people.

That may be true; geologic thinking and the basic theory of evolution are close to common sense. But whether or not geologists are strange, they do use some pretty simple tools that haven't changed in centuries.

The father of Canadian geology, William Logan (1798–1875), was among the first generation to do real scientific fieldwork in North America. A photograph shows him in his field outfit, with a long-handled rock hammer at his feet. He mentions his waistcoat being damaged from the small vial of acid he carried to test carbonate minerals. Both the rock hammer and the basic acid test are still in today's geologic tool kit.

Another of Logan's crucial tools was a sketchpad, for recording the configuration of the rocks and the shapes of landforms. Here's a sketch Logan made of his field camp in 1843. Using just enough gear to fill a canoe or load a mule, he produced the first geologic map of Canada.

In 1875, the great American geologist G. K. Gilbert explored the remote Henry Mountains of Utah. His notebooks mention the use of a compass and barometer (to gauge altitude), and the surveyor's plane-table and alidade that he used to prepare maps. One notebook contains this list: "voucher books, tape line, shovel, axe, pick, rope, hobbles, paper, ammunition, ore sacks." All of those would be handy for today's geologist except the hobbles, which are used to control pack animals. And even today, mules or horses and the old-fashioned pack train are not obsolete.

Gilbert also made sketches, many of which were published with little change. The example below is his sketch of Mount Ellsworth, Utah. This kind of ability isn't common or necessary in today's generation, now that cameras are dependable.

G. K. Gilbert notebooks reproduced in Geological Society of America Memoir 167.

Other basic field tools have come into use since Gilbert's days. One is the pocket transit, called a Brunton after the longtime maker of the classic design. Every geology student learns how to use it as a compass and a mapping tool for measuring the angles of rock beds. Another is the Estwing rock hammer, first designed in 1923. Other people make excellent rock hammers too, but Estwing is the brand.

Today, the newest must-have field tool is the handheld GPS receiver, which tells you where you are on Earth to within a few meters. (See Kooter's Geology Tools for lots of info on these and many other pieces of equipment.) I have the feeling that just as old instruments become collectibles, some of today's GPS units will be considered classics in a few generations.


Modern conveniences have not changed the rocks. And the need for trained vision, to see the land and imagine its structure, is as important as ever. Even though they no longer need the skills of the artist or muledriver, field geologists today feel a kinship with the pioneers. The famous unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland, looks the same today as it did to James Hutton in 1785. Many geologists are moved to tears when they visit the place and feel the link to the master.

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