William Smith (geologist)

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William Smith (geologist) bigraphy, stories - Geologist

William Smith (geologist) : biography

23 March 1769 – 28 August 1839

William ‘Strata’ Smith (23 March 1769 – 28 August 1839) was an English geologist, credited with creating the first nationwide geological map. He is known as the "Father of English Geology" for collating the geological history of England and Wales into a single record, although recognition was very slow in coming. At the time his map was first published he was overlooked by the scientific community; his relatively humble education and family connections preventing him from mixing easily in learned society. Consequently his work was plagiarised, he was financially ruined, and he spent time in debtors’ prison. It was only much later in his life that Smith received recognition for his accomplishments.

Publication and disappointment

In 1799 Smith produced the first large scale geologic map of the area around Bath, Somerset. Previously, he only knew how to draw the vertical extent of the rocks, but not how to display them horizontally. However, in the Somerset County Agricultural Society, he found a map showing the types of soils and vegetation around Bath and their geographical extent. Importantly, the differing types were coloured. Using this technique, Smith could draw a geological map from his observations showing the outcrops of the rocks. He took a few rock types, each with its own colour. Then he estimated the boundaries of each of the outcrops of rock, filled them in with colour and ended up with a crude geological map.

In 1801, he drew a rough sketch of what would become "The Map that Changed the World". Because he was unemployed, he could travel across the length and breadth of the country while meeting some prominent people such as Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, and the Duke of Bedford. In 1815 he published the first geological map of Britain. It covered the whole of England and Wales, and parts of Scotland, making it the first geologic map covering such a large area ever published. Conventional symbols were used to mark canals, tunnels, tramways and roads, collieries, lead, copper and tin mines, together with salt and alum works. The various geological types were indicated by different colours; the maps were hand coloured. Nevertheless, the map is remarkably similar to modern geological maps of England. He also published his Delineation of the Strata of England in the same year. In another of his books Strata Identified by Organized Fossils (London 1816-1819) he recognised that strata contained distinct fossil assemblages which could be used to match rocks across regions.

In 1817 he drew a remarkable geological section from Snowdon to London. Unfortunately, his maps were soon plagiarised and sold for prices lower than he was asking. He went into debt and finally became bankrupt.

On 31 August 1819 Smith was released from King’s Bench Prison in London, a debtor’s prison. He returned to his home of fourteen years at 15 Buckingham Street to find a bailiff at the door and his home and property seized. Smith then worked as an itinerant surveyor for many years until one of his employers, Sir John Johnstone, recognised him and took steps to gain for him the respect he deserved. Between 1824 and 1826 he lived and worked in Scarborough, and was responsible for the building of the Rotunda, a geological museum devoted to the Yorkshire coast.The Rotunda was re-opened as ‘Rotunda – The William Smith Museum of Geology’, on 9 May 2008 by Lord Oxburgh, however, the Prince of Wales visited the Rotunda as early as 14 September 2007 to view the progress of the refurbishment of this listed building.

Life’s work

Smith worked at one of the estate’s older mines, the Mearns Pit at High Littleton, part of the Somerset coalfield and the Somerset Coal Canal. As he observed the rock layers (or strata) at the pit, he realised that they were arranged in a predictable pattern and that the various strata could always be found in the same relative positions. Additionally, each particular stratum could be identified by the fossils it contained, and the same succession of fossil groups from older to younger rocks could be found in many parts of England. Furthermore, he noticed an easterly dip of the beds of rock- small near the surface (about three degrees) then bigger after the Triassic rocks. This gave Smith a testable hypothesis, which he termed The Principle of Faunal Succession, and he began his search to determine if the relationships between the strata and their characteristics were consistent throughout the country. During subsequent travels, first as a surveyor (appointed by noted engineer John Rennie) for the canal company until 1799 when he was dismissed, and later, he was continually taking samples and mapping the locations of the various strata, and displaying the vertical extent of the strata, and drawing cross-sections and tables of what he saw. This would earn him the name "Strata Smith". As a natural consequence, Smith amassed a large and valuable collection of fossils of the strata he had examined himself from exposures in canals, road and railway cuttings, quarries and escarpments across the country. He also developed methods for the identification of deposits of Fuller’s earth to the south of Bath. He published his findings with many pictures from his fossil collection, enabling others to investigate their distribution and test his theories. His collection is especially good on Jurassic fossils he collected from the Cornbrash, Kimmeridge clay, Oxford clay, Oolitic limestone and other horizons in the sequence. They included many types of brachiopods, ammonites and molluscs characteristic of the shallow seas in which they were deposited. Some of the names he coined (like Cornbrash) are still used today for this formation.