The Merriam-Webster online dictionary writes that the first known usage of plate tectonics in the sense of the geological theory was in 1969. Encyclopedia Britannica credits Alfred Wegener with an early conception of the theory in 1915, and then cites Harry Hess in 1960 as conceiving of seafloor spreading, an integral aspect of plate tectonics. The encyclopedia cites other geologists (McKenzie, Parker, Morgan, le Pichon) with developing the theory in the 1960s and the geologists Isacks, Oliver, and Sykes with coining the term "new global tectonics." But no source I can find describes where "plate tectonics" was published for the first time. Please, does anyone know when this term was first used?


1 Answer 1


D. Davies and D. P. McKenzie, "Seismic Travel-Time Residuals and Plates." Geophysical Journal International, Vol. 18, No. 1, Sep. 1969, pp. 51-63 (my bolding):

The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that some seismological observations which have not yet appeared to have any obvious cause are explicable in terms of the 'plate tectonics' developed in the last year or two by McKenzie & Parker (1967), Morgan (1968) and Le Pichon (1968). That seismological information is relevant to a critical examination of plate tectonics is testified by Isacks, Oliver & Sykes (1968) who produce a formidable amount of evidence on global plate behaviour.

The publications referenced are:

Dan P. McKenzie and Robert L. Parker, "The North Pacific: An example of tectonics on a sphere." Nature, Vol. 216, Dec. 1967, pp. 1276-1280

W. Jason Morgan, "Rises, trenches, great faults and crustal blocks." Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 73, No. 6, Mar. 1968, pp. 1959-1982

Xavier Le Pichon, "Sea-floor spreading and continental drift." Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 73, No. 12, Jun. 1968, pp. 3661-3697

Bryan Isacks, Jack Oliver, and Lynn R. Sykes, "Seismology and the new global tectonics." Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 73, No. 18, Sep. 1968, pp. 5855-5899

None of these references seems to use the term "plate tectonics", but the last of these refers to (p. 5879) the "plate model of tectonics", which could be considered a precursor term:

The plate model of tectonics provides, in a simple way, for the termination of an island arc by the abrupt or gradual transition to a transform fault, by a decrease in the rate of convergence to zero, or by some combination of these.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the clear and detailed answer, njuffa! $\endgroup$
    – Colin Pace
    Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ OED has a 1966 quote from Bulletin of Geological Society of America with the term "raft tectonics". $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 18:11

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