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In mid-September, while visiting London to meet with AAPG European Region president John Brooks and AAPG European office director Steve Veal, I had the rare opportunity to view William Smith's geological map of Great Britain — the first geological map.

Each year thousands of tourists, students and locals walk through the halls of the Geological Society of London at Burlington House, Piccadilly, to see the historic map hanging on the wall, concealed behind blue velvet curtains. (The curtains not only protect the watercolor paint, which fades under ordinary light, but also add an element of drama as they are ceremoniously opened by the Society staff.)

To understand the cultural significance surrounding Smith's map and its presence within Burlington House, consider the prevailing class structure of 19th century England: The Geological Society of London could be called a "gentlemen's club,” and about half of its members were also members of the Royal Society. GSL membership fees at the time were around 5 Guinies or 1-1/2 British pounds — a substantial sum at the time.

Smith was not without linkages to important, wealthy people, but himself was an artisan and tradesman who earned his living digging canals and draining land, without the privilege of independent income.

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In mid-September, while visiting London to meet with AAPG European Region president John Brooks and AAPG European office director Steve Veal, I had the rare opportunity to view William Smith's geological map of Great Britain — the first geological map.

Each year thousands of tourists, students and locals walk through the halls of the Geological Society of London at Burlington House, Piccadilly, to see the historic map hanging on the wall, concealed behind blue velvet curtains. (The curtains not only protect the watercolor paint, which fades under ordinary light, but also add an element of drama as they are ceremoniously opened by the Society staff.)

To understand the cultural significance surrounding Smith's map and its presence within Burlington House, consider the prevailing class structure of 19th century England: The Geological Society of London could be called a "gentlemen's club,” and about half of its members were also members of the Royal Society. GSL membership fees at the time were around 5 Guinies or 1-1/2 British pounds — a substantial sum at the time.

Smith was not without linkages to important, wealthy people, but himself was an artisan and tradesman who earned his living digging canals and draining land, without the privilege of independent income.

It was in 1820 — while Smith was in debtor's prison and unable to solicit a sponsor to publish his work — that George Greenough, an early president of the society, commissioned the drawing of his own map, using one of Smith's unpublished maps as a base.

Although Smith was never recognized as a GSL Fellow, in 1832 he became the first recipient of the Williston Medal, which to this day is the GSL's highest honor.


To view the map I was led by Edmund Nickless, GSL executive secretary, and Jackie Maggs, administrative secretary, through dimly lit hallways and peeled back polyvinyl-covered and taped doorways leading to a small room. The map had been removed from the wall and laid on a large table, carefully protected from temporary construction dust and debris, and was itself covered with polyvinyl sheeting and secured with heavy tape.

As Nickless began to tell the story of Smith and his rival Greenough he slowly removed the tape to reveal the hand colored and shaded outcrops of England and Wales.

I was first struck by the map's immense size and scale. The six-feet-wide by nine-feet-high map covers tens of thousands of square miles in area and is drawn at a scale of five miles per inch.

It was amazing to realize that Smith's depiction of the north-eastward trending outcrop patterns through England and Wales have remained essentially undisputed for nearly two centuries. (The water mark on this map reads 1828.) Apart from its size, from a distance of only a few inches I could appreciate the shear beauty of the colors and Smith's technique of coloration — each of the strata colored bold at the base and fading out until it meets the rock stratum above it.

As Nickless reminded, Smith's greatest contribution was the use of fossils to determine the age of rock and to correlate rocks stratigraphically over great distances — the tool that bestows on geologists the confidence to predict.


Beginning in January three maps will be on display at the Geological Society of London — George Greenough's 1820 map and William Smith's 1828 map of England and Wales, together with MacCullough's 1830s map of Scotland. The three maps together will show the entirety of Great Britain geology.

And On the Other Side Of the Atlantic ...

By what means William Smith's map arrived in Buffalo, N.Y., is unclear. What knowledge exists of the map's early history in AAPG's Eastern Section comes from the Buffalo and Erie County Library and now-deceased Chancy Hamlin, once president of the Buffalo Society of Natural Science (later renamed the Buffalo Museum of Science).

In the 1930s, in the midst of the Depression, Hamlin set out to collect all the major works of science, including William Smith's map. Along with Smith's map, Hamlin purchased Smith's four volumes of prints, Strata Identified by Organized Fossils (1816-1819), as well as preliminary prints of fossil drawings done by Smith's engraver and printer, James Sowerby, with hand-written notes by Smith himself. Hamlin would later be inducted into the French Legion of Honor for his work with museums.

To purchase these major scientific works, Hamlin enlisted the financial support of Buffalo locals at a time when the city was much larger than now and had a broad ethnic base. During March 1938, Hamlin appealed to the ethnic pride of nearly 25 nationalities that had immigrated to the area from England, Wales, Greece, Holland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Poland, Romania and Ukraine, and raised money by holding an enormous Mardi Gras festival attended by 6,000 people.

Then in 1996, the Buffalo Museum of Science, needing money for its endowment fund, decided to sell Hamlin's collection. The Buffalo and Erie County Library stepped in and traded an incomplete set of Audubon's Birds of America for William Smith's map and complete set of fossil prints, together with works by Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, Nicholas Steno and others — a collection of 196 first edition volumes. Hamlin named the collection "Milestones of Science." These historical works are now part of the Buffalo and Erie County Library's permanent collection.

Smith's 1815 "Map That Changed the World" was on display at the AAPG Eastern Section 35th annual meeting in Buffalo in October.

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