Thomas Sopwith's geological teaching models

These twelve wooden geological teaching models (Image 1), made in 1841 by the 19th-century engineer and surveyor Thomas Sopwith, were designed to teach geology - the study of the Earth. The different types of wood represent different geological formations, highlighting the orientation of mineral veins and coal seams under the ground. The models are based on measurements of mining districts from the North of England.

Sopwith's models
Image 1 One of the geological models by Thomas Sopwith. The two parts fit together to show rock formations before a river cut out the valley; 1841. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.1581).
Strata diagram
Image 2 To understand the tilting of layers of British rock, Sopwith likened the phenomenon to tilting books on a shelf. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.1581).
Lyell's diagram
Image 3 One of Sopwith's models illustrated in Charles Lyell's Elements of Geology Image © the Whipple Library.

Sopwith's models

The son of a builder and cabinet maker, Thomas Sopwith (1803-1879) started work as an apprentice to his father. After completing his apprenticeship he changed career and became a surveyor. He drew geological cross-sections of Alston mines in 1828. His 1834 book A treatise on isometrical drawing provided a means of visualising geological and mining plans in three dimensions and was well received. It is with his background of cabinet-making and interest in geology that Sopwith fashioned his models.

The models are made to a very high standard. Constructed from 579 separate pieces of wood, they were laminated and joined together; the surfaces were then carved by hand. The models were available in sets of six or twelve, and in various sizes. Another set is held at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences [].

Models and books

This set of twelve models was sold in a shop run by James Tennant - mineralogist to Queen Victoria. The shop was situated three doors down from the Geological Society of London at Somerset House and was frequented by many of the important geologists of the time. By 1844 Gideon Mantell commented that "it had become too well known to require comment".(1)

Sets of six or twelve models came in a case, whose binding was designed to resemble a large book. Inside the case a small publication by Sopwith, Description of a Series of Geological Models was included to accompany the models.

The relationship here between teaching models and books is worth stressing. In his book, which describes models that teach geological principles, Sopwith uses books themselves as a means of modelling a geological feature (Image 2).(2) Models and book, are then all housed in a case that is bound specifically to resemble a large volume to sit on a shelf. The models also feature in Lyell's 1841 Elements of Geology (Image 3).(3)


  1. G. Mantell, Medals of Creation, Vol. 2 (London: Bohn, 1844), p. 987. (Find in text ^)
  2. T. Sopwith, Description of a Series of Elementary Geological Models (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1841), p. 16. (Find in text ^)
  3. C. Lyell, Elements of Geology vol. 1 (London, 1841), p. 121. (Find in text ^)

James Hyslop

James Hyslop, 'Thomas Sopwith's geological teaching models', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2006 [, accessed 19 June 2019]

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