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Tools of the Trade

fhulWhen the legendary geologist science-writer (now artist) Anna Grayson was posing before the Old Man of Hoy with Ray Mears, Kate Humble and the rest of the team for the Radio Times group photo marking the broadcast of The essential guide to rocks (BBC, 2011), the snapper paused and said ‘Anna dear, can you give your ‘ammer to Ray?’.  She refused -  and quite right too.  The hammer is, as she protested, the tool of the geologist’s trade, and as far as she was aware, she was the only geologist in the picture.

Geologists love their hammers like musicians love their instruments.  To lose a treasured hammer (as we have probably all discovered) is a hammer-blow in itself.  And the hammers of the great, like the James Tubbs bow used by cellist Jaqueline Du Pré (on sale as I write this expected to fetch tens of thousands of pounds), are items with a mystical resonance.

The Society has a reasonable selection itself.  Charles Lyell’s hammer (one of them – many great geologists have owned and donated several) can be seen on display in the Lyell Room.  We also boast a Buckland, two Murchisons and a Lapworth.  But our collection cannot compare with the rich trove amassed over the years by Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum.  This exhibition booklet is a beautiful souvenir, ensuring that the texts that one’s feet had grown too tired to permit you to read properly standing up, can be digested at leisure. 

Palmer discusses the purpose of the hammer – including Darwin’s use of it as ‘a missile’ (he also used it to hunt, capturing and killing a new species of fox, while the beast was transfixed by the sight of HMS Beagle at anchor in the bay below).  Palmer goes on to describe the history of this ‘simplest of scientific instruments’, and its graphical use in all those badges of the ‘mente et malleo’ kind, through the ages, and across the world. 

He then focuses on those ‘bretheren of the hammer’ from the University of Cambridge, which has arguably the greatest claim to being the cradle of our science within higher education.  The section of portraits of geologists with their donated hammers (and one of Bulman holding a banana) brings us up to date - including some famous men whom I myself have witnessed wielding their tools – notably, Harry Whittington and Barrie Rickards.  Indeed Barrie once appeared at my door in hall at a Pal Ass conference, holding the very hammer pictured.  He then demanded to know what I was doing in his room, and why his key didn’t work.  Proving perhaps that the mente and the malleo do not always go perfectly together.

Reviewed by Ted Nield

TOOLS OF THE TRADE: THE SEDGWICK MUSEUM’S HISTORICAL COLLECTION OF GEOLOGICAL HAMMERS  by DOUGLAS PALMER 2016.  University of Cambridge Museums & Botanic Garden 49pp.  ISBN 9780992727017.  Sbk.  Price: £7.50, available from the Sedgwick Museum.  W: Temporary Exhibitions