Have you heard of William “Strata” Smith? Well I hadn’t until 2001, when I read a review in a weekend magazine and bought Simon Winchester’s book about him, called The Map that Changed the World. He has been one of my heroes ever since.
Until the end of February the National Museum of Wales has a small, free exhibition of some of Smith’s geological maps of England and Wales and the other day I went along to have a look – and to feel a bit of awe at the man, who became known as the Father of English Geology.
William Smith lived from 23 March 1769 to 28 August 1839 – so he saw the reigns of George III, George IV, William IV and the very beginning of Queen Victoria. I find it to be an “interesting fact” that Victoria was King William’s niece – he had eight surviving illegitimate children by actress Dorothea Jordan, all given the surname FitzClarence (son of Clarence) as the king was previously the Duke of Clarence. But he had no legitimate children to inherit the throne. Aren’t the rules of royalty funny? Had they been different, we might never have had Queen Victoria.
But back to William Smith, who had much humbler origins. He was born the son of a blacksmith in Oxfordshire but when he was eight years old his father died and he went to live with an uncle, who was a farmer. The lad was good at maths and enjoyed collecting the fossils he came across in farm fields. At the age of 18 he found work as an assistant surveyor in Gloucestershire and a few years later, after learning his trade, he went to work in Somerset.
In observing coal pits and the cuttings through rocks made for canals, railways and roads, he noticed how the layers (or strata) of rocks were arranged in a predictable pattern. He realised the layers of rock could always be found in the same relative position and each could be identified by the fossils it contained.
According to Wikipedia the Danish 17th century scientist Nicolas Steno had earlier ideas about stratigraphy and the law of superposition (that older rocks are usually underneath newer rocks), but Smith was surely the first person to map what he found – and that is basically his claim to fame.
When I was at university in the 1970s I had on my wall a poster of the then current geological map of Britain, as it is so fascinating. That map was very like the one pictured below, rather than the very bright modern one pictured above in the museum exhibition.
In 1801 William Smith did his first sketch for what was to become the first geological map of Britain (or at least England and Wales), which he published in 1815. Recent research suggests about 350 copies of this map were printed, in at least six issues up until 1836. Around 150 copies survive, each unique because the maps were hand coloured.
The map is on a scale of five miles to the inch and based on a simplified topographical map by John Cary. The two men took nearly three years to prepare the 15 copper plates for printing and add faint lines to mark the boundaries between rocks.
Each map was hand-coloured, with most colours chosen to resemble the rocks themselves.
Smith tried to show the strata in three dimensions by using darker shades at the base of each rock layer and lighter towards the top. He numbered each map as it came from the colourist and if he was happy with it, he signed it.
Smith also noticed that the strata of rock were tilted down to the south east of the country.
At his London home Smith displayed his fossils in order on sloping shelves that imitated the strata of rocks.
I just HAD to buy a souvenir of the museum exhibition – and what better than the map itself? Although I was very tempted by the plastic pith helmets bought by two little girls who were off to explore the dinosaur exhibits!
Foolishly I unfolded the BIG map to scan in part of it for this blog post.
And of course once you have messed around with a map it is VERY difficult to fold up again. I still haven’t got it to sit properly in its cover.
William Smith was from a humble background and not even that highly educated, so he was an outsider from learned society. Sadly, his maps were soon plagiarised by the Geological Society of London and sold at a lower price. Despite selling his geological collection to the British Museum, he went bankrupt in 1819 and spent some time in a debtor’s prison.
The society redeemed itself later. In 1831 it awarded him the first Wollaston Medal in recognition of his achievement and the then President, Adam Sedgwick, called Smith “the Father of English Geology”.
Today the William Smith Medal, created in 1977, is awarded annually by the Geological Society of London for outstanding research in applied or economic geology.
You may also be interested in my other geology/fossils blog posts…
On old red sandstone:
The red stones of Ross
On the Jurassic Coast: