William Smith — a man who changed the world

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William Smith 1769-1839

William 'Strata' Smith, 1769–1839, also known as the 'Father of English Geology'[edit]

With the recent publication of Simon Winchester's The Map that Changed the World, a new audience of readers were awakened to the relatively unsung achievements of an 18th century Englishman.

William Smith's unique map, depicting the geology of England, Wales, and part of Scotland helped to shape the economic and scientific development of Britain, just as the country was experiencing the Industrial Revolution and shaping international events on the world stage.

Smith's map is now freely available to view on mobile devices through the BGS's iGeology app.

This page provide a brief biography of William Smith, describing the man, his ambitions, and his unique achievement. Original publications by Smith held at the BGS are listed.

BGS has two videos about William Smith:

Strata Smith: The Man & The Map

William Smith's map

Life and work[edit]

William Smith lived adjacent to Tucking Mill.
William Smith's houses in Bath, Somerset. W.P.D. Stebbing. G.A. Excursion Easter 1940

William Smith was born at Churchill, Oxfordshire in 1769. The son of the village blacksmith, Smith was the eldest of five children.

After elementary education at the village school, where he developed a liking for geometry and drawing, he decided to teach himself the skills of surveying, possibly because there were an increasing number of openings for that profession.

At the age of 18 he was employed by Edward Webb, a surveyor in Stow-on-the-Wold, and subsequently, in 1791, he set up in business on his own.

As a boy, Smith had developed an interest in the exposures of rock and the fossils which were to be found locally. As an adult, his surveys of land for canals and for the sources of building stone and coal in other parts of England led to a great increase in his knowledge and awareness of various geological features.

As he travelled, he found the strata he was familiar with in the south of England were repeated in other areas, with some outcrops stretching right across the country.

Coal miners were already aware of the occurrences of regular successions of workable coal seams. But on a larger scale, Smith began to recognise that sedimentary rocks could be identified by the fossils they contained, and that these rocks were always arranged in the same order.

Smith's discovery that beds of similar lithology can be distinguished by the assemblage of fossils in them was a concept virtually unrecognised by geologists of that period. Working on this principle, Smith was able to draw up a table of successive strata which could be applied in any other locality—an early version of the geological column.

Mapping England and Wales[edit]

William Smith's 1815 map

By 1799, Smith was using both his skills as a surveyor and the knowledge gained from his observations in the field to draw up a geological map. This first map was circular in form, covered the area around Bath, and was exhibited at the Bath Agricultural Society.

At the same time, Smith continued to plan the publication of a treatise describing his discoveries, but financial support proved difficult to find. In 1801, Smith produced a small geological map of England and Wales which illustrated the outcrops of seven geological formations.

Other maps were produced for exhibition at various meeting, but it was not until 1815 that, with input from the enterprising map publisher John Cary, Smith's first major map "A delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland; exhibiting the Collieries and Mines, the Marshes and Fen Lands originally overflowed by the Sea, and the varieties of soil according to the variations in the substrata, illustrated by the most descriptive names", actually appeared.

Based on Cary's new topographical map at the scale of five miles to the inch, the map showed the outcrops of some twenty formations. Other publications on stratigraphy followed: Strata Identified by Fossils, in 1816, and Stratigraphical System of Organized Fossils, in 1817.

William Smith — the applied geologist[edit]

The next major mapping publication was Smith's Geological Atlas, again based on Cary's topographical maps, comprising the maps of 21 counties which were published between 1819 and 1824.

Despite the importance of his ideas and publications, Smith continued to find recognition elusive and it was not until 1831, when the Geological Society awarded him the first Wollaston Medal, that his status was finally confirmed.

Adam Sedgwick in his citation referred to Smith as the 'Founder of English Geology'. From time to time Smith's expertise continued to be drawn upon for major projects. In 1838 he was commissioned to accompany Henry De la Beche and Sir Charles Barry on a tour of the principal stone quarries to recommend the stone to be used in the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, which had been destroyed by fire in 1835.

The practical nature of the commission provides a link between Smith's work and that of De la Beche and his newly founded Geological Survey.

Systematic mapping[edit]

The forerunner of the Geological Survey[edit]

The main focus of Smith's work was to apply his observations and ideas to the everyday needs of the canal builders, quarry- and mine-owners, landowners and agriculturists who were underpinning the Industrial Revolution.

He talked at meetings about geology and its economic value. The titles of his map of 1815 — the first ever large-scale geological map of a country—and the subsequent 1820 edition, demonstrate the commercial nature of the mapping.

The County maps (1819–24) represent a first attempt at systematic sheet mapping of England and Wales. These can be seen as the predecessors of the Geological Survey's systematic series of maps, which began production in the late 1830s.

Mapping for the 21st Century[edit]

Two hundred years after the publication in 1801 of Smith's first map of England and Wales, the BGS announced another major advance in geological mapping for the UK.

October 2001 saw the first release in digital vector format of all the 1:50 000 scale geological map data that were available for Great Britain BGS Geology 50k — covering over 95% of the landmass.

Since 2001, BGS Geology 50k has been continually revised and is now on version 6. Other datasets at scales from 1:10 000 to 1:625 000 are also available. From the BGS Geology database, maps for any area can be produced and the data used in geographical information systems. Since 2009 BGS Geology 50k has been accessible for free on smartphones and other mobile devices via our iGeology app.

As more attributes are added by the BGS to the BGS Geology data, William Smith's conviction that geological mapping is of vital importance at many levels and in many areas of the nation's society, science, and industry is as true today as it was two centuries ago, when he conceived his original geological map.

The methods involved in map production have developed and, especially with BGS Geology, the method of map delivery has altered radically, but the fundamental importance of providing accurate geological map data to today's industries is as vital now as it was in Smith's time.

Publications relating to William Smith in the BGS Library[edit]

Facsimile of front cover of Smith's memoir which accompanied his map.

Works by William Smith[edit]

A delineation of the strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland; exhibiting the collieries and mines, the marshes and fen lands originally overflowed by the sea, and the varieties of soil according to the variations in the substrata, illustrated by the most descriptive names [ca. 1:313 800], by W Smith. London: J Cary, 1815. Scale ca. 1 313 800.

[Geological view and sections], W Smith and R Thomas. London: John Cary, 1817–1819. Contents: geological section from London to Snowdon showing the varieties of the strata and the correct altitudes of the hills by; Vertical section of strata in Surry [sic] dipping northward; section of strata in Sussex dipping southward; Section of the strata through Hants and Wilts to Bath, on the road from Bath to Salisbury; geological view and section through Dorset and Somerset to Taunton on the road through Yeovil to Wimborn Minster etc.; geological view and section in Essex and Herts [and] geological view and section of the country between London and Cambridge; geological view and section of Norfolk [and] geological view and section through Suffolk to Ely; geological view of the mining district of Cornwall corresponding with the map from Chasewater to Camborne, shewing [sic] the elevations of the hills and the depths to which the mines are extended by R Thomas; geological sections in illustration of the mining district of Cornwall by R Thomas.

A memoir to the map and delineation of the strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland, by William Smith. London: printed for John Cary, 1815.

A new geological map of England and Wales with the inland navigations: exhibiting the districts of coal and other sites of mineral tonnage [ca. 1:1 950 400], by W Smith, Engineer. London: J Cary, 1820.

Observations on the utility, form and management of water meadows and the draining and irrigating of peat bogs, with an account of Prisley Bog, and other extraordinary improvements, conducted for His Grace the Duke of Bedford, Thomas William Coke, Esq. M P and others, by William Smith. Norwich: R M Bacon, 1806.

[Smith's geological atlas of England and Wales], by W Smith, Mineral Surveyor. (1819–24). Geological maps of 21 English counties.

Strata identified by organized fossils: containing prints on colored paper of the most characteristic specimens in each stratum, by William Smith, mineral surveyor. London: Printed by W Arding, 1816-1819. Issued in only 4 pts: June 1, 1816; October 1, 1816; September 1, 1817; and 1819. Only part issued June 1, 1816 in stock at Keyworth.

Stratigraphical system of organized fossils: with reference to the specimens of the original geological collection in the British Museum: explaining their state of preservation and their use in identifying the British strata, by William Smith. London: Printed for E Williams, 1817.

Report (addressed to the Commissioners of Her Majesty's Woods, Forests, Land Revenue, Works, and Buildings) as the result of an inquiry, undertaken under the authority of the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury with reference to the selection of stone for building the new Houses of Parliament, Charles Barry, H T De la Beche, William Smith and Charles H Smith. Commissioners of Her Majesty's Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works, and Buildings; Great Britain. Treasury. London: 1839.

Works about William Smith[edit]

BATHER F A. 1926. Address delivered on July 10th, 1926, on William Smith “the Father of English Geology”. Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

COX, L R. 1942. New light on William Smith and his work. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, Vol. 25, 1-99.

DOUGLAS, J A. 1949. An early list of strata by William Smith. Geological Magazine, Vol. 86, No. 3,180-188. [A reproduction of an unrecorded manuscript written by William Smith in 1797 in its original form and spelling with introduction and annotations].

EYLES, J M. 1969. William Smith (1769-1839): A bibliography of his published writings, maps and geological sections, printed and lithographed. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, Vol. 5, No. 2, 87-109.

EYLES, J M. 1975. Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 486-492. (Scribner).

FULLER, J G C M. 1994. The forty-four yard problem: a cross section by John Strachey annotated by William Smith. Archives of Natural History, Vol. 21, No. 2, 195-199.

MORTON, J L. 2001. Strata: How William Smith drew the First Map of the Earth in 1801 & Inspired the Science of Geology. (Dursley: Brocken Spectre Publishing).

NORTH, F J. 1927. Deductions from established facts in Geology by Wm. Smith: Notes on a recently discovered broadsheet. Geological Magazine, Vol. 64, No. 12, 532-540.

PHILLIPS, J. 1844. Memoirs of William Smith, LL.D. (London: J. Murray).

SHEPPARD, T. 1917. William Smith: his maps and memoirs. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, Vol. 19, 75-253.

WINCHESTER, S. 2001.The map that changed the world: the tale of William Smith and the birth of a science. (London: Viking).

William Smith merchandise at the BGS Shop[edit]

A range of goods are available from the BGS shop including facsimile maps, jigsaw puzzles and map-based coasters.