Die Entstehung der Kontinente [The Origin of Continents]. ALFRED WEGENER.
Die Entstehung der Kontinente [The Origin of Continents]
Die Entstehung der Kontinente [The Origin of Continents]

Die Entstehung der Kontinente [The Origin of Continents]


“Wegener is remembered today as the originator and one of the chief proponents of the theory of continental drift, which he conceived after being struck by the apparent correspondence in the shapes of the coast lines on the west and east sides of the Atlantic, and supported with extensive research on the geological and paleontological correspondence between the two sides. He postulated that 200 million years ago there existed a supercontinent (‘Pangea’), which began to break up during the Mesozoic era due to the cumulative effects of the ‘Eötvös force,’ which drives continents towards the equator, and the tidal attraction of the sun and moon, which drags the earth’s crust westward with respect to its interior … Wegener’s first publication on continental drift appeared in three issues of Petermanns Mitteilung in April-June 1912 [the offered paper]” (Norman).

Before Wegener put forward his revolutionary theory, it “was widely believed that continents and ocean basins are primordial features. This conviction was reinforced by global oceanographic surveys in 1872-77 demonstrating the Earth’s bimodal elevation frequency, and simultaneously by gravimetric and geodetic surveys in the western U.S. and elsewhere that confirmed the principle of isostasy (i.e. an elastic crust that floats on a fluid medium). A continent can neither rise from the abyss or sink to abyssal depth spontaneously. The mass excess of its elevation is compensated by a mass deficit at depth. If it were to move sideways, it would have to drag its moorings along with it, which was thought to be absurd. Isostasy cut both ways however: it rendered physically implausible the land ‘bridges’ invoked by geologists to account for ancient floral and faunal similarities between continents now far apart” (Hoffmann, ‘The tooth of time: Alfred Wegener,’ Geoscience Canada 39 (2012), 102-111).

On 6 January 1912 Wegener “presented a startling new vision of crustal history at a meeting of the recently founded Geological Association (Geologische Vereinigung) in Frankfurt. The talk did not bring pleasure to its listeners. Not yet 32, Alfred Wegener had already published in several branches of meteorology and his admired textbook, Thermodynamics of the Atmosphere (1911) showed him to be unusually skilled at synthesis. But he was unknown in geology and had only been seriously reading the geological literature for about four months. Nevertheless, so many published facts seemed inexplicable if his theory was wrong, that he submitted the text of his talk to the Geological Association under the brash title, The Origin of Continents [Die Entstehung der Kontinente]. He proposed that geological interpretations would be greatly simplified if continents were allowed to undergo large relative horizontal displacements. The continents of today are the fragments of an ancestral landmass that rifted apart progressively in Mesozoic and Cenozoic time, allowing the Atlantic and Indian Ocean basins to grow at the expense of the Pacific. Not satisfied, he wrote an expanded version under the same title that was published in a leading geographical journal in three installments [the offered paper]. From the start, geographers were as engaged as geologists in the controversy over continental drift...

“The longer 1912 paper came out in three installments: (1) geophysical arguments, (2) geological arguments, and (3) remaining geological arguments, present displacements and polar wobble. In (1) he introduces the elevation duality, gravity measurements and isostasy, thickness of the continental rafts, their composition, their plasticity in relation to that of their substrate, volcanism, and possible causes of displacement. Wegener did not distinguish between oceanic crust and mantle: the composition of the mantle was then unknown. He used [Eduard] Suess’s terms, ‘sial’ for the continental rafts and ‘sima’ for the substrate, assumed to be directly covered by abyssal sediments. He uses the term ‘crust’ as synonymous with ‘lithosphere’. He expends little space on causes, which he considers to be premature. (‘It will be necessary first to exactly determine the reality and the nature of the displacements before we can hope to discover their causes …’) ... The geological arguments are the strongest part of the paper and surprise even today” (Hoffmann).

Today, “with the advent of new methods and knowledge (sea floor spreading) and the discovery of paleomagnetism (1950), this concept [continental drift] was fully revived and fully accepted, upgraded and improved. The model of the motion of large planetary plates (continental and oceanic) gave birth to the theory of plate tectonics. Acceptance of this theory over the last 50 years has radically changed scientific knowledge about the mechanisms and types of movements that have led to global changes on the Earth (climate change, melting glaciers, creating a system of mountain, ocean circulation, earthquakes, volcanoes and other geological phenomena)” (Rundić, ‘Centenary anniversary of the theory of continental drift by Alfred Wegener and its significance for geosciences and human society,’ Bulletin of the Natural History Museum 5 (2012), 21-33).

Wegener’s lecture to the Geologische Vereinigung was printed in Geologische Rundschau, Bd. 3, n. 4, 9 July 1912, pp. 276-292. Although composed first, it was thus published later than the present greatly expanded work, which appeared in April-June of the same year. Norman 2192. Marvin, Continental drift: The evolution of a concept, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982 (see pp. 66-95).

Note: in this collection, the entire volume 58 (6 issues) is offered.

Gotha: Justus Perthes, 1912. Quarto, original printed wrappers; custom box. Pp. 185-195, 253-256, 305-309 and one folding plate (no. 36) in three complete issues of Dr. A. Petermanns Mitteilungen aus Justus Perthes' geographischer Anstalt, Bd. 58, April, May & June 1912. 4to (277 x 230 mm), pp. [185]-248 with 8 plates (5 folding); [249]-304 with 7 folding plates; [iii], iv-xvi, [305]-314 with 6 plates (3 folding), many of the plates being coloured. Mild wear to spines and trivial edgewear. Extremely rare in such fine condition in original wrappers.

Price: $5,800 .

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