Thomas Sopwith, an English geologist and mining engineer, was born Jan. 3, 1803. Thomas’ father was a cabinet maker, and Thomas thought of making that his own career, entering into an apprenticeship, before giving up woodworking in favor of geology and mining. Ordinarily, cabinet making is not too useful for a geologist, but in Thomas’s case, it was just the ticket.
Around 1840, Sopwith got the idea of making geological models for instructional use, where the layers of rock are represented by different kinds and colors of wood. He visited William Buckland, the prominent geologist at Oxford (and the discoverer of the first dinosaur), who gave him feedback about what kinds of models would be useful in the classroom. In 1841, Sopwith went into production. He manufactured dozens of different kinds of stratigraphic models, sculpted out of wood, and sold them, packaged into boxes disguised to look like thick books. They were apparently quite popular–sets survive today in the Whipple Museum and the Sedgwick Museum at Cambridge, at the Oxford Museum, and at the Natural History Museum in London (first image).
We also show one of the individual models, depicting dislocation of strata (second image). A set sold at auction at Christie’s in 2000, bringing a sizable sum (third image). One of the few surviving photos of Sopwith shows him presenting his models (fourth image).
By Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr.: Thomas Sopwith – Scientist of the Day – Linda Hall Library