Smith, William

views updated Jun 11 2018


(b. Churchill, Oxfordshire, England, 23 March 1769; d. Northampton England, 28 August 1839) geology.

Smith’s father, John, was a village blacksmith; but his grandparents and great-grandparents were small farmers in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. His mother, Ann, daughter of an unrelated William Smith, was also descended from a farming family. William was the eldest of five children and was only seven when his father died. His first eighteen years were spent in the village of Churchill,with the exception of two years spent in London. He attended the village school until he was eleven: there he learned simple arithmetic and how to write in a good, clear hand. Later, with some older friends and neighbors, he pursued further studies, including mathematics.

The year 1787, when he was eighteen, was a turning point in Smith’s life. A local surveyor, Edward Webb of Stow-on-the-Wold, came Churchill to make a detailed survey of the parish preparatory to the enclosure of the common lands. He needed the assistance of an intelligent lad to hold the chain and to take notes, and Smith got the job. Evidently Webb realized that he had made a good choice, for he took Smith into his business, carried on in the large house (now known as Manor House) on the corner of the market square in Stow. Here Smith lived with Webb and his family for nearly five years. There is no evidence that he was articled to Webb, but he learned all the duties of a land surveyor and valuer and must have become well qualified.

In the autumn of 1791 Webb sent Smith to survey and value an estate in north Somerest. He went there on foot and lodged at Rugborne Farm, near High Littleton, about eight miles southwest of Bath. Smith later designated this farmhouse “the birth-place of English geology.” for it was there that he began to think about the succession of the strata. The house is still standing, almost unaltered since Smith lodged there. At that time the district had many active coal mines, and Smith went underground to examine some of them and draw plans. He also prepared a map of High Littleton that still exists.

In 1793 Smith was engaged by a group of local landowners to make a survey for a proposed canal, on which the coal from their mines could be carried to a wider market at a lower cost. In March 1794 he gave evidence before Parliament in connection with the act authorizing the canal construction; and in August he went with two members of the canal committee on a carriage tour to the north of England to see other canals and collieries. The tour provided him with valuable additions to his knowledge of the strata, a subject in which he was increasingly interested. While in London he had visited booksellers in order to find books on geology, but with little success.

Work on the canal, which became known as the Somerset Coal Canal, began in July 1795. Two branches, each extending from the coal-mining areas along nearly parallel valleys and each about six miles long, were to be constructed. From their meeting point a canal two miles long would connect with the Kennet and Avon Canal, also under construction: the latter was intended to link Bath with the towns of Newbury and Reading in the Thames Valley.

Smith was employed by the Canal Company from 1794 to 1799; and during this period, he became familiar with the strata through which the canal passed, from Triassic marls to the Lias and Oolites of the Jurassic. He collected fossils, and his notes show that by January 1796 he had made the great discovery that lithologically similar beds can be distinguished by the assemblage of fossils found in them, a concept virtually unrecognized by the geologists of that period. He also began to color maps to show how the different beds outcropped around the neighboring hills. In June 1799 his engagement with the Canal Company was terminated; and about this time he dictated to two local clergymen, Joseph Townsend and Benjamin Richardson, both collectors of fossils, a list of the strata found around Bath and the fossils characteristic of each. This list is deservedly famous. A contemporary copy, and also a map by Smith of the country five miles around Bath “colored geologically in 1799,” is held by the Geological Society of London.

Smith had already drained some land for local landowners, and this type of work offered him prospects of traveling about the country and seeing more of its geology. In 1800 he was employed by a famous landowner and agriculturist Thomas Coke of Holkham in Norfolk; and in 1801 Coke introduced him to Francis, Duke of Bedford, who then employed Smith on his Woburn estate. Both Coke and the duke held large annual meetings on their estates to coincide with the June sheepshearings, and these were attended by many prominent landowners, including distinguished foreigners. From 1801 Smith went to these meetings, exhibited his maps, and talked about geology and its economic value. Several small maps of England and Wales colored geologically by Smith around 1801– 1803 are still extant.

In 1802 Smith first met Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, and explained his ideas to him. Banks greeted Smith’s proposal for a geological map of England and Wales with enthusiasm and encouraged him to complete it. Smith had already issued a printed prospectus, dated 1 June 1801, of his projected work; and a list of subscribers had been opened. The book was to be called “Accurate Delineations and Descriptions of the Natural Order of the Various Strata That Are Found in Different Parts of England and Wales” it was to be accompanied by a “correct map of the strata.”

Nevertheless, during the next ten years, Smith’s only publication was a nongeological book on irrigation and water meadows (1806). From this venture he learned that books are not necessarily profitable to their authors. He continued to make numerous notes and write portions of his proposed work on geology but was constantly employed on different projects and had little spare time for concentrated writing, even though he employed an amanuensis to copy his notes. His work varied from the construction of sea defenses on the east coast of England and in South Wales, to supervising sinkings for coal in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and to reporting on the values of estates. In 1804 he leased a large house in London. There he set up his collection of fossils on sloping shelves to represent the different strata. This collection was inspected in 1808 by members of the newly formed Geological Society of London.

In 1812 a London map engraver and publisher, John Cary, offered to publish Smith’s geological map of England and Wales on a scale of five miles to the inch. Plates were specially engraved, and Smith himself decided what place names were to be inserted. During 1813 and 1814 he added the geological lines: and when the coloring was carried out he insisted on the use of a novel feature—each formation was colored a darker shade at its base to make clear how the beds were superimposed. In May 1815 the completed map, A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, With part of Scotland, was exhibited in London to the Board of Agriculture, to the Royal Institution, and to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. This society had offered annually since 1802 a premium of fifty guineas for a mineralogical map of England and Wales. Smith received this award. By March 1816, 250 copies of the geological map had been colored and issued to subscribers: most of the maps were numbered and signed by Smith and duly noted in his diary. Probably 400 copies in all were issued, of which fewer than a hundred are known to be extant.

The map was sold at five guineas (£5.25) a copy, but the costs of production and coloring must have absorbed most of the proceeds. About this time he found himself in severe financial difficulties. In 1812 he had leased a quarry near the Coal Canal and had set up a sawmill and stoneworks under the management of his brother John; but the stone proved to be of poor quality because the quarry was intersected by unsuspected faults. Smith’s debts had rapidly increased. For this reason he decided to sell his vast collection of fossils, arranged stratigraphically, to the British Museum: and he began negotiations with the government in 1815. Unfortunately the sum he eventually received was well below his expectations–£500 in installments with a further £100 in 1818 for some additional fossils. About 2,000 of these fossils, mostly bearing Smith’s original reference marks, are still in the collections of the British Museum (Natural History). Also, museum officials demanded a catalog: and Smith had to give much time to its compilation, although he was aided by his nephew John Phillips, then aged fifteen.

Despite his difficulties, during the next few years Smith published several works. Strata identified by Organized Fossils, in four parts (London, 1816–1819), in which fossils from the London Clay (Tertiary) down to the Fuller’s Earth Rock (Middle Jurassic) were shown on nineteen colored plates. Stratigraphical System of Organized Fostsih Part I (London, 1817) described fossils from the London Clay down to the Marlstone Lias, with particular reference to those purchased by the British Museum, and contained a “Geological Table of British Organised Fossils Which Identify the Course and Continuity of the Strata in Their Order of Superposition, as Originally Discovered by W. Smith Civil Engineer: With Reference to His Geological Map of England and Wales.” This table was also issued separately and later was included in a volume of geological sections (1819), five large folding sheets of hand‐colored panoramic horizontal sections, different parts of southern England. A geological section from London to Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, usually included in this work, had also been issued separately in 1817.

Cary, who published these geological sections, now provided Smith with maps of the English counties to color geologically: and in May 1819 geological maps of Kent, Sussex, Norfolk, and Wiltshire were published. This work continued up to 1824, In all. Twenty‐four maps of twenty‐one counties were issued: Yorkshire, the largest; English county, required four sheets. Other country maps were in an advanced state of preparation, but never appeared with geological coloring.

From 1820 Smith lived in the north of England. For many years he had no settled home—but lived in lodgings wherever his work or inclination led him. During 1824 and 1825 he and his nephew John Phillips (who later became professor of geology at Oxford) lectured on geology in several Yorkshire towns, but rheumatism and increasing deafness made it difficult for Smith to continue this occupation. In 1828 he was offered a post as land steward to Sir John Johnstone of Hackness (a village near Scarborough in Yorkshire), a great admirer of Smith’s work. Smith lived at Hackness for about five years and while there mapped, on a scale of six-and-a-half inches to the mile, the Jurassic rocks of the Hackness Hills. This beautiful and accurate map was published in 1832.

In 1831 Adam Sedgwick, president of the Geological Society of London, announced that the first Wollaston Medal had been awarded to Smith “in consideration of his being a great original discoverer in English Geology; and especially for his having been the first, in this country, to discover and teach the identification of strata, and to determine their succession by means of their imbedded fossils” (Proceedings of the Geological Society, 1 [1834], 271). The gold medal (not then ready) was presented to Smith the following year at the British Association meeting in Oxford. This recognition of Smith’s fundamental contribution to geology was followed by an award by the government of an annuity of £100. In 1835 whilst at a British Association meeting the LL.D. was bestowed on him at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1834 he left Hackness to live at Scarborough, and in 1835 moved into Newborough Cottage, Bar Street. He regularly attended the annual meetings of the British Association, to which he twice contributed papers; and at Scarborough he spent many hours writing reminiscences, fragments of geology, and notes on many topics.

Smith’s last geological task was performed in 1838, when he accompanied Henry de la Beehe. director of the newly established Geological Survey, Charles Barry, the architect, and C. H. Smith, a sculptor and mason, on a horse-and-carriage tour of the principal quarries of England and Scotland in order to choose a suitable stone for the new Houses of Parliament. On this tour particular attention was paid to the condition of the stone in old abbeys and churches. In 1839 the official report recommended the use of a magnesian limestone from certain quarries at Bolsover Moor, Derbyshire. As building proceeded, the supply of stone proved inadequate; and further supplies of magnesian limestone were obtained from the Anston quarries eight miles to the north in Yorkshire. Although this stone proved excellent when used for the Museum of Practical Geology, opened in 1851, it failed badly in parts of the Parliament buildings; and as early as 1861 an inquiry was held about its decay. The present view is that the stone was unsuitable for the highly decorated Parliament buildings, although satisfactory for the classic style of the museum. Smith’s notes made at the time of the tour indicate that he was well aware of the many factors that can affect the condition of stone buildings. Had he not died suddenly from a chill on his way to a British Association meeting in Brimingham, his specialized knowledge and supervision might have made a marked difference in the selection of stone for the more deeply sculptured portions of the Houses of Parliament.

Smith’s contributions to the advancement of geology were chiefly practical and were based on field geology; and to seek in his works, published or unpublished, theoretical considerations of a profound nature is a waste of time. Smith was a surveyor, a working man, not an academic; and he saw his discoveries as tools that could be used to promote the economic development of his country, in agriculture and in industry. Many of his unpublished notes confirm this viewpoint.

It is perhaps not widely realized how the geological succession in England itself contributed to William Smith’s rapid progress in interpreting its order. In England it is possible to find sedimentary rocks of every age from Precambrian through Paleozoic to Mesozoic and Tertiary, and only the older Paleozoic rocks are so folded and compressed that interpretation of their succession is difficult. In only a few places in England does the intrusion of granites or other igneous rocks cause some disorder and irregularity; local folding and faulting also occur, but the intense folding and faulting that gave rise to the complicated Alpine structures of Europe reached only the very south of England, as minor ripples. Nor are there vast gaps in the succession, such as occur, for example, in the eastern United States, where the Jurassic beds are entirely absent and Cretaceous sediments directly overlie Triassic ones. In the former kingdom of Saxony, where Werner sought to distinguish “formations.” the Jurassic rocks are also absent and the Cretaceous ones rest directly on Paleozoic or even older rocks.

This view is confirmed by T. H. Huxley, in his address to the British Association in 1881, “The Rise and Progress of Palaeontology.” He stated that “this modest land-surveyor, whose business took him into many parts of England, profited by the peculiarly favourable conditions offered by the arrangement of our secondary strata ...” (Collected Essays, IV [London, 1895], 37).

Unlike certain naturalists, Smith did not concern himself with the extinction of species or the living analogues of fossils. His knowledge of biology was minimal and he regarded fossils solely as a means of identifying a particular stratum, such as the Cornbrash or the Coral Rag. He did not recognize any age difference in these beds. Hence his approach was quite different from that of the naturalists Buffon and Soulavie, who earlier had concluded that rocks containing fossils of which there were no known living representatives must be older than those containing fossils part or all of which resembled creatures living in modern oceans. Smith did, however, recognize before 1800 that fossils worn by attrition found in alluvial beds indicated that the beds were deposited later than those containing the unworn fossils.

Smith’s major achievements were (1) the recognition of a regular succession in the strata of England, first confirmed in the southwest and then established across most of the country; (2) the discovery that many individual beds have a characteristic fossil content that can be used to distinguish them from other beds that are lithologically similar; and (3) the utilization of these two discoveries in the preparation of a large-scale geological map of the whole country. Since this map was Smith’s first geological publication, it is necessary to make clear how his discoveries became known long before its publication in 1815.

The earliest extant list of English strata prepared by Smith was written in 1797; more than twenty different strata from Chalk (Cretaceous) down to the Coal Measures and the limestone (Carboniferous) beneath them are briefly described, but no reference is made to fossils. His next list, dictated to Richardson and Townsend in June 1799, enumerated the strata around Bath, their particular characteristics, and the fossils found in certain beds. Twenty-three different beds are named, from Chalk to Coal; and in most cases the thickness of each, as then known to Smith, is given. Under the heading “Fossils, petrifactions, &c., &c.” are listed the fossils found in ten of the named beds. Their names were provided mostly by the two clergymen. Besides the general terms ammonite, belemnite, and gryphite, more specific ones—high-waved cockle, prickly cockle, and large Scollop— are also given. These details were written down in tabular form by Richardson, and copies were made. Although the table was not printed until 1815, when it was inserted in a memoir accompanying the map, it is certain that manuscript copies were in circulation within a year or so, at first apparently unknown to Smith himself. To whom copies were distributed is not known, although in 1831 Richardson stated that he “without reserve gave a card of the English strata to Baron Rosencrantz, Dr Muller of Christiana, and many others, in the year 1801” (Proceedings of the Geological Society, 1 [1834], 276).

The first printed account of Smith’s order of strata and of the fossils contained in different beds was published in the Reverend Richard Warner’s History of Bath (Bath, 1801). Although brief and incomplete—and clearly not fully understood by Warner himself—on account of the date of publication it is of considerable significance. Warner, a Bath curate and also a well-known author, lived at Widcombe Cottage, situated between Bath and the Coal Canal. He was acquainted with Smith, who examined Warner’s collection of fossils and arranged them stratigraphically. In the History of Bath, a short chapter (pp. 394–399) is entitled “Mineralogy and Fossilogy of Bath”, in this Warner stated that he would give a general view of the strata and their “fossilogical contents” and that a “more scientific and particular account” would soon be given in a work written by “the very ingenious Mr. Smith, of Midford, near Bath ...” Warner then briefly described the principal strata found near Bath, the “Forest Marble,” the Bath freestone (Upper Oolite), the fuller’s‐earth beds the lower freestone (Inferior Oolite), the sands and marls beneath it. and the Lias. Each description included the names (in a far more detailed from than in Smith’s 1799 list) of the fossils associated with the particular bed. This account seems to be the first printed description of a succession of different strata accompanied by details of their fossil content, and it was certainly derived from Smith. The account could have been read by many visitors to Bath, where there were several subscription libraries.

After 1800 Smith’s knowledge of the English strata and its fossils was made known to others by Richardson (whose rectory near Bath was frequented by many persons interested in geology); by Farey, who from 1806 published references to Smith and his discoveries; and by Townsend, who published The Character of Moses Established for Veracity as an Historian (Bath, 1813). Although this title appears to have little connection with geology, the book contains a detailed account of the English strata from Chalk to Carboniferous Limestone, with plates illustrating the fossils from different formations. Townsend readily acknowledged his debt to Smith and used a number of Smith’s names for different strata, names designated “uncouth” by geologists of the Wernerian school but still familiar to every English geologist.

In 1822, W. D. Conybeare and W. Phillips wrote that Smith “had freely communicated the information he possessed in many quarters, till in fact it became by oral diffusion the common property of a large body of English geologists, and thus contributed to the progress of the science many quarters where the author was little known” (Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales [London, 1822]. Xlv).

Smith’s great work, Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales With Part of Scotland, was undoubtedly a major cartographic and scientific achievement. It represented about 65,000 square miles, was the first large-scale geological map of any country, and was based on the scientific principles discovered by Smith himself. Moreover, the coloring was designed to indicate not only the surface area of any one geological formation, but, by using a deeper shade along the base of a formation. an attempt was also made to show how the beds were superimposed; thus a structural factor was introduced.

This map owed remarkably little to the work of others. Smith’s manuscript maps of 1801 and 1802 show his early grasp of the general succession across England: and a comparison of his 1815 map with a modern geological map of England, on the same scale, shows the extent of his knowledge. Errors, of course, were made, and the more important were pointed out in 1818 by Fitton (Edinburgh Review, 29 , 310–337). But the amount of correct detail that Smith recorded is amazing and still impresses modern geologists. A stratigraphical succession of twenty-one sedimentary beds or groups of beds was shown in different colors, and one more color was used for large masses of granite or other crystalline rocks, Different signs were used to indicate mines of tin, lead. and copper: for collieries; and for salt and alum works. Not content with the map as issued in 1815, during the next few years Smith continued to make small alterations and additions, marked by changes of coloring and engraving. A noteworthy addition, made soon after April 1816. was the insertion of another limestone distinguished by its fossils, the Coral Rag, colored in orange. This outcrop was added first in Berkshire. Oxfordshire Somerset. and Wiltshire and later, perhaps in 1817, Yorkshire.

Smith’s other cartographic publications his geological sections across parts of England and his country mapsdemonstrate his continued interest in field geology and its economic importance. This interest is particularly well shown by his four-sheet map of Yorkshire (1821), which has many details concerning the coal seams and their accompanying grits and sandstones.

Although Smith’s map was superseded in 1820 by the geological map compiled by Greenough (published by the Geological Society), his county maps were used by geologists for many years; and their value was acknowledged by Sedgwick in 1831 (Proceedings of the Geological Society, 1 278).

Smith’s two publications on fossils. Strata identified and Stratigraphical system, were complementary to his cartographic work. They appeared at a time when some prominent geologists were still unwilling to admit the value of fossils in determining the stratigraphical succession, but within a few years this opposition was overcome. Smith’s publications no doubt contributed to the changed outlook. Certainly no one could deny Smith’s right to the title “Founder of Stratigraphical Geology.”


I. Original Works. All known publications by Smith are listed in joan M. Eyles. “William Smith (1769–1839): A Bibliography of His Published Writings, Maps and Geological Sections. Printed and Lithographed,” in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 5 (1969), 87–109. A large collection of his MSS is in the possession of the Department of Mineralogy and Geology. University of Oxford. His portrait In oils by Fourau (1837) is owned by the Geological Society of London.

II. Secondary Literature. John Phillips published a biography soon after his uncle’s death: Memoirs of William Smith, LLD. (London, 1844). This work was the principal source of information about Smith until the discovery of his papers at Oxford in 1938. These were examined and arranged by L. R. Cox, who gave an account of them in “New Light on William Smith and His Work.” in Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 25 (1942), 1–99. A detailed and well-illustrated, although uncritical, account of Smith’s principal publications is in T. Sheppard, “William Smith: His Maps and Memoirs,” ibid, 19 (1917). 75–253; repr. (Hull. 1920). Both Sheppard and Cox provide extensive bibliographies, that by Cox being supplemental to Sheppard’s An account of Smith’s 1797 MS list is given by J, A. Douglas and L. R. Cox, “An Early List of Strata by William Smith,” in Geological Magazine, 86 (1849). 180– 188.

The principal sources of information about Smith available to 1967 are described by J. M. Eyles in “William Smith: Some Aspects of His Life and Work.” in C.J. Sehneer, ed., Toward a History of Geology, (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), 142–158; details of Smith’s work as related to the construction of the Somerset Coal Canal are also in this paper. Smith’s work in Somerset is also described by John G. C. M. Fuller, “The Industrial Basis of Stratigraphy: John Stracbey, 1671–1743 and William Smith. 1769–1839.” in American Associatio of Petroleum Geologist Bulletin, 53 (1969), 2256–2273.

A useful collection of quotations by and about Smith is in D, A, Bassett. “William Smith, the Father of English Geology and Stratigraphy; An Anthology.” in Geology: Journal of the Association of Teachers of Geology, 1 (1696), 38–51. One aspect of Smith’s economic work is described by J. M, Eyles. “William Smith (1769–1839) and the Search for Coal in Great Britain,” in Gealogie, 20 (1971), 710–714; his interest in technological developments is described in “William Smith, Richard Trevithick and Samuel Hormfray: Their Correspondence on Steam Engines, 1804–06.” in Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 43 (1974), 137–161: and the correct identification of Smith’s property near Bath is made in “William Smith’s Home Near Bath: the Real Tucking Mill.” in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History7 (1974) 29–34 A detailed account of the progressive changes in Smith’s 1815 map is in V. A. Eyles and J. M. Eyles, “On the Different Issues of the First Geological Map of England and Wales.” in Annals of Science, 3 (1938), 190–212.

A journey by Smith in 1813 is described by J. E. Hemingway and J. S. Owen, “William Smith and the Jurassic Coals of Yorkshire.” in Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 40 (1975), 297–308.and an account of his lectures in Yorkshire is given by J.M. Edmonds, “The Geological Lecture-Courses Given in Yorkshire by William Smith and John Phillips. 1824–1825,” ibid.,40 (1975), 373–412.

Joan M. Eyles

Smith, William (1769-1839)

views updated May 23 2018

Smith, William (1769-1839)

English geologist and cartographer

William Smith is often called the founder of English geology , and the founder of stratigraphical geology. His interests in fossils and the countryside led to a method to identify rock strata, along with the first large-scale geological maps of any country. Smith contributed many practical innovations to the embryonic science of geology, and rose from humble beginnings to become a well known and respected scientific figure.

Smith was the eldest son of a village blacksmith, in Churchill, Oxfordshire. His father died when he was still young, and he was sent to live on his Uncle's nearby farm. He attended the small local school, receiving a limited education, but his interest in mathematics was encouraged by friends and relatives, who gave him further tuition. Smith's local reputation as an intelligent boy led him to become employed as an assistant to the surveyor Edward Webb. Webb initially employed Smith to take notes, hold the chain, and other trivial tasks, but was impressed enough to take the eighteen-year-old Smith into his home in Stow and give him an apprenticeship.

Surveying took Smith across much of England, and it was while in Somerset, just outside of Bath, that Smith began to formulate some key ideas. The area had many coal mines, and Smith was allowed to go into many to observe the rock strata. In 1795, he was employed by local landowners to survey a coal transportation canal, and this work offered Smith further observations of the local rocks. He had a keen interest in fossils, taking many samples in the course of his work. Smith began to speculate that there was a link between the types of fossils and the rock they were found in. He also began to make his first maps of the local rock structures.

After his work on the Bath canal was finished, in 1799, Smith traveled widely, performing a number of small engineering and surveying jobs, in which he observed much more of the English rock strata. While Smith discussed his ideas with many influential men, it was not until 1802 that his ideas began to be widely appreciated in the English scientific community. In that year he met Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society. Banks encouraged Smith to produce a book containing his ideas and maps. However, more than ten years were to pass before Smith produced any geological work. The pressures of work and some financial worries forced Smith to postpone and delay his writing.

In 1815, Smith, with the help of map engraver John Cary, finished his first of many geological maps, A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, With part of Scotland. Aside from being the first geological map of an entire country, it was also notable for the innovative use of colored contours to make differentiation clear. The map was well received, being exhibited to the Royal Institution, and Smith received an endowment from the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce of fifty pounds.

A year later, over 250 copies of the map had been printed, and while they sold for the hefty price of five guineas (five and a quarter pounds) there were high printing costs. Smith found himself in grave financial difficulties at this time, mainly from a bad investment in a poor rock quarry, and was forced to sell his vast collection of fossils to the British Museum. He also encountered resistance to his rise in social status, in particular from the Geological Society of London president George Greenough. Greenough blocked Smith's membership, and produced a competing map which was cheaper.

Encouraged by his printer, Smith began to publish many more writings and smaller maps of the English counties, and finally he published a work on fossils, the four volume Strata Identified by Organized Fossils (181619). This presented Smith's observation that fossils of the same type always appeared in the same rock strata, and so could be used to identify the rocks. Smith also began to give lectures on his ideas in the North of England, where he was accompanied by his nephew John Phillips, who later became professor of Geology at Oxford University.

Smith began to suffer from arthritis, and became quite deaf, and was forced to give up lecturing. He became the land steward of Sir John Johnstone of Hackness, in Yorkshire. This gave him the opportunity to study the area in fine detail, and in 1832 he produced a map of the district to the scale of six and a half inches to the mile.

The Geological Society of London, under a new president, awarded Smith the first Wollaston Medal for his work in 1831, and he was given a number of other awards and degrees in recognition of his contributions to geology. He was also given a government pension, and finally achieved a degree of economic security, if somewhat late in life. He was selected as a member of the group to select the stone for the new Houses of Parliament, but once again he had bad luck with quarries, and the stone failed to withstand the detailed carvings of the ornately decorated buildings. However, Smith actually died before the final selection of stone was made, and his notes suggest he had some reservations about the quality of the stone.

Smith died in 1839, after catching a chill on his way to a meeting of the British Association in Birmingham. His work was mainly practical, and he stressed the commercial benefits that could be gained from his work. His mapping of strata enabled others to deduce areas of likely coal sources, and his many county maps remained in use for decades after his death. Some historians have commented that he was lucky that England has such 'well behaved' rock strata, as opposed to continental Europe where alpine folding made interpretation difficult. However, Smith should still be given credit for recognizing details others did not, and for making his ideas public.

See also Fossil record; Geologic map; Stratigraphy

William Smith

views updated May 29 2018

William Smith


English Mineral Surveyor, Engineer and Geologist

William Smith grew up in the small village of Churchill in southern England, where he received his only formal education at the village school. At the age of 18 Smith took a job as an assistant to a surveyor named Edward Webb, and this experience led to his employment as a surveyor with the Somerset Coal Canal Company. Smith helped to engineer the canals, which were the transport highways for barges carrying the goods that were the lifeblood of the early part of the industrial revolution in England. He gathered information about the rock into which the canals were dug and paid particular attention to the fossils contained within the rock layers. Smith grew particularly interested in the vertical changes in the layers of rocks. The data he collected led him to recognize widespread regularity in rock successions and to realize that rock strata could be distinguished from each other by the fossils that they contained.

Smith kept detailed notes on the geology and through oral discussions of his discoveries generally made them known before he published them. His lack of formal schooling made publication difficult at first for Smith. However, in 1815 Smith published A Map of the Strata of England and Wales, with Part of Scotland, the first detailed geologic survey of England. This eight-foot-by-six-foot geologic map surpassed all others that had been made before, not only in size but also in area covered and stratigraphic detail. Smith's map covered areas where there was little natural exposure of rock. This made the map particularly valuable, because it was extremely useful in the planning for future canals, quarries, mines, and as a guide to soil types. Smith realized that soil type is directly related to the underlying bedrock. By examining Smith's geologic map, it was now possible to predict throughout a large part of England what type of rock would be found near the surface and, most importantly, the successive layers of rock that lay beneath the surface of Earth. In addition to his famous map Smith also published several small volumes on the identification of strata by fossils between 1815 and 1820. In 1820 he moved to northern England, where he lectured on geology from 1824 to 1828 and subsequently (1828-33) worked as a land steward.

William "Strata" Smith, as he has become to be known, is most remembered for his revolutionary discovery that fossils are not randomly distributed in rocks, and that fossils in sedimentary rocks occur in a particular vertical order that is predictable. The idea that fossils were distinctive of individual stratum or groups of strata and that distinctive assemblages of fossils could be traced cross-country led geologists to realize that the sequences of fossils in England could be matched with similar sequences elsewhere in the world. Geologists took note of Smith's techniques and, using the principles of rock-type division and fossil correlation, quickly recognized major stratigraphic divisions throughout Europe and the eastern United States. The basic ideas of rock correlation and fossil succession that Smith recognized in the late eighteenth century are the fundamentals of rock correlation that are practiced to this day. In recognition of his contribution to the science of geology, the Geological Society of London awarded Smith the first Wollaston Medal in 1831, and he later received a pension from the British government.



In the era of William Smith (and Jane Austen), Bath was the busiest, most exciting destination in Britain. The streets were crowded with aristocrats, celebrities, the newly rich, and curious tourists, all eating, drinking, shopping, gambling, and attending parties, music, and theater. The main attractions, though, were the natural hot springs, famous since Roman times for their curative properties and widely prescribed as a medical therapy. Patients immersed themselves in the steamy baths and drank the sulphurous mineral water in copious quantities at the fashionable Pump Room.

When the hot springs showed signs of diminishing in 1808, city authorities turned anxiously to their resident expert, William Smith. Smith knew about groundwater from his experience building canals, and he was working at an attempted coal mine nearby that was constantly flooded. Smith noticed that one of the affected hot baths filled more quickly on Monday than on Saturday, which he attributed to the fact that the leaking mine was not pumped out on Sunday. He then devised a way to plug the hole, restoring the flow to the hot springs and halving the time required to fill the bath. The city praised Smith's knowledge and skill, but as a working man he nevertheless remained excluded from the high society that his efforts supported.

William Smith

views updated Jun 08 2018

William Smith

William Smith (1727-1803) was a Scottish-born American educator and churchman whose innovative educational ideas and leadership of the Philadelphia Academy during its formative years significantly influenced American education.

William Smith was born in Aberdeen on Sept. 7, 1727. He was educated in the local parish schools and attended the University of Aberdeen (1743-1747). In 1751 he sailed to New York to be a tutor to the sons of a rich Long Island family. In 1753 Smith published a pamphlet entitled A General Idea of the College of Mirania …, which outlined his utopian ideas for an educational institution appropriate to the new country. There were to be two branches: a Latin school for the "learned professions"; and an English school for the "mechanic professions" with a "useful" curriculum containing no ancient languages. The curriculum for both was essentially secular and included such practical studies as writing, bookkeeping, and French. Such educational ideas were not new in America; they reflected Benjamin Franklin's academy proposals, as well as innovations current in Scotland, but they were broad in conception compared to existing colonial institutions. Smith sent a copy to Franklin and in 1754 went to head the newly formed Philadelphia Academy and College. Over the next 25 years he guided the institution generally along the lines stated in Mirania.

Smith became an Anglican priest in 1753 and throughout his life was a strong influence in Church affairs. In 1758 he married Rebecca Moore. He became active in conservative politics during these years, and with the onset of the Revolution he held a loyalist position in fierce opposition to Franklin and the liberals. When the General Assembly revoked the charter of the academy in 1779 on grounds of subversion and issued another charter for a new university of the state of Pennsylvania, Smith left Philadelphia. For 10 years he lived in Maryland, where he organized a new institution, Washington College, and became its first president. During this time Smith, along with other Church leaders, managed to reinstitute the Anglican Church in America as the Protestant Episcopal Church, a name he is supposed to have suggested.

In 1789, when the political winds changed and the original charter of the academy was restored, Smith returned to Philadelphia. Two years later the General Assembly chartered the present University of Pennsylvania, uniting it with the existing university. Smith, however, was not named head. He retired to his country estate near Philadelphia, where he died on May 14, 1803.

Further Reading

Albert Frank Gegenheimer, William Smith: Educator and Churchman (1943), is a full biography of Smith; though somewhat uncritical in viewing Smith's inspirational influence on his students, it thoroughly explores his literary and clerical associations. Studies of the educational ideas of the day areBenjamin Franklin on Education, edited by John Hardin Best (1962), and Frederick Rudolph, ed., Essays on Education in the Early Republic (1965). Smith's leadership in educational organizing is examined in Edward Potts Cheyney, History of the University of Pennsylvania (1940).

Additional Sources

Jones, Thomas Firth, A pair of lawn sleeves; a biography of William Smith (1727-1803), Philadelphia, Chilton Book Co. 1972. □

Smith, William

views updated May 08 2018

Smith, William (1769–1839) A land surveyor engaged on canal construction whose work led him to see that strata could be identified and correlated by their fossil content. In 1815 he published the first geologic map and sections of England, showing the sequence of strata.

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