2.3 History of Thin Section Preparation

The first thin sections were created in the early- to mid- nineteenth century. In this section, we explore some of the primary literature to learn about historical methods for creating thin sections.

Learning Objectives

  • Summarize the history of thin section preparation in the geosciences.

Prior Knowledge and Skills
2.1 Overview of thin sections and thick sections (recommended)

Key Terms

Guided Inquiry

Please read over the references listed at the end of this section before attempting to answer the guided inquiry questions listed below. All but one (Keyes 1925) are accessible for free online.  Please note that the references are listed in alphabetical order, not in chronological order.

2.3.1 When were the first thin sections made?  Do Holmes and Johannsen agree on the exact history of the technique?

2.3.2 Compare the method of Sorby to the method of Holmes or Johannsen.  How are the procedures the same? How are they different?

2.3.3 How is the equipment described in Sorby, different from the equipment described by Keyes or Reed and Mergner?

2.3.4 Compare the writing styles of the authors – how are the articles different from each other?  Why do you think this is the case?

Concept Check

If thin section making is such an “old technology,” why do you think we continue to prepare and analyze thin sections in much the same way today?


1. Holmes, Arthur (1923), Chapter VI. Preparation of thin sections. Petrographic methods and calculations, London, Thomas Murby & Co, Pt. 2, 231-249.

Permanent link to book: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.33433090759980

Permanent link to Chapter IV. Preparation of thin sections (p. 231):



Arthur Holmes is a giant in the world of geology – he made important contributions to determining the age of Earth and developing our understanding of plate tectonics. Article from GSA today: http://www.gsahist.org/gsat/gt02mar17_16.pdf

2. Johannsen, Albert (1918), Chapter XLI. Preparation of thin sections of rocks. Manual of petrographic methods, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Co.2d ed., p.572-60.

University of Michigan: https://archive.org/details/manualpetrograp00johagoog
Google books: https://books.google.com/books?id=WdlLAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA572#v=onepage&q&f=false

Memorial of Albert Johannsen : http://www.minsocam.org/ammin/AM48/AM48_454.pdf

3. Keyes, Mary G. (1925) Making thin sections of rocks. Am J Sci, Series 5, Vol. 10:538-550; doi:10.2475/ajs.s5-10.60.538.

Available here: http://www.ajsonline.org/content/s5-10/60/538.full.pdf  This is American Journal of Science, which is copyrighted. This article requires subscription access through your university library, or you can use interlibrary loan to request it from another library.

It would be great to find out more about Mary Keyes. I asked the librarians at the Geophysical Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington, and at the USGS in Reston and Denver, for help.  No one was able to track down additional information.

After searching through government documents, I did come across a US Department of Agriculture technical bulletin from 1942 listing a Mary G. Keyes as a Scientific Aide at the Division of Soil Chemistry and Physics.  https://books.google.com/books?id=v_f5hdlkSwYC&lpg=RA13-PP1&dq=mary%20keyes%20washington%20dc%20chemist&pg=RA13-PP1#v=onepage&q=mary%20keyes%20washington%20dc%20chemist&f=false

Perhaps she had a long and productive career as a geochemist and laboratory scientist in various government laboratories.

The introduction for this paper is written by Henry Washington from the Geophysical Laboratory whose character and career is well documented (https://library.gl.ciw.edu/GLHistory/pgwash.html ).

4. Reed, Frank S. and Mergner, John L. (1953) Preparation of rock thin sections.  American Mineralogist, 38, 1184-1203.

Download from table of contents of American Mineralogist: http://www.minsocam.org/msa/collectors_corner/amtoc/toc1953.htm

Direct link to article: http://www.minsocam.org/ammin/AM38/AM38_1184.pdf

Reed and Mergner, authors of the USGS paper, have a mineral, reedmergnerite, named after them (http://rruff.info/uploads/AM40_326.pdf ) see Milton C, Axelrod J M, Grimaldi F S (1955) New minerals, reedmergnerite (Na2O·B2O36SiO2) and eitelite (Na2O·MgO·2CO2) associated with leucosphenite, shortite, searlesite, and crocidolite in the Green River formation, Utah, American Mineralogist, 40, 326-327.

5. Sorby, H. C. (1882), Preparation of transparent sections of rocks and minerals: Northern Microscopist, London, 2, 18, 133-140.

Google books: https://books.google.com/books?id=SSEuAQAAIAAJ&lpg=PA137&ots=HC_mzilx2-&dq=Preparation%20of%20transparent%20sections%20of%20rocks%20and%20minerals%3A%20Northern%20Microscopist&pg=PA133#v=onepage&q&f=false .

6. Vogelsang, H. (1867), Philosophie der geologic und mikroscopische Gesteinsstudien, Bonn. 225-228.
At HathiTrust: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.b4175766
Google books: https://books.google.com/books?id=8QT_eXtdyzkC&pg=PP7#v=onepage&q&f=false

A biography of Hermann Vogelsang: Touret, Jacques L.R. (2004) Hermann Vogelsang (1838-1894), “Europeen avant la lettre.” In Touret, J.L.R. and Visser, R.P.W. (Eds): Dutch Pionneers of the Earth Sciences. Kon. Nederl. Akad. Wetensch., Amsterdam, 197 p. (cf. pp.87-108). at http://www.annales.org/archives/cofrhigeo/vogelsang.pdf  It includes a couple of his spectacular thin section sketches.

Vogelsang and Zirkel (below) were brothers-in-law (Young, Davis A. (2003), Mind over Magma, Princeton University Press, 712p.).

7. Zirkel, Ferdinand (1873) Präparation der Objecte. Die Mikroskopische Beschaffenheit der Mineralien und Gestiene. Leipzig, Werlag von Wilhelm Engelmann, p. 6.

Google books: https://books.google.com/books?id=PVXPAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA6#v=onepage&q&f=false

A description of Zirkel and his petrologic contributions can be found in Young, 2003, Mind Over Magma (p.151-154)

Google books: https://books.google.com/books?id=QQBaDwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA154&ots=5q1C9FQNs0&dq=Philosophie%20der%20geologic%20und%20mikroscopische%20Gesteinsstudien&pg=PA153#v=onepage&q=Philosophie%20der%20geologic%20und%20mikroscopische%20Gesteinsstudien&f=false

Licenses and Attributions
Figure 2.3.1: Steinmann’s section cutting machine excerpted from Johannsen, A. p.576.

Figure 2.3.2: Hand section grinding machine excerpted from Johannsen, A. p.590.

Figure 2.3.3: Title page of a Department of Agriculture report co-authored by Mary G. Keyes in 1942.

Figure 2.3.4: An illustration of a volcanic rock in thin section by Vogelsang: Mikrolitconcretion aus der Lava von Cisterna am Vesuv.

Text written by Elizabeth Johnson, James Madison University (JMU).
CC-by License