Fascinating science stories await those willing to delve into New Zealand’s archives. But few do, because of the vast amount of information to sift through, says Dr Simon Nathan, geologist and guest editor of a special issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand. The first of two issues focused on science history, this issue is freely available to the public between April and October 2017. Dr Nathan tells us about his contribution to the issue, and the New Zealand science history scene.
Who are the science historians of New Zealand?
There really isn’t a terribly strong science history movement in New Zealand. The papers have mostly come out of a conference we held at the end of 2015 on New Zealand science history. The previous conference like that was about 40 years earlier. New Zealand scientists aren’t particularly interested in studying science history and historians aren’t either. So the people that you get working on science history are a very eclectic group – retired scientists, a few historians, and a few very enthusiastic non professionals. So I think that the range of papers in these special issues is very interesting because it’s covering all sorts of 19th and 20th century science history.
Your contribution to the journal is a short communication on a very long map. Can you tell us about that?
Charlie Douglas was a hermit and explorer on the West Coast and dedicated himself to exploring in South Westland. In the 1890s he had a period of ill health and George Roberts, the Chief Surveyor, decided the best way to keep him occupied was to get him to work in the office producing a grand map showing all the exploration work he’d done. Charlie spent about six months on it. He drew in all the topography that he had mapped and the streams and the remote areas of South Westland.
Back in the 1890s there were very few topographical maps produced in New Zealand. So it was in fact an amazing idea to produce this huge map that was eight metres long at a scale of one inch to the mile covering the whole of Westland. I do wonder if they started off by getting Charlie to do a piece of it and realised that it was working so well that they would extend both to the north and the south. That’s just my speculation, but it seems amazing to start off drawing an eight metre map and expecting him to fill it in. As well as that he was quite a keen amateur geologist and so he had information on the rocks and also on the minerals that he had found over the years. He was quite secretive about this so it was agreed that the map would not be shown around the place. Because of that the map was tucked away for a long period.
For how long?
After Douglas died and Roberts retired, people knew about it and occasionally went and had a look at the map. In the 1930s a prospecting party came down to South Westland from the Reefton school of mines. Two young geologists, Harry Evans and Jim Belitho, spent quite a long time sampling all the quartz reefs that Douglas had found. But unfortunately Douglas was always an optimist and when the samples were analysed, it was found that most of the reefs had no gold in them.
One of the other interesting things that came out of it was early in the Second World War there was a shortage of mica which was required for radio components and the main world supply was in Czechoslovakia which had been occupied by the Germans. There was a search for different mica localities and one of the places that was identified was high in the Mataketake Range between Paringa and Haast. Two young geologists were sent down to have a look at it – Harold Wellman and Dick Willet. That was a very remote area in those days. They found the mica and it was subsequently successfully worked during World War Two.
But as part of that trip they noticed that there was a major fault that hadn’t been identified by anyone previously, which is now called the Alpine Fault. Their paper on this has become one of the classics of New Zealand geology. It was one of those things that in retrospect seem incredibly obvious. But it had never been identified before. One of the things that helped was going back and looking at Charlie Douglas’ map where, with the benefit of hindsight, it was easy to identify that there were different rocks on either side of the fault.
Then the map was lost?
Well yes, the map has had a chequered career. It was tucked away in Lands and Survey in Hokitika and Wellman called into Lands and Survey in Hokitika in 1941 and copied bits off the map. But some time after that it was borrowed by the Geological Survey in Greymouth, which is just up the road, and never returned. I actually started my career there in 1967 and it was decided around that time that the West Coast is damp and it wasn’t a very good place to store this precious map. So it was sent up to Wellington.
Then when John Pascoe was working on his biography of Charlie Douglas he came down to Hokitika and he’d read about this giant map. But it was missing. There was nothing in the place that it was expected to be.
John Pascoe published his book about Charlie Douglas in 1957. About a decade later he was giving a talk to the cartographic society on Charlie Douglas, and Pat Suggate, who was director of the Geological Survey, decided to take along the map as an exhibit to show people. He recalled that John Pascoe’s eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw it. At that stage Pascoe was chief archivist and he immediately demanded that it be handed over to the archives. But even after that archives lost it – the map was never properly cataloged. I went searching for it about twenty years later and they weren’t able to retrieve it. But it has now been found and digitised so it’s available to anyone online.
Are there many other science stories languishing in our archives?
Once you start to do historical work you realise that there’s all sorts of things in the archives, not necessarily lost, but there is such a huge volume of material that people don’t get around to looking at all of it. And so a lot of the history that you read tends to be the conclusions of someone that has worked previously and hasn’t necessarily seen everything that’s available in the archives. There are always surprises once you start going back in the archives and looking at records.
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These interviews are supported by Royal Society Te Apārangi, which supports New Zealanders to explore, discover and share knowledge.