William Smith was born on March 23, 1769 in Churchill, Oxfordshire, England, the first son of five children of the village blacksmith. He had a meager formal education but had a natural curiosity concerning local rocks, fossils, and geography. When he was eight years old, his father died, leaving the family in dire circumstances and resulting in his education shifting to the more practical aspects of surveying, geometry, landscape study, and mapping.
At eighteen he became an assistant surveyor with the office of the prominent surveyor Edward Webb, which provided Smith the opportunity to travel extensively and study the landscape in depth as part of his employment. Through these small jobs, he gained a reputation and, in 1791, started a business of his own. By 1794, he was supervising the digging of the Somerset Canal, a six-year undertaking that necessitated a meticulous study of the rock structures to determine the best possible route. It was during this time, together with the mapping of potential coal mining sites, that Smith made the important discovery that certain beds had characteristic fossils and that they were unique to that stratum and that period of geologic history. As his travels and rock collections continued, his theory that a particular stratum could be positively identified solely by the fossil remains found in it was reinforced again and again. These observations would be a basis for the conclusion of later evolutionists of the law of faunal succession: in general, in the development of life on the planet, fossils in the layers of sedimentary rocks in any location are in a definite sequence from the bottom to the surface of a section, with the youngest stratum on the top. This concept was virtually unknown to scientists of the period.
To put his theory to work, Smith coordinated his notes and first began to draw local maps—not of the surface topography of outcrops, nor of the composition of the rocks, but of their strategic order, using the fossil record as the classifier. Twenty-one counties were produced. These were new kinds of maps, with the unseen world below the surface on display, used as a device to predict with accuracy what rocks would appear and what fossils would be present.
After confirming the validity of the local maps and with his employment with various canal-building companies ended, Smith had a series of engineering jobs that enabled him to again travel to various parts of England with side trips to Wales. His vision was to make a geologic map of all of England and Wales using his principles of fossil position. This he completed in 1815 and updated in 1820. It represents the first true geologic map anywhere in the world. It is displayed at Burlington House, near London’s Piccadilly.
Tragically, this map was at first overlooked by members of the scientific community. They reacted to Smith’s humble beginnings and limited education when compared to their “learned mentality.”
Later in his life, in 1831, Smith was awarded the Geologic Society of London’s highest honor, the first Wollaston Medal for outstanding achievement in geology—work that contributed greatly to the historical development of the new science of geology and earned him a title of the Father of English Geology.
- Winchester, S. (2002). The map that changed the world. New York: HarperCollins.