Whether William Smith was the founder of modern geology, as Simon Winchester claims, or is more deserving of the more narrow, but still impressive, title of the founder of stratigraphical geology given him by an earlier biographer, is for the experts in the history of geology to debate. What is unquestionable is that he was one of the pivotal figures in the history of geology. Smith’s life illuminates not only the history of geology but also the social history of British science. Both the nature of geology and the social status of scientists were changing in Britain at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Smith was a major catalyst in the transformation of geology from a science practiced in the library to one conducted in the field. His life and career illustrate the tensions within the discipline and the alterations in the social status of those who practiced it. Yet he has been relatively ignored by historians of science.
This is surprising because he is a natural subject for a biography. Unlike many English scientists, his life was spent about as far from the cloisters of the British universities as possible. Moreover, as Winchester presents him, he can serve as an example of the common man in a desperate struggle with the immoral establishment which steals the fruits of his labors. He was the victim of an unfair social order, but also his own flaws. Ultimately, in his case good did triumph over evil, and Smith belatedly received the recognition he deserved, but only after years of poverty and insult.
The son of a village blacksmith who died when Smith was only eight, Strata Smith, as he came to be known, had only a basic education. He escaped village life to become the assistant to a surveyor at age eighteen. Through his descents into coal mines, his surveys for canals, and his travels throughout England and Wales by foot and coach, he gained unequaled practical knowledge of the geology of the country. He made two fundamental discoveries. First, he recognized that the rocks of England were arranged in layers (strata) and that these layers were generally arranged in the same order or succession throughout the country. Although others had noticed the regular succession of at least some strata, going back to the mid-seventeenth century, Smith’s discovery was made independently of these earlier observations. Second, in connection with this first discovery, he noticed that there were particular fossils associated with particular strata, and that these fossils could be used to distinguish otherwise similar looking layers. These two discoveries—the succession of strata and the association of fossils with strata—have become the two laws of stratigraphy and have transformed geology.
With the assistance of John Cary, England’s foremost mapmaker, Smith presented his knowledge of the geological strata in the form of a large-scale map (five miles to the inch), published in 1815. It was the first large-scale geological map ever published. Based entirely on Smith’s own observations, the hand-colored map shows twenty-one different layers of rock. For a pioneering effort, it was amazingly accurate and is still held in high esteem by geologists nearly two centuries later. (A small version of the map forms the book’s ingeniously folded dust jacket.) According to Winchester, Smith’s motives for publishing the map were both intellectual and mercenary. On one hand, he understood his obligation to present his discoveries to the world. On the other, he craved recognition and possible financial rewards.
To this point, Smith’s life had not been particularly happy. His wife, Mary Ann, whom he apparently married about 1808, provided neither social standing nor a stable household. He also suffered from money worries. Although he earned an excellent income, Smith seemed to prefer houses which were above his station and earnings. He also made a horrible decision to purchase a quarry which turned out to have very inferior stone. The quarry was a commercial failure. His mortgages and other debts piled up. Perhaps the map would garner him the...
(The entire section is 1670 words.)