Already in antiquity, people had a long history of practical knowledge for the search for mineral raw materials, their degradation and utilization. The first attempts at a theoretical treatment of geological problems, such as the cause of earthquakes, or the origin of fossils, can only be found in the Ionian philosophy of nature in the 5th century BC Until the early modern period, the doctrine of Empedocles of The four elements, and Aristotle’s doctrine of the transmutation of the elements, also directs the ideas of the nature of metals, minerals, and rocks.
During the decline of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, these views were passed down only in the eastern, Greek part, where they were resumed by Arab scholars such as Ibn Sina in the early Middle Ages. In Western Europe, on the other hand, many practical knowledge of the mining industry was lost. It was not until the 12th and 13th centuries that Western alchemists began to deal with the formation of metals and rocks inside the earth. During the Renaissance, such speculations were not only developed by humanist scholars, such as Paracelsus, but also by extensive empirical data and practical methods, especially by Georgius Agricola. From these beginnings, a kind of “proto-geology” developed, which had many similarities with the “proto-chemistry” of the economist, alchemist and mining engineer Johann Joachim Bechers up to the 17th century.
An important step towards the establishment of geology as an independent science was the Danish natural scientist Nicolaus Steno, by introducing the stratigraphic principle in 1669. He justified the principle that the spatial storage of sediment layers in succession corresponds in reality to a temporal succession of rock sediments in succession. Robert Hooke also speculated at the same time whether the fossil content of the rocks could not be used to reconstruct the historical course of the rock formation.
In the course of the eighteenth century, mining managers and engineers increasingly sought a theoretical understanding of geological contexts. In the middle of the century they developed the basic methods of geological mapping and the creation of stratigraphic profiles.
The beginning of geology as a modern science is usually based on the controversy between the lines of thought of Plutonism and Neptune. As the founder of Plutonism, James Hutton (1726-97), with his postulate that all rocks are of volcanic origin. Hutton also popularized the idea that the earth’s history was many orders of magnitude longer than human history. The Neptunists were led by Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817), with the basic assumption now rejected, that all rocks were deposits of a primordial Urozean. From the combination of magmatism, sedimentation and transformation of rocks, the idea of the cycle of the rocks developed in the following.
By 1817, William Smith established the use of guide fossils for the relative dating of the layers of a sedimentary sequence.
From about 1830 to 1850 the dispute between catastrophism in the succession of Georges de Cuvier (1769-1832), and actualism around Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) formed the second major controversy in the history of geology. While the catastrophists started from sudden and global upheavals in the history of the earth, with subsequent recreation of the extinct organisms, the actualists stressed the steady and steady development of the earth in innumerable small steps which gradually accumulate over a long period of time (gradualism). Charles Darwin (1809-1882) also followed the evolutionary theory, with its slow development of new biological species.
Subsequently, the geologists increasingly dealt with the problems of mountain formation and the global movements of the earth’s crust. Until well into the twentieth century, the notion of the global mountain belts as the result of the cooling and shrinking of the earth was dominated by Léonce Élie de Beaumont (1798-1874). From the observation of folded and tectonically disturbed rocks, James Dwight Dana (1813-1895) developed the geosyncline theory around 1875. This tectonic explanatory model was decisively further developed by Eduard Suess (1831-1914) and Hans Stille (1876-1966).
The geotectonic hypotheses were dominated by the principle of fixation. The position of the continents and oceans to each other was largely unchanging. Lateral movements of the earth’s crust, the traces of which could be observed in the folds or regional cleavage systems, were regarded as largely local phenomena.