One of the first recorded observers to surmise a long age for Earth was the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived from approximately 480 B.C.to 425 B.C. He observed that the Nile River Delta was in fact a series of sediment deposits built up in successive floods. By noting that individual floods deposit only thin layers of sediment, he was able to conclude that the Nile Delta had taken many thousands of years to build up. More important than the amount of time Herodotus computed, which turns out to be trivial compared with the age of Earth, was the notion that one could estimate ages of geologic features by determining rates of the processes responsible for such features, and then assuming the rates to be roughly constant over time. Similar applications of this concept were to be used again and again in later centuries to estimate the ages of rock formations and, in particular, of layers of sediment that had compacted and cemented to form sedimentary rocks.
It was not until the seventeenth century that attempts were made again to understand clues to Earth's history through the rock record. Nicolaus Steno (1638–1686) was the first to work out principles of the progressive depositing of sediment in Tuscany. However, James Hutton (1726–1797), known as the founder of modern geology, was the first to have the important insight that geologic processes are cyclic in nature. Forces associated with subterranean heat cause land to be uplifted into plateaus and mountain ranges. The effects of wind and water then break down the masses of uplifted rock, producing sediment that is transported by water downward to ultimately form layers in lakes, seashores, or even oceans. Over time, the layers become sedimentary rock. These rocks are then uplifted sometime in the future to form new mountain ranges, which exhibit the sedimentary layers (and the remains of life within those layers) of the earlier episodes of erosion and deposition.
Hutton's concept represented a remarkable insight because it unified many individual phenomena and observations into a conceptual picture of Earth's history. With the further assumption that these geologic processes were generally no more or less vigorous than they are today, Hutton's examination of sedimentary layers led him to realize that Earth's history must be enormous, that geologic time is an abyss and human history a speck by comparison.
After Hutton, geologists tried to determine rates of sedimentation so as to estimate the age of Earth from the total length of the sedimentary, or stratigraphic, record. Typical numbers produced at the turn of the twentieth century were 100 million to 400 million years. These underestimated the actual age by factors of 10 to 50 because much of the sedimentary record is missing in various locations and because there is a long rock sequence that is older than half a billion years that is far less well defined in terms of fossils and less well preserved.
Various other techniques to estimate Earth's age fell short, and particularly noteworthy in this regard were flawed determinations of the Sun's age. It had been recognized by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) that chemical reactions could not supply the tremendous amount of energy flowing from the Sun for more than about a millennium. Two physicists during the nineteenth century both came up with ages for the Sun based on the Sun's energy coming from gravitational contraction. Under the force of gravity, the compression resulting from a collapse of the object must release energy. Ages for Earth were derived that were in the tens of millions of years, much less than the geologic estimates of the time.
It was the discovery of radioactivity at the end of the nineteenth century that opened the door to determining both the Sun's energy source and the age of Earth. From the initial work came a suite of discoveries leading to radioisotopic dating, which quickly led to the realization that Earth must be billions of years old, and to the discovery of nuclear fusion as an energy source capable of sustaining the Sun's luminosity for that amount of time. By the 1960s, both analysis of meteorites and refinements of solar evolution models converged on an age for the solar system, and hence for Earth, of 4.5 billion years.