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From rocks to ruin and back again


William Smith, who was born was born on this day in 1769, published the world's first geological map in 1815. His map "changed the world". For awhile it wasn't certain he would survive it.

His personal tragedy points to the importance of protecting copyright. Smith lost his whole investment to plagiarists who stole his map and published it. He was sent to debtors' prison.

The young supervisor of construction on a coal canal, Smith had experienced an epiphany after being lowered into a coal mine and observing different layers of strata -

On the evening of 5 January 1796, he was sitting in a coaching inn in Somerset when he jotted down the notion that would eventually make his reputation. To interpret rocks, there needs to be some means of correlation, a basis on which you can tell that those carboniferous rocks from Devon are younger than these Cambrian rocks from Wales. Smith's insight was to realize that the answer lay with fossils. At every change in rock strata certain species of fossils disappeared while others carried on into subsequent levels. By noting which species appeared in which strata, you could work out the relative ages of rocks wherever they appeared. (From Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything)

For 20 years 'Strata' Smith, as he was called, travelled all over Britain to locate, identify and map rock layers below the surface of the earth. He created a map whose colours identified different strata. His story is described in Simon Winchester's The Map that Changed the World, Rocks, Ruin and Redemption.

Eventually William Smith's contributions were recognized. He was released from prison, and received the Wollastan Medal, geology's "Nobel Prize". In 1838 he was appointed one of the commissioners to select building-stone for the new Palace of Westminster. Mapping strata became pretty indispensable to oil, gold and diamond exploration.

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