Alfred Lothar Wegener was born on the 1st of November 1880 in Berlin, and he died at the end of November 1930 in Greenland. His parents were preacher and orphanage director Dr. Richard Wegener and Anna Wegener, nee Schwarz. He was the youngest of their five children. In 1899, he took his school-leaving exam from the Köllnischen Gymnasium in Berlin, and directly went on to University of Heidelberg to study the natural sciences, and in particular astronomy. Later he attended the Universities of Innsbruck and Berlin, and he successfully defended his doctoral thesis on November 24,1904, at the University of Berlin (magna cum laude). For the following 2 years, like his brother Kurt, he was assistant at the Aeronautischen Observatorium Lindenberg. Together with his brother Kurt, he set the world record for the longest-lasting balloon trip in 1906. In the same year, he made acquaintance with the well-known meteorologist Wladimir Koppen. From 1906 to 1908, he took part in a Danish expedition to Greenland organized by Mylius-Erichsen. In 1909, he handed in a further thesis (Habilitation) at the University of Marburg, and became Privatdozent there, which implies the right to lecture ( venia legendi) and can be compared to an associate professorship. From 1917 to 1919 he was a Professor in Marburg. In 1911, his well known book Thermodynamik der Athmospare appeared. On January 6, he gave his first presentation dealing with the continental drift theory at a meeting of the geological society in Frankfurt am Main. His complete theory concerning continental drift can be found in his most important book entitled Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane, which came out in 1915. From 1912 to 1913, he took part in another Danish Greenland expedition organized by J. P. Koch whereby they crossed the North of Greenland. After his return he married Wladimir Koppen’s daughter, Else Koppen, who he met for the first time 5 years earlier when she was 16. He subsequently participated in World War I as a reserve officer (1914-1918). From 1919 to 1924 he was departmental manager of the German Seewarte in Hamburg, as a successor to his father-in-law, and also Professor at the University of Hamburg. Together with Wladimir Koppen, he published Die Klimate der geologischen Vorzeit in 1924, the year when he became a Professor of Geophysics and Meteorology at the University of Graz. He kept that Professorship until his early death in 1930. In 1926, a major symposium entitled “Theory of Continental Drift” took place in New York. Wegener himself did not participate in it, but contributed an article to the Conference Proceedings. In 1929, Alfred Wegener himself organized a preexpedition to the West of Greenland, to make some preparations and research for the main expedition the following year, which he planned, organized, and led himself. It was supposed to enable him to undertake his most important Polar research, but from the very beginning the expedition had to deal with many unforeseen problems. During the expedition, in November 1930, Alfred Lothar Wegener died, most probably of a heart attack due to bodily overexertion.
Wegener’s most important contribution to science was the development of the first complete theory of continental drift. In a letter to his future wife in 1910, Wegener wrote that he noted that the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa look as if they used to be connected in earlier times, and that he wished to dedicate further thought to this idea. He did not refer to the shape of the contemporary coastlines but the margins of the precipice in the deep sea. An American study falsely claims that later researchers found this out. Wegener, of course, was not the first to note the similarity of the coastlines: Others had already noticed this a long time before the 20th century (for example, Francis Bacon and Alexander von Humboldt). However, Wegener was the first to put forward a complete hypothesis that dealt with the whole earth. In his most important book, Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane, he described in detail the hypothesis of the wandering mainlands, or the theory of continental drift. The other main theory concerning the history of the earth is that the mainlands have always been where they are now, only the flooding of some coastlines have brought about small temporary alterations.
Wegener based his theory on the following traditional understanding. Continents and the ocean floor consist of two types of earth’s crust. Continents are based on lighter (Sial), the grounds of the oceans on heavier (Sima) stones—a distinction that is still valid today. Like ice floes, continents are supposed to swim on the heavier layers of Sima. As both Sial and Sima are solid bodies, a special explanation for the movement is needed. Wegener claimed that the following two forces are at work. First, the flight from the poles force explains the movement towards the equator, and second, the tidal rubbing would be responsible for the drifting to the west of the continents. However, Wegener also realized that these two forces are not sufficient. In the first edition of his book about the origin of the continents he mentioned that it is too early to try to answer this question, and in the fourth edition he admitted that the “Newton of the continental drift theory” has not arrived yet. In 1929, he briefly referred to convectional streams in the magmatic subsoil as a relevant force— this force is still regarded as the most efficient today.
After World War II in the United States, the theory of the plate tectonics became dominant. As this hypothesis is a type of continental drift theory, Wegener’s research, which was nearly forgotten by then, became central again. The research undertaken in that context confirmed many aspects of Wegener’s theory. For example, both refer to a supercontinent (named Pangaea by Wegener) that was present in the Late Paleozoic era (about 250 million years ago), which first broke and then drifted apart. However, concerning the details the two theories also differ significantly. For instance, it is not the mainlands that wander, but rather the plates that enclose not only continents but also large parts of the sea.
- Schwarzbach, M. (1986). Alfred Wegener: The father of continental drift. With an introduction to the English Edition by Anthony Hallam. Madison, WI: Science Tech.
- Wegener, A. L. (1966). The origins of continents and oceans [John Biram, Trans.). Mineola, NY: Dover.