The Student’s Elements of Geology

Author: Charles Lyell

Mechanical Theory of Cleavage.

Professor Phillips has remarked that in some slaty rocks the form of the outline of fossil shells and trilobites has been much changed by distortion, which has taken place in a longitudinal, transverse, or oblique direction. This change, he adds, seems to be the result of a "creeping movement" of the particles of the rock along the planes of cleavage, its direction being always uniform over the same tract of country, and its amount in space being sometimes measurable, and being as much as a quarter or even half an inch. The hard shells are not affected, but only those which are thin. (Report British Association Cork 1843 Section page 60.) Mr. D. Sharpe, following up the same line of inquiry, came to the conclusion that the present distorted forms of the shells in certain British slate rocks may be accounted for by supposing that the rocks in which they are imbedded have undergone compression in a direction perpendicular to the planes of cleavage, and a corresponding expansion in the direction of the dip of the cleavage. (Quarterly Geological Journal volume 3 page 87 1847.)

(FIGURE 627. Vertical section of slate rock in the cliffs near Ilfracombe, North Devon. Scale one inch to one foot. (Drawn by H.C. Sorby.) a, b, c, e. Fine-grained slates, the stratification being shown partly by lighter or darker colours, and partly by different degrees of fineness in the grain. d, f. A coarser grained light-coloured sandy slate with less perfect cleavage.)

Subsequently (1853) Mr. Sorby demonstrated the great extent to which this mechanical theory is applicable to the slate rocks of North Wales and Devonshire (On the Origin of Slaty Cleavage by H.C. Sorby Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 1853 volume 55 page 137.), districts where the amount of change in dimensions can be tested and measured by comparing the different effects exerted by lateral pressure on alternating beds of finer and coarser materials. Thus, for example, in Figure 627 it will be seen that the sandy bed d-f, which has offered greater resistance, has been sharply contorted, while the fine-grained strata, a, b, c, have remained comparatively unbent. The points d and f in the stratum d-f must have been originally four times as far apart as they are now. They have been forced so much nearer to each other, partly by bending, and partly by becoming elongated in the direction of what may be called the longer axes of their contortions, and lastly, to a certain small amount, by condensation. The chief result has obviously been due to the bending; but, in proof of elongation, it will be observed that the thickness of the bed d-f is now about four times greater in those parts lying in the main direction of the flexures than in a plane perpendicular to them; and the same bed exhibits cleavage planes in the direction of the greatest movement, although they are much fewer than in the slaty strata above and below.

Above the sandy bed d-f, the stratum c is somewhat disturbed, while the next bed, b, is much less so, and a not at all; yet all these beds, c, b, and a, must have undergone an equal amount of pressure with d, the points a and g having approximated as much towards each other as have d and f. The same phenomena are also repeated in the beds below d, and might have been shown, had the section been extended downward. Hence it appears that the finer beds have been squeezed into a fourth of the space they previously occupied, partly by condensation, or the closer packing of their ultimate particles (which has given rise to the great specific gravity of such slates), and partly by elongation in the line of the dip of the cleavage, of which the general direction is perpendicular to that of the pressure. "These and numerous other cases in North Devon are analogous," says Mr. Sorby, "to what would occur if a strip of paper were included in a mass of some soft plastic material which would readily change its dimensions. If the whole were then compressed in the direction of the length of the strip of paper, it would be bent and puckered up into contortions, while the plastic material would readily change its dimensions without undergoing such contortions; and the difference in distance of the ends of the paper, as measured in a direct line or along it, would indicate the change in the dimensions of the plastic material."

By microscopic examination of minute crystals, and by other observations, Mr. Sorby has come to the conclusion that the absolute condensation of the slate rocks amounts upon an average to about one half their original volume. Most of the scales of mica occurring in certain slates examined by Mr. Sorby lie in the plane of cleavage; whereas in a similar rock not exhibiting cleavage they lie with their longer axes in all directions. May not their position in the slates have been determined by the movement of elongation before alluded to? To illustrate this theory some scales of oxide of iron were mixed with soft pipeclay in such a manner that they inclined in all directions. The dimensions of the mass were then changed artificially to a similar extent to what has occurred in slate rocks, and the pipe-clay was then dried and baked. When it was afterwards rubbed to a flat surface perpendicular to the pressure and in the line of elongation, or in a plane corresponding to that of the dip of cleavage, the particles were found to have become arranged in the same manner as in natural slates, and the mass admitted of easy fracture into thin flat pieces in the plane alluded to, whereas it would not yield in that perpendicular to the cleavage. (Sorby as cited above page 741 note.)

Dr. Tyndall, when commenting in 1856 on Mr. Sorby’s experiments, observed that pressure alone is sufficient to produce cleavage, and that the intervention of plates of mica or scales of oxide of iron, or any other substances having flat surfaces, is quite unnecessary. In proof of this he showed experimentally that a mass of "pure white wax, after having been submitted to great pressure, exhibited a cleavage more clean than that of any slate-rock, splitting into laminae of surpassing tenuity." (Tyndall View of the Cleavage of Crystals and Slate rocks.) He remarks that every mass of clay or mud is divided and subdivided by surfaces among which the cohesion is comparatively small. On being subjected to pressure, such masses yield and spread out in the direction of least resistance, small nodules become converted into laminae separated from each other by surfaces of weak cohesion, and the result is that the mass cleaves at right angles to the line in which the pressure is exerted. In further illustration of this, Mr. Hughes remarks that "concretions which in the undisturbed beds have their longer axes parallel to the bedding are, where the rock is much cleaved, frequently found flattened laterally, so as to have their longer axes parallel to the cleavage planes, and at a considerable angle, even right angles, to their former position."

Mr. Darwin attributes the lamination and fissile structure of volcanic rocks of the trachytic series, including some obsidians in Ascension, Mexico, and elsewhere, to their having moved when liquid in the direction of the laminae. The zones consist sometimes of layers of air-cells drawn out and lengthened in the supposed direction of the moving mass. (Darwin Volcanic Islands pages 69, 70.)


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Chicago: Charles Lyell, "Mechanical Theory of Cleavage.," The Student’s Elements of Geology, ed. Bryant Conant, James and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in The Student’s Elements of Geology Original Sources, accessed June 7, 2023,

MLA: Lyell, Charles. "Mechanical Theory of Cleavage." The Student’s Elements of Geology, edited by Bryant Conant, James, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in The Student’s Elements of Geology, Original Sources. 7 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: Lyell, C, 'Mechanical Theory of Cleavage.' in The Student’s Elements of Geology, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Student’s Elements of Geology. Original Sources, retrieved 7 June 2023, from