Theory of the Earth, by James Hutton, [1788 and 1795], at sacred-texts.com
The Nature of Mineral Coal, and the Formation of Bituminous Strata, investigated.
SECT. I.—Purpose of this Inquiry.
In the first chapter, I have given a perfect mark by which to judge, of every consolidated stratum, how far that had been the operation or effect of water alone, or if it had been that of heat and fusion. This is the particular veins or divisions of the consolidated stratum, arising from the contraction of the mass, distended by heat, and contracted in cooling. It is not an argument of greater or lesser probability; it is a physical demonstration; but, so far as I see, it would appear to be for most mineralists an unintelligible proposition. Time, however, will open the eyes of men; science will some day find admittance into the cabinet of the curious. I will therefore now give another proof,—not of the consolidation of mineral bodies by means of fusion, for there is no mineral body in which that proof is not found,—but of the inconsistency of aqueous infiltration with the appearances of bodies, where not only fusion had been employed for the consolidation, but where the application of heat is necessary, and along with it the circumstances proper for distillation.
Short-sighted naturalists see springs of water issuing from the earth, one forming calcareous incrustations, the other depositing bituminous substances. Here is enough for them to make the theory of a world; on the one hand, solid marble is explained, on the other, solid coal. Ignorance suspects not error; their first step is to reason upon a false principle;—no matter, were they only to reason far enough, they would soon find their error by the absurdity into which it lands them. The misfortune is, they reason no farther; they have explained mineralogy by infiltration; and they content themselves with viewing the beautiful specimens in their cabinet. the supposed product of solution and crystalization. How shall we inform such observators; How reason with those who attend not to an argument!
As naturalists have explained all mineral concretions from aqueous or other solution, and attributed to infiltration the formation of those stony bodies in which there are marks of their original composition, so have they explained to themselves, I suppose, the origin of those bituminous bodies which are found among the strata of the earth. In the case of stony substances, I have shown how unfounded all their theories are for the production of those concretions, crystallizations, and consolidated bodies. I am here to examine the subject of inflammable and combustible bodies, which I believe have been little considered by those theorists who suppose mineral bodies consolidated by infiltration. It is here that we shall find an infinite difference between the aqueous and igneous theories; for, we shall find it impossible to explain by the one certain operations which must have necessarily required the great agent generally employed in the other.
The subject of this chapter is a touch-stone for every theory of the earth. In every quarter of this globe, perhaps in every extensive country, bituminous strata are to be found; they are alternated with those which are called aquiform, or which had been evidently formed by subsidence of certain moved materials at the bottom of the sea; so far, therefore, all those strata have had the same origin. In this point I think I may assert, that all the different theories at present are agreed; and it is only concerning certain transformations of those strata, since their original collection, that have been ascribed to different causes.
Of these transformations, which the strata must have undergone, there are two kinds; one in relation to change of place and position; the other in relation to solidity or consistence. It is only the last of those two changes which is here to be the subject of consideration; because, with regard to the first, there is nothing peculiar in these bituminous strata to throw any light, in that respect, upon the others. This is not the case with regard to the transformation in their chemical character and consistence; bituminous bodies may not be affected by chemical agents, such as fire and water, in the same manner as the argillaceous, siliceous, micaceous, and such other strata that are alternated with the bituminous; and thus we may find the means for investigating the nature of that agent by which those strata in general have been transformed in their substance; or we may find means for the detecting of false theories which may have been formed with regard to those operations in which the original deposits of water had been changed.
We have had but two theories, with regard to the transformation of those bodies which have had a known origin, or to the change of their substance and consistence; the one of these which I have given is that of heat or fusion; the other, which I wish to be compared with mine, is that of water and infiltration. It is by this last that all authors hitherto, in one shape or another, have endeavoured to explain the changes that those strata must have undergone since the time of their first formation at the bottom of the sea. They indiscriminately apply the doctrine of infiltration to those strata of mineral coal as to any other; they say that bituminous matter is infiltrated with the water, impregnates certain strata of earth with bituminous matter, and thus converts them into mineral coal, and bituminous strata. This is not reasoning physically, or by the inductive method of proceeding upon matter of fact; it is reasoning fantastically, or by making gratuitous supposition founded merely on imagination. It was thus that natural philosophers reasoned before the age of science; the wonder now is, how men of science, in the present enlightened age, should suffer such language of ignorance and credulity to pass uncensured.
The subject which I am now to treat of consists of peculiar strata of the earth, bodies which we may investigate through all the stages of their change, which is extreme; for, from vegetable bodies produced upon the habitable earth, they are now become a mineral body, and the most perfect coal,—a thing extremely different from what it had been, and a thing which cannot be supposed to have been accomplished by the operation of water alone, or any other agent in nature with which we are acquainted, except the action of fire or heat. It is therefore impossible for a philosopher, reasoning upon actual physical principles, not to acknowledge in this a complete proof of the theory which has been given, and a complete refutation of that aqueous operation which has been so inconsiderately supposed as consolidating the strata of the earth, and forming the various mineral concretions which are found in that great body.
To see this, it will be sufficient to trace the progress of vegetable and animal substances, (bodies which had certainly lived by means of a former earth), to this changed state in which they have become perfect mineral bodies, and constitute a part of the present earth. For, as these changes are perfectly explained by the one theory, and absolutely inconsistent with the other, there arises from this a conviction that must be irresistible to a person who can give proper attention to a chain of reasoning from effect to cause.
But if we thus succeed to illustrate the theory of the earth by the natural history of those particular strata, we have but one step farther to make in order to bring all the other parts of the earth, whether stratified or not, into the most perfect consistence with the theory; now this step, it will be most easy to make; and I shall now mention it, that so the reader may keep it in his view: Pyrites is a sulphureo-metallic substance, which cannot be produced by means of water, a substance which the influences of the atmosphere decomposes or separates into its elements, and which even our imperfect art may be considered as able to produce, by means of fusion in our fires. Therefore, the finding of this creature of fire intimately connected with those consolidated strata of mineral coal, adds the greatest confirmation, were it necessary, to the doctrine of those mineral bodies having been consolidated by fusion. This confirmation, however, is not necessary, and it is not the only thing which I am at present to illustrate in that doctrine. What I have now in view is, to homologate the origin of those coal strata, with the production of every other mineral substance, by heat or fusion; and this is what the intimate connection of pyrites with those strata will certainly accomplish. This will be done in the following manner:
Pyrites is not only found in great masses along with the coal strata; it is contained in the veins which traverse those strata, and in the minute ramifications of those veins, which are occasioned by the contraction of the mass, and generally divide it into small cubical pieces; but besides that extrinsic connection, (as it may be called,) with the stratum of coal, pyrites is found intimately connected with that solid body, in being mixed with its substance. If, therefore, it were proved, that either the one or other of those two substances had been consolidated by fusion, the other must be acknowledged as having had the same origin; but now I am to prove, from the natural history of mineral coal, that pyrites had been there formed by fusion; and then, by means of the known origin of that sulphureo-metallic substance, we shall extend our knowledge to the origin of every other mineral body.
The process of this argument is as follows: Every mineral body, I believe, without exception, will be found so intimately connected with pyrites, that these two things must be concluded as having been together in a fluid state, and that, whatever may have been the cause of fluidity in the one, this must have also caused the fluidity in the other; consequently, whatever shall be proved with regard to the mineral operations of pyrites, must be considered as proved of every other mineral substance. But, from the connection of pyrites with mineral coal, it is to be proved that the origin of this metallic body had been fusion; and then it will appear, that all other mineral bodies must have been more or less in fusion, or that they must have been consolidated by means of heat, and not by any manner of solution or aqueous infiltration. I therefore now proceed to take a view of the natural history of coal strata,—a subject which mineralogists seem not inclined to engage with, although the most ample data are to be found for that investigation.
SECT. II.—Natural History of Coal Strata, and Theory of this Geological Operation.
Fossil coal is the species of stratum best understood with regard to its accidents, as being much sought after; at least, this is the case in many parts of Britain, where it supplies the place of wood for burning. This fossil body has the most distinguished character; for, being inflammable or combustible in its nature, there is no other species of stratum that may be confounded with it.
But, though coal be thus the most distinguishable mineral, and that which is best understood in the science of mining, it is perhaps the most difficult to be treated of in the science of mineralogy; for, not having properly any distinguishable parts, we have nothing in the natural constitution of this body, as we have in most other strata, to lead us to the knowledge of its original state or first formation.
The varieties of coal are distinguished by their different manner of burning; but, from appearances of this kind, no perfect judgement can be formed with regard to the specific manner in which those strata had been made; although, from chemical principles, some conclusion may be drawn concerning certain changes which they have undergone since they had been formed.
Thus we have one species of coal which is extremely fusible, abounds with oil, and consequently is inflammable; we have another species again which is perfectly fixed and infusible in the fire; therefore, we may conclude upon principle, that, however, both those coals must have undergone the operation of heat and fusion, in bringing them to their present state, it is only the last that has become so much evaporated as to become perfectly fixed, or so perfectly distilled, as to have been reduced to a caput mortuum.
The argument here employed is founded upon this fact; that, from the fusible species of coal, a caput mortuum may be formed by distillation, and that this chemical production has every essential quality, or every peculiar property, of the fixed and infusible species; although, from the circumstances of our operation, this caput mortuum may not have precisely the exterior appearance of the natural coal. But, we have reason to believe, it is not in the nature of things to change the infusible species, so as to make it fusible or oily. Now, that this body was not formed originally in its present state, must appear from this, that the stratum here considered is perfectly solid; but, without fusion, this could not have been attained; and the coal is now supposed to be infusible. Consequently, this fixed substance, which is now, properly speaking, a perfect coal, had been originally an oily bituminous or fusible substance. It is now a fixed substance, and an infusible coal; therefore, it must have been by means of heat and distillation that it had been changed, from the original state in which this stratum had been formed.
We have thus, in the examination of coal strata upon chemical principles, received a certain lesson in geology, although this does not form a proper distinction by which to specify those strata in general, or explain the variety of that mineral. For, in this manner, we could only distinguish properly two species of those strata; the one bituminous or inflammable; the other proper coal, burning without smoke or flame. Thus it will appear that, as this quality of being perfectly charred is not originally in the constitution of the stratum, but an accident to which some strata of every species may have been subjected, we could not class them by this property without confounding together strata which had differences in their composition or formation. Therefore, we are led to inquire after some other distinction, which may be general to strata of fossil coal, independent of those changes which this substance may have undergone after it had been formed in a stratum.
Perfect mineral coal being a body of undistinguishable parts, it is only in its resolution that we may analyse it, and this is done by burning. Thus, in analysing coal by burning, we have, in the ashes alone, that by which one species of coal may be distinguished from another; and, if we should consider pure coal as having no ashes of itself, we should then, in the weight of its ashes, have a measure of the purity of the coal, this being inversely as the quantity of the ashes. Now, though this be not accurately true, as the purest coal must have some ashes proper to itself, yet, as this is a small matter compared with the quantity of earthy matter that may be left in burning some species of coal, this method of analysis may be considered as not far removed from the truth.
But, in distinguishing fossil coal by this species of chemical analysis, not only is there to be found a perfect or indefinite gradation from a body which is perfectly combustible to one that is hardly combustible in any sensible degree, we should also fall into an inconveniency similar to that already mentioned, of confounding two things extremely different in their nature, a bituminous body, and a perfect charcoal. Thus, if we shall found our distinction upon the fusibility and different degree of having been charred, we shall confound fossil coals of very different degrees of value in burning, or of very different compositions as strata; if, again, we found it upon the purity of composition, in judging from the ashes, we shall confound fossil bodies of very different qualities, the one burning with much smoke and flame, the other without any; the one fusible almost like wax, the other fixed and infusible as charcoal.
It will now appear, that what cannot be done in either the one or other of those two methods, may in a great degree, or with considerable propriety, be performed in employing both.
Thus, whether for the economical purposes of life, or the natural history of fossil coal, those strata should be considered both with regard to the purity of their composition as inflammable matter deposited at the bottom of the sea, and to the changes which they have afterwards undergone by the operation of subterranean heat and distillation.
We have now considered the original matter of which coal strata are composed to be of two kinds; the one pure bitumen or coal, as being perfectly inflammable or combustible; the other an earthy matter, with which proper coal may be variously mixed in its composition, or intimately connected, in subsiding from that suspended state by which it had been carried in the ocean. It is a matter of great importance, in the physiology of this globe, to know that the proper substance of coal may be thus mixed with heterogeneous bodies; for, supposing that this earthy matter, which has subsided in the water along with coal, be no farther connected with the combustible substance of those strata, than that it had floated in the waters of the ocean, and subsided pari passu with the proper materials of the coal, we hence learn a great deal with regard to the state in which the inflammable matter must have been at the time of its formation into strata. This will appear by considering, that we find schistus mixed with coal in the most equal or uniform manner, and in almost every conceivable degree, from the purest coal to the most perfect schistus. Hence we have reason to conclude, that, at the formation of those strata, the bituminous matter, highly subtilised, had been uniformly mixed with the earth subsiding in the water.
Not only is the bituminous matter of coal found mixed in every different proportion with the earthy or uninflammable materials of strata, but the coaly or bituminous composition is found with perhaps every different species of substance belonging to strata. This is certain, that we have the coaly matter intimately mixed with argillaceous and with calcareous strata.
Thus it will appear, that it is no proper explanation of the formation of coal strata, to say that vegetable matter is the basis of those strata; for though, in vegetation, a substance proper for the formation of bituminous matter is produced, it remains to know by what means, from a vegetable body, this bituminous matter is produced, and how it comes to be diffused in that subtile state by which it may be uniformly mixed with the most impalpable earth in water. Could we once resolve this question, every other appearance might be easily explained. Let us therefore now endeavour to discover a principle for the resolving of this problem.
There are two ways in which vegetable bodies may be, in part at least, resolved into that subtilised state of bituminous matter after which we inquire; the one of these is by means of fire, the other by water. We shall now consider these severally as the means of forming bituminous strata, although they may be both employed by nature in this work.
When vegetable bodies are made to burn, there is always more or less of a fuliginous substance formed; but this fuliginous substance is no other than a bituminous body in that subtilised state in which it is indefinitely divided, and may be mixed uniformly with any mass of matter equally subtilised with itself. But this is precisely what we want, in order to compose the strata of coal in question. If, therefore, there were to be found in the ocean such a fund of this fuliginous substance as might suffice for the formation of bituminous strata, no difficulty would be left in explaining the original of fossil coal. But tho' sufficient quantity of this fuliginous matter might not be found for the explanation of natural appearances, yet there cannot be a doubt that more or less of this matter must be produced in the mineral operations of the globe, and be found precisely in that place where it is required for the forming of those strata of coal.
In order to conceive this, we are to consider, that there are actually great quantities of coal strata in a charred state, which indicates that all their more volatile oleaginous or fuliginous matter had been separated by force of subterranean heat; and, we are to suppose that this had been transacted at the bottom of the ocean: Consequently, a subtile oleaginous, bituminous, or fuliginous substance, must have been diffused in that ocean; and this bituminous matter would be employed in forming other strata, which were then deposited at the bottom of the waters.
But besides this quantity of bituminous matter which is necessarily formed in the mineral operations of the earth, and with regard to the quantity of which we can never form a proper estimate, there must enter into this same calculation all the fuliginous matter that is formed in burning bodies upon the surface of this earth. This bituminous matter of smoke is first delivered into the atmosphere, but ultimately it must be settled at the bottom of the sea. Hence though, compared with the quantity that we think required, each revolution of the globe produces but a little in our estimation, yet the progress of time, in reforming worlds, may produce all that is necessary in the formation of our strata.
There now remains to explain the other way in which bituminous matter may be obtained from vegetable bodies, that is, by means of water. For this purpose we must begin with a part of natural history that will throw some light upon the subject.
All the rivers in Scotland run into the sea tinged with a brown substance; this is most evident in some of them after a flood, and while yet the river is swelled; but, in travelling to the north of Scotland in the summer season, without any rain, I saw all the rivers, without exception, of a brown colour, compared with a river of more clear water. This colour proceeds from the moss water, as it is called, which runs into the rivers, or the infusion of that vegetable substance which forms combustible turf, called peat. Now, this moss water leaves, upon evaporation, a bituminous substance, which very much resembles fossil coal. Therefore, in order to employ this vegetable infusion, delivered into the ocean for the purpose of forming bituminous strata at its bottom, it is only required to make this bituminous matter separate and subside.
If now we consider the immense quantity of inflammable vegetable substance, dissolved in water, that is carried into the sea by all the rivers of the earth, and the indefinite space of time during which those rivers have been pouring in that oily matter into the sea; and if we consider, that the continual action of the sun and atmosphere upon this oily substance tends, by inspissation, to make it more and more dense or bituminous, we cannot hesitate in supposing a continual separation of this bituminous matter or inspissated oil from the water, and a precipitation of it to the bottom of the sea. This argument is corroborated by considering, that, if it were otherwise, the water of the sea must have, during the immense time that rivers are proved to have run, be strongly impregnated with that oily or bituminous substance; but this does not appear; therefore we are to conclude, that there must be the means of separating that substance from the water in which it had been dissolved.
If there is thus, from the continual perishing of animal and vegetable bodies upon the surface of this earth and in the sea, a certain supply of oily or bituminous matter given to the ocean, then, however small a portion of this shall be supposed the whole oily or inflammable matter produced upon the surface of the earth, or however long time it may require for thus producing a stratum or considerable body of coal, we must still see in this a source of the materials proper for the production of that species of strata in the bottom of the sea.
We have now considered the proper materials of which pure fossil coal is chiefly formed; we have at present to consider what should be the appearances of such a substance as this collected at the bottom of the sea, and condensed or consolidated by compression and by heat. We should thus have a body of a most uniform structure, black, breaking with a polished surface, and more or less fusible in the fire, or burning with more or less smoke and flame, in proportion as it should be distilled or inspissated, less or more, by subterranean heat. But this is the description of our purest fossil coals, which burn in giving the greatest quantity of heat, and leave the smallest quantity of ashes.
In order to form another regular species of coal, let us suppose that, along with the bituminous substance now considered, there shall be floating in the water of the ocean a subtile earthy substance, and that these two different substances shall subside together in an uniform manner, to produce a stratum which shall be covered with immense weight, compressed, condensed, and consolidated as before, we should thus have produced a most homogeneous or uniform body to appearance, but not so in reality. The mixture of heterogeneous matter, in this case, is too minute to be discovered simply by inspection; it must require deep reflection upon the subject, with the help of chemical analysis, to understand the constitution of this body, and judge of all the circumstances or particulars in which it differs from the former. It is worth while to examine this subject with some attention, as it will give the most instructive view of the composition of bituminous strata, both those which are not considered as coal, and also the different species of that mineral body.
In the first place then, if the mixture of those two different substances had been sufficiently perfect, and the precipitation uniform, the solid body of coal resulting from this mixture, would not only appear homogeneous, but might break equally or regularly in all directions; but the fracture of this coal must visibly differ from the former, so far as the fracture of this heterogeneous coal cannot have the polished surface of the pure bituminous body; for, the earthy matter that is interposed among the bituminous particles must affect the fracture in preventing its surface from being perfectly smooth. This imperfect plane of the fracture may be improved by polishing; in which case the body might be sufficiently smooth to have an agreeable polish; but it cannot have a perfect polish like a homogeneous body, or appear with that glassy surface which is naturally in the fracture of the pure bituminous coal.
But this is also a perfect description of that species of coal which is called in England Kennel coal, and in Scotland Parrot coal. It is so uniform in its substance that it is capable of being formed on the turning loom; and it receives a certain degree of polish, resembling bodies of jet.
Thus, we have a species of coal in which we shall find but a small degree of fusibility, although it may not be charred in any degree. Such an infusible coal may therefore contain a great deal of aqueous substance, and volatile oily matter; consequently may burn with smoke and flame. But this same species of coal may also occasionally be charred more or less by the operation of subterranean heat; and, in that case, we should have a variety of coal which could only be distinguished, from a similar state of pure bituminous coal, by the ashes which they leave in burning. At least, this must be the case, when both species are, by sufficient distillation, reduced to the state of what may be properly termed a chemical coal.
But in the natural state of its composition, we find those strata of kennel or parrot coal, possessing a peculiar property, which deserves to be considered, as still throwing more light upon the subject.
We have been representing these strata of coal as homogeneous to appearance, and as breaking indifferently in all directions; this last, perhaps, is not so accurate; for they would seem to break chiefly into two directions, that is, either parallel or perpendicular to the bed. Thus we have this coal commonly in rectangular pieces, in which it is extremely difficult to distinguish the direction of the bed, or stratification of the mass. By an expert eye, however, this may be in general, or at least sometimes, distinguished, and then, by knowing the habit of the coal in burning, a person perfectly ignorant of the philosophy of the matter may exhibit a wonderful sagacity, or even of power over future events, in applying this body to fire; for, at his pleasure, and unknown to those who are not in the secret; he may apparently, in equal circumstances, make this coal either kindle quietly, or with violent cracking and explosions, throwing its splinters at a distance.
The explanation lies in this, that, though the rectangular mass of coal appears extremely uniform in its structure, it is truly a stratified mass; it is therefore affected, by the sudden approach of fire in a very different manner, according as the edge of the stratum, which is seen in four of the sides of this supposed cube, shall be applied to the fire, or the other two sides, which are in the line of the stratum, or parallel to the bed of coal. The reason of this phenomenon now remains to be considered.
When the edge of the coal is exposed to the fire, the stratification of the coal is opened gradually by the heat and expanding vapours, as a piece of wood, of a similar shape, would be by means of wedges placed in the end way of the timber. The coal then kindles quietly, and quickly flames, while the mass of this bituminous schistus is opening like the leaves of a book, and thus exhibits an appearance in burning extremely like wood. But let the fire be applied to the middle of the bed, instead of the edge of the leaves, and we shall see a very different appearance; for here the expanded aqueous vapours, confined between the laminae, form explosions, in throwing off splinters from the kindling mass; and this mass of coal takes fire with much noise and disturbance.
The ashes of this coal may be determined as to quality, being in general a subtile white earth; but, as to quantity, the measure of that earth produces an indefinite variety in this species of coal; for, from the kennel or parrot coal, which is valuable for its burning with much flame, to that black schistus which our masons use in drawing upon stone, and which, though combustible in some degree, is not thought to be a coal, there is a perfect gradation, in which coal may be found with every proportion of this earthy alloy.
Among the lowest species of this combustible schistus are those argillaceous strata in Yorkshire from whence they procure alum in burning great heaps of this stone, which also contains sulphur, to impregnate the aluminous earth with its acid. We have also, in this country, strata which differ from those aluminous schisti only in the nature of the earth, with which the bituminous sediment is mixed. In the strata now considered, the earth, precipitated with the bituminous matter, being calcareous, has produced a limestone, which, after burning especially, is perfectly fissile.
Therefore, with regard to the composition of mineral coal, the theory is this. That inflammable, vegetable, and animal substances, in a subtilised state, had subsided in the sea, being mixed more or less with argillaceous, calcareous, and other earthy substances in an impalpable state. Now, the chemical analysis of fossil coal justifies that theory; for, in the distillation of the inflammable or oily coal, we procure volatile alkali, as might be naturally expected.
Thus we have considered fossil coal as various, both in its state and composition; we have described coal which is of the purest composition, as well as that which is most impure or earthy; and we have shown that there is a gradation, from the most bituminous state in which those strata had been formed in being deposited at the bottom of the sea, to the most perfect state of a chemical coal, to which they have been brought by the operation of subterranean fire or heat.
We have been hitherto considering fossil coal as formed of the impalpable parts of inflammable bodies, united together by pressure, and made to approach in various degrees to the nature of a chemical coal, by means of subterranean heat; because, from the examination of those strata, many of them have evidently been formed in this manner. But vegetable bodies macerated in water, and then consolidated by compression, form a substance of the same kind, almost undistinguishable from some species of fossil coal. We have an example of this in our turf pits or peat mosses; when this vegetable substance has been compressed under a great load of earth, which sometimes happens, it is much consolidated, and hardens, by drying, into a black body, not afterwards dilutable or penetrated by water, and almost undistinguishable in burning from mineralised bodies of the same kind.
Also, when fossil wood has been condensed by compression and changed by the operation of heat, as it is frequently found in argillaceous strata, particularly in the aluminous rock upon the coast of Yorkshire, it becomes a jet almost undistinguishable from some species of fossil coal.
There cannot therefore be a doubt, that if this vegetable substance, which is formed by the collection of wood and plants in water upon the surface of the earth, were to be found in the place of fossil coal, and to undergo the mineral operations of the globe, it must at least augment the quantity of those strata, though it should not form distinct strata by itself.
It may perhaps be thought that vegetable bodies and their impalpable parts are things too far distant in the scale of magnitude to be supposed as subsiding together in the ocean; and this would certainly be a just observation with regard to any other species of bodies: But the nature of vegetable bodies is to be floatant in water; so that we may suppose them carried at any distance from the shore; consequently, the size of the body here makes no difference with regard to the place or order in which these are to be deposited.
The examination of fossil coal fully confirms those reasonable suppositions. For, first, The strata that attend coal, whether the sandstone or the argillaceous strata, commonly, almost universally, abound with the most distinct evidence of vegetable substances; this is the impressions of plants which are found in their composition. Secondly, There is much fossil coal, particularly that termed in England clod coal, and employed in the iron foundry, that shows abundance of vegetable bodies in its composition. The strata of this coal have many horizontal interstices, at which the more solid shining coal is easily separated; here the fibrous structure of the compressed vegetable bodies is extremely visible; and thus no manner of doubt remains, that at least a part of this coal had been composed of the vegetable bodies themselves, whatever may have been the origin of the more compact parts where nothing is to be distinguished.
The state in which we often find fossil wood in strata gives reason to conclude that this body of vegetable production, in its condensed state, is in appearance undistinguishable from fossil coal, and may be also in great quantity; as, for example, the Bovey coal in Devonshire.
Thus the strata of fossil coal would appear to be formed by the subsidence of inflammable matter of every species at the bottom of the sea, in places distant from the shore, or where there had been much repose, and where the lightest and most floatant bodies have been deposited together. This is confirmed in examining those bodies of fossil coal; for, though there are often found beds of sand-stone immediately above and below the stratum of the coal, we do not find any sand mixed in the strata of the coal itself.
Having found the composition of coal to be various, but all included within certain rules which have been investigated, we may perceive in this an explanation of that diversity which is often observed among the various strata of one bed of coal. Even the most opposite species of composition may be found in the thickness of one bed, although of very little depth, that is to say, the purest bituminous coal may, in the same bed, be conjoined with that which is most earthy.
Fossil coal is commonly alternated with regular sand-stone and argillaceous strata; but these are very different bodies; therefore, it may perhaps be inquired how such different substances came to be deposited in the same place of the ocean. The answer to this is easy; we do not pretend to trace things from their original to the place in which they had been ultimately deposited at the bottom of the sea. It is enough that we find the substance of which we treat delivered into the sea, and regularly deposited at the bottom, after having been transported by the currents of the ocean. Now the currents of the ocean, however regular they may be for a certain period of time, and however long this period may be protracted, naturally change; and then the currents, which had given birth to one species of stratum in one place, will carry it to another; and the sediment which the moment before had formed a coal stratum, or a bed of that bituminous matter, may be succeeded either with the sediment of an argillaceous stratum, or covered over with a bed of sand, brought by the changed current of the sea.
We have now considered all the appearances of coal strata, so far as these depend upon the materials, and their original collection. But, as those bituminous strata have been changed in their substance by the operation of subterranean heat and inspissation, we are now to look for the necessary consequences of this change in the body of the stratum; and also for other mineral operations common to fossil coal with consolidated strata of whatever species.
If coal, like other mineral strata, have been inspissated and consolidated by subterranean heat, we should find them traversed with veins and fissures; and, if the matter found in those veins and fissures corresponds to that found in similar places of other strata, every confirmation will be hence given to the theory that can be expected from the consideration of those bituminous strata. But this is the case; we find those fissures filled both with calcareous, gypseous, and pyritous substances. Therefore, we have reason to conclude, that the strata of fossil coal, like every other indurated or consolidated body in the earth, has been produced, first, by means of water preparing and collecting materials proper for the construction of land; and, secondly, by the operation of internal fire or subterranean heat melting and thus consolidating every known substance of the globe.
Not only are those sparry and pyritous substances, which are more natural to coal strata, found forming veins traversing those strata in various directions, but also every other mineral vein may occasionally be found pervading coal mines, or traversing bituminous strata. Gold, silver, copper, lead, calamine, have all, in this manner, been found in coal.
There remains now only to consider those bituminous strata of fossil coal in relation to that change of situation which has happened more or less to every stratum which we examine; but which is so much better known in those of coal, by having, from their great utility in the arts of life, become a subject for mining, and thus been traced in the earth at great expense, and for a long extent.
Coal strata, which had been originally in a horizontal position, are now found sometimes standing in an erect posture, even almost perpendicular to the plane in which they had been formed. Miners therefore distinguish coal strata according as they deem them to approach to the one or other of those two extremes, in terming them either flat or edge seams or veins. Thus, it will appear, that every possible change from the original position of those strata may have happened, and are daily found from our experience in those mines.
But besides the changed position of those strata, in departing from the horizontal line or flat position in which they had been formed, there is another remarkable change, termed by miners a trouble in the coal. The consideration of this change will further illustrate the operations of nature in placing that which had been at the bottom of the sea above its surface.
Strata, that are in one place regularly inclined, may be found bended, or irregularly inclined, in following their course. Here then is a source of irregularity which often materially effects the estimates of miners, judging from what they see, of those parts which are to be explored; and this is an accident which they frequently experience.
But, without any change in the general direction of the stratum, miners often find their coal broke off abruptly, those two parts being placed upon a higher and lower situation in respect to each other, if flat beds, or separated laterally if they are edge seams. This is by miners termed a slip, hitch, or dyke.
These irregularities may either be attended with an injected body of subterraneous lava or basaltes, here termed whin-stone, or they may not be attended, at least apparently, i.e. immediately, with any such accident. But experienced miners know, that, in approaching to any of those injected masses of stone, which are so frequent in this country, their coal is more and more subject to be troubled.
As there is, in this country of Scotland, two different species of mountains or hills, one composed both in matter and manner exactly similar to the Alps of Switzerland, the other of whin-stone, basaltic rock, or subterraneous lava; and as the fossil coal, argillaceous and sand-stone strata, are found variously connected with those hills, nothing can tend more to give a proper understanding, with regard to the construction of the land in general, of the globe than a view of those different bodies, which are here found much mixed together in a little space of country, thus exhibiting, as it were in miniature, what may be found in other parts of the world, upon a larger scale, but not upon any other principle. I will therefore endeavour to give a short description of the mineral state of this country with regard to coal, so far as my experience and memory will serve.
This country might very properly be considered as consisting of primary and secondary mountains; not as supposing the primary mountains original and inexplicable in their formation, any more than those of the latest production, but as considering the one to be later in point of time, or posterior in the progress of things. The first are those which commonly form the alpine countries, consisting of various schisti, of quartzy stone, and granites. The second, again, are the whinstone or basaltic hills scattered up and down the low country, and evidently posterior to the strata of that country, which they break, elevate, and displace.
Thus there are in this country, as well as every where else, three things to be distinguished; first, the alpine or elevated country; secondly, the flat or low country; and, thirdly, that which has been of posterior formation to the strata which it traverses, in whatever shape or quality; whether as a mountain, or only as a vein; whether as a basaltes, a porphyry, or a granite, or only as a metal, a siliceous substance, or a spar.
Those three things which are here distinguished do not differ with regard to the chemical character of their substances; for, in each of these, every different substance is to be found, more or less; and it is not in being composed of materials peculiar to itself, that makes an alpine country be distinguished from a flat country; it is chiefly in the changes which the strata of the alpine country have been made to undergo, posterior to their original collection, that the rocks of the alpine country differ from those of the flat country.
But the observation that is most to the purpose of the present subject of bituminous strata, is this; it is chiefly in the strata of the flat country that fossil coal are found; there are none that I know of in all the alpine countries of Scotland; and it is always among the strata peculiar to the flat country that fossil coal is found. Now, this appearance cannot be explained by saying that the materials of mineral coal had not existed in the world while those primary strata were formed in the sea. I have already shown, (chap. 4.) that there had been the same system of a world, producing plants, and thus maintaining animals, while the primary strata were formed in the sea; I have even adduced an example of coal strata among those primary schisti, although this be an extremely rare occurrence: Consequently, we are under the necessity of looking out for some other cause.
If the changes which have been evidently superinduced in the strata of alpine countries arise from the repeated operations of subterranean fire, or to the extreme degree in which those strata have been affected by this consolidating and elevating cause, it will be natural to suppose that the bituminous or combustible part among those stratifications, may have been mostly consumed upon some occasion during those various and long continued operations; whereas, in the flat beds of the low country, although there is the most perfect evidence for the exertion of heat in the consolidation of those strata, the general quantity of this has been a little thing, compared with the universal manifestation of this cause in the operations of the alpine countries, the strata of which have been so much displaced in their situations and positions.
To illustrate this, strata of sand-stone are found in both the alpine and flat countries of Scotland. About Leadhills, for example, there are abundance of those strata; but, in the flat country, the generality of the sand-stone is so little changed as to appear to every enlightened naturalist aquiform strata; whereas the most enlightened of those philosophers will not perhaps attribute the same original to a similar composition in the alpine country, which is so much changed from its original state. It is not because there had been wanting a sufficient degree of heat to consolidate the sand-stone in the coal country; for I can show specimens of sand-stone almost contiguous with coal, that have been extremely much consolidated in this manner. But this is only a particular stratum; and the general appearance of the sand-stone, as well as other strata in the coal countries, is that of having been little affected by those subterranean operations of heat by which those bodies in the alpine country have been changed in their structure, shape, and position.
If we shall thus allow the principle of consolidation, consequently also of induration, to have been much exerted upon the strata of the alpine country, and but moderately or little upon those of the low country of Scotland, we shall evidently see one reason, perhaps the only one, for the lesser elevation of the one country above the level of the sea, than the other. This is because the one resists the powers which have been employed in leveling what has been raised from the bottom of the sea, more than the other; consequently, we find more of the one remaining above the level of the sea than of the other.
Let us now take the map of Scotland, in order to observe the mixture of those two different species of countries, whereof the one is generally low and flat, the other high and mountainous; the one more or less provided with fossil coal, the other not.
From St Abb's Head, on the east of Scotland, to the Mull of Galloway, on the west, there runs a ridge of mountains of granite, quartz, and schistus strata, which contain not coal. On each side of this ridge we find coal countries; Northumberland, on the one side, and, on the other, the shires of Ayr, Lanark, and the Lothians; the one is a mountainous country, the others are comparatively low or flat countries. Let us now draw another alpine line from Buchan and Caithness, upon the east, to the island of Jura, on the west; this traverses a mountainous country destitute of coal, and, so far as I know, of any marks of marine bodies. But, on each side of this great alpine ridge, we find the hard country skirted with one which is lower, flatter, or of a softer nature, in which coal is found, upon the one side, in the shires of Fife, Clackmannan, and Stirling; and, on the other, in that hollow which runs from the Murray Frith south-west, in a straight line, directed upon the end of Mull, and composed, for the most part, of water very little above the level of the sea. Here, to be sure, the coal is scarce, or not so evident; but there is coal upon the sea coast in several places of this great Bay betwixt Buchan and Caithness; and the lowness of the country, across this part of the island, is almost sufficient testimony that it had been composed of softer materials.
Thus the coal country of Scotland may be considered as in one band across the island, and included in the counties of Ayr, Lanark, and all those which border upon the Frith of Forth. Now, in all this tract of coal and tender strata, we do not find ridges of alpine stone or primary mountains, but we find many hills of solid rock, little mountains, from 500 to 1000 feet high; such as that beautiful conical hill North Berwick Law, Torpender Law, Arthur's Seat, the Lowmands, and others of inferior note. That is to say, the whole of this included space, both sea and land, has been invaded from below with melted masses of whin-stone, breaking up through the natural strata of the country, and variously embossing the surface of the earth at present, when all the softer materials, with which those subterranean lavas had been covered, are washed away or removed from those summits of the country. Hence there is scarcely a considerable tubercle, with which this country also abounds, that may not be found containing a mass of whin-stone as a nucleus.
But besides those insulated masses of whinstone that form a gradation from a mountain to a single rock, such, for example, as that on which the Castle of Edinburgh is built, we find immense quantities of the same basaltic rock interjected among the natural strata, always breaking and disordering them, but often apparently following their directions for a considerable space with some regularity. We also find dykes of the same substance bisecting the strata like perpendicular veins of rock; and, in some places, we see the connection of these rocks of the same substance, which thus appear to be placed in such a different form in relation to the strata.
It will thus appear, that the regular form, and horizontal direction of strata throughout this country of coal, now under contemplation, has been broken and disordered by the eruption and interjection of those masses of basaltic stone or subterraneous lava; and thus may be explained not only the disorders and irregularities of coal strata, but also the different qualities of this bituminous substance from its more natural state to that of a perfect coal or fixed infusible and combustible substance burning without smoke. This happens sometimes to a part of a coal stratum which approaches the whin-stone.
Having thus stated the case of combustible or bituminous strata, I would ask those naturalists, who adhere to the theory of infiltration and the operation of water alone, how they are to conceive those strata formed and consolidated. They must consider, that here are immense bodies of those combustible strata, under hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fathoms of sand-stone, iron-stone, argillaceous and calcareous strata. If they are to suppose bituminous bodies collected at the bottom of the sea, they must say from whence that bitumen had come; for, with regard to the strata below those bituminous bodies, above them, and between them, we see perfectly from whence had come the materials of which they are formed. They cannot say that it is from a collection of earthy matter which had been afterwards bituminized by infiltration; for, although we find many of those earthy strata variously impregnated with the bituminous and coaly matter, I have shown that the earthy and the bituminous matter had subsided together; besides, there are many of those coaly and bituminous strata in which there is no more than two or three per cent. of earthy matter or ashes after burning; therefore the strata must have been formed of bituminous matter, and not simply impregnated with it.
To avoid this difficulty, we shall allow them to form their strata, which certainly is the case in great part, by the collection of vegetable bodies; then, I desire them to say, in what manner they are to consolidate those bodies. If they shall allege that it is by simple pressure, How shall we conceive the numerous veins of spar and pyrites, which traverse those strata in all directions, to be formed in those bodies consolidated by the compression of the superincumbent masses?—Here is a manifest inconsistency, which proves that it could not be. But, even were we to suppose all those difficulties to be over come, there is still an impossibility in the way of that inconsiderate theory, and this will appear more fully in the following chapter.