William Smith brought greatness to the new science of
geology in the early 1800s — but this prophet without honor drew
honors without profit.
After creating the world's first great depiction
of stratigraphy, a geological map of England and Wales, Smith landed
in debtor's prison.
Author Simon Winchester said Smith remains a little-known
figure today, even in his native England.
"He's marginally better known in the United States,
because of AAPG, than he is in his own country," he noted.
But Winchester's work may change that. His biography
of Smith, The Map That Changed the World, was released last
year to good reviews and a spot on the New York Times best seller
list — and it generated broad interest.
That may seem odd for a shadowy subject in a specialized
science, but it's exactly what Winchester had in mind. He hoped
to bring a little romance to the origins of stratigraphy.
"I feel so passionately enthusiastic about geology,"
he said, "I wanted it to come out of the shadows and be promoted
as a romantic science filled with romantic figures."
Winchester received a degree in geology at Oxford
University in 1966, then switched to reporting and writing as a
career. He became a respected foreign correspondent and a best-selling
His love for geology never left him, however, and
Smith became a natural choice for Winchester's biographical digging.
"After 30 years away from the science," he said,
"it was wonderful to rekindle my enthusiasm and remember."
Changing the World
The Map That Changed the World begins in London on
the morning of Aug. 31, 1819. William Smith — a respected geological
engineer, a genius of observation and a gifted cartographer who
had produced one of the world's great scientific works just four
years earlier — is leaving prison.
In the following chapters, Winchester describes the
50 years of Smith's life leading up to that moment.
Born in 1769 in the hamlet of Churchill, Oxfordshire,
the son of a blacksmith, Smith grew up in a world of strict religious
belief and growing scientific curiosity.
That included curiosity about the earth, as well.
The Third Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1797,
did not mention geology, Winchester noted. But the Fourth Edition,
issued in 1810, had a lengthy entry about this rapidly evolving
Geology hadn't advanced enough to interest Smith,
although he did enjoy collecting fossils. What stirred his ambition
were books on surveying. By the age of 20, Smith had already begun
a successful career.
English surveyors at that time found abundant opportunity
in canal-building. Before the steam engine, without railroads, mining
companies needed canals to move barge loads of coal to market.
Smith moved to Somerset to make a valuation survey
and clambered down the coal shafts of the area. What he saw intrigued
him, not only the coal seams but also the layers of Somerset rock.
The layers near the surface appeared stacked, he
saw, and they dipped slightly to the east. Deeper folds of rock
were twisted, folded or broken up. Smith wrote his observations
in notebooks, comparing the rock at each new location.
Still an avid fossil-gatherer, he noticed another
strange fact. The fossils found in any rock layer were unique to
that layer, no matter where he encountered it, in any part of the
He began to suspect that the order of rock layers
might be widespread. And predictable.
By chance or fate, or just because he knew the area
so well, Smith was named surveyor for the proposed Somerset Coal
Canal. The next seven years allowed him to perfect his geological
theories, as canal work cut into the English countryside.
In writing about Smith's life, Winchester touches
on events of the day, personalities, social realities and his own
observations. He said he wanted to show the human setting of scientific
"I'm thrilled in this country when people come up
and say, 'I'm a geologist' or 'My child is a geologist,'" Winchester
said. "'Thank you for bringing in the human dimension.'"
Highs and Lows
While on one of his tours of the United States, Winchester
visited the U.S. Geological Survey offices in Menlo Park, Calif.,
to discuss his biography of Smith.
"I was sort of shaking in my shoes, because I thought,
'If there's any group of people who really know their maps, it's
these folks'," he recalled.
Yet Winchester said he received the same happy reaction
from the Survey's mapmakers, a real appreciation for the human struggle
behind Smith's achievement.
Near the middle of the biography, Winchester inserts
a chapter on his own excursion along England's Jurassic outcrops.
He explains the area's geology along the way, and
his nostalgia for geologic fieldwork is obvious.
Of all the comments about his book, Winchester said,
his favorite description by a reviewer was this: "The weary old
war-horse returns to the sunlit uplands of his youth."
Soon after William Smith made his discoveries about
rock layers, he began attempts to represent them on paper. In Bath,
Smith undertook a labor of love among the ruins of Roman civilization.
In 1799 he completed "A Map of Five Miles round the City of Bath."
This was not an especially beautiful map — except,
as Winchester noted, it was the first true geological map ever created.
After leaving Somerset, Smith became a sleuth of
He traveled thousands of miles across the English
countryside, usually at his own expense. This need to verify his
geological predictions helped drain him financially.
Smith the freelance businessman needed to impress
Smith the entertainer wanted a place for friends
Smith the social climber took up residence in a mansion
by the Thames.
At the worst moment, he decided to marry. His investments
came to little or nothing. Tax collectors and creditors hounded
him. His wife eventually went insane.
And in those years his greatest achievement began.
Winchester said he most admired Smith for unbending
tenacity in the face of misfortune, or what an American might call
"What it is," he said, "is a bright and shining example
in his dogged determination to complete this project."
The heart of Winchester's book describes Smith's
great map, "A Delineation of The Strata of England and Wales with
a Part of Scotland," and the scientific apathy it immediately aroused.
It also tells the story of Smith's betrayal by the
newly formed Geological Society, and especially by a dilettante
named George Bellas Greenough. These early, upper-crust geologists
confronted Smith with their pride and prejudice, because he was
not one of them.
Under Greenough's guidance, the Geological Society
set out to issue its own map of England and Wales. And not only
did this new map draw from Smith's work, it undercut Smith in price.
"I'm jolly glad Smith lived and did what he did.
I loved him at the end of the book — and hated Greenough," Winchester
Despite his enthusiasm for Smith's work, Winchester
hesitated at first to take on such a complex scientific history.
"I was always afraid that people with a profound
knowledge of this subject would take me to task," he explained.
And in the End ...
The final chapters of the biography could be called
His groundbreaking geological concepts began to receive
the attention he thought they deserved. The Geological Society,
which had denied him membership, awarded him its first Wollaston
Medal in 1831.
Today, the AAPG Bookstore offers a poster of "William
Smith's Cross Sections, 1819," edited by John Fuller, a joint publication
with the Geological Society.
Smith retired comfortably enough, thanks to a wealthy
patron in Yorkshire. He became well-known to geologists and attended
professional meetings, though Winchester described him as "not scientifically
"One thing which I didn't bring out in the book sufficiently
was the way at the close of his life he would go to these meetings
and people would pat him on the back and say, 'Thank you for doing
this wonderful thing,'" Winchester said.
"Then he would lean back and listen to the lectures
and not understand a single thing."
Encyclopedias now describe Smith as the founder of
To the geologists who followed him, and even to many
geologists today, he's known simply as Strata Smith.