Strata Smith, the story of an unsung rock star

The Map that Changed the World
January 18, 2002

Ageological map is to a geologist what an ordinary topographical map is to everyone else. It shows in colour code the distribution, age and geometrical disposition of rocks exposed at the surface, or directly beneath the soil, of a given region. Many land areas of the globe have been, or are still being, geologically mapped by teams of geologists from national surveys, universities, industry and commerce. This huge effort commenced some 200 years ago and, as scientific understanding of rocks increases, new geological maps are constantly replacing older ones.

The inventor and pioneer of the modern geological map was William Smith (1769-1839), known in his time as "Strata" Smith and, since the 1830s, as the father of English geology. Before Smith, crude maps existed to show different types of rock in a given area. But Smith's revolutionary scientific insight was to correlate the relative age of sedimentary rock strata over any distance by the characteristic fossils that they contained. By Smith's time, the true nature of fossils as relics of ancient, often extinct organisms was widely recognised. Smith showed from his vast fossil collection that there was a progressive change in fossil assemblages from underlying older rocks to the younger ones above. With hindsight, we know that the age range of Smith's strata extended over several hundred million years. Smith had no realistic inkling of this timescale, while it was still too soon to account for change in fossil assemblages with time by Darwinian evolution.

Smith's great scientific achievements and his turbulent, restless life are stylishly charted with wit, colour and insight by Simon Winchester, noted author, traveller, reporter, journalist and, appropriately, Oxford graduate in geology. He succeeds wonderfully well in integrating Smith's life and work, as well as placing both in the social and scientific framework of their time. Winchester tells a story that should inspire any brilliant youngish scientist feeling an unjust lack of recognition or unfair competition to battle on regardless until fame and fortune finally arrive.

As a boy in rural Oxfordshire, Smith combed the surroundings for fossils and rocks. After simple schooling and much apprenticing, he rose quickly to become a drainage engineer, land surveyor, cartographer, mineral prospector and canal builder of wide repute, with numerous commissions from important individuals and companies. During many years of ceaseless professional and scientific travels up and down the country by stagecoach and on foot, he noted in detail every rock he traversed, and amassed his vast collection of fossils, which was much later sold for a pittance to the then British Museum.

Gradually, Smith single-handedly established the principles of strata correlation by fossils, or stratigraphy, which still forms the backbone of all geology courses. After many delays, frustrations, financial problems and self-inflicted procrastinations, the final version of his great geological map was published to much acclaim in 1815. The map was beautifully coloured and bore the title "A Delineation of the Strata of England with parts 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 Sub Strata; illustrated by the Most Descriptive Names".

During the next few years, many factors conspired against Smith's finances, and in 1819 he was declared bankrupt and committed to debtors' prison in London for 11 weeks. Also in 1819, the Geological Society of London published its own map, heavily based on that of Smith, which undercut Smith's in price. In 1807, the newly formed society had already declined to elect Smith to deserved founder membership, probably on account of his relatively modest social status, as well as professional jealousy. Smith justifiably grumbled that "the theory of geology is in the possession of one class of men, the practice in another".

After many more years of relative neglect, the early 1830s finally saw the dawning of a happy ending. Smith, somewhat deaf and rheumatic, received acclaim and honours, including the newly created premier medal (Wollaston) of the Geological Society of London, a pension for life from the government, and a doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin. He attempted an autobiography, but had never attained sufficient fluency with the pen for such a task.

The scope and style of Winchester's text will appeal not only to a wide non-geological readership but also to geologists themselves. The latter are, of course, fully aware of Smith's canonical status in geology, but relatively few are likely to be familiar with the integrated facts of his life and work, or with the formidable trials he had to overcome to achieve his goals. This book can be recommended as an outstanding example of an increasingly fashionable genre in which the lives and achievements of some of the greatest unsung heroes of science and technology are publicised.

Stephen Moorbath is emeritus professor of earth sciences, University of Oxford.

The Map that Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science

Author - Simon Winchester
ISBN - 0 670 88407 3
Publisher - Viking
Price - £12.99
Pages - 338

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