England: The Birth of Modern Geology
In the Footsteps of William Smith, Father of Modern Geology
William Smith created the first geologic map of any significant extent -- it covered England and Wales! As a surveyor for coal mines, estate lands, and canals in the region of Bath, England from the 1790's to early 1800's, he made key observations and brilliant interpretations that revolutionized our concepts of the rocks at Earth's surface.
Born in ordinary circumstances, William Smith struggled to be recognized as a credible scientist. Therein lies my personal hero admiration for him. At the time, science was the domain of the aristocracy. Wealthy men had the time to sit and ponder, and on occasion get out and explore. A major weakness in this approach was the lack of experimentation and gathering evidence, and of accumulated expertise. Profound, sometimes world-wide conclusions would be drawn from a single rock or outcrop, usually with results we find amusing today.
William Smith's approach was different. He got his hands dirty. He made proposals (hypotheses) and tested them. He gathered copious amounts of evidence. In this aspect, he was a pioneer of modern science, not just Geology.
What Did William Smith Contribute?
William mapped the bedrock in coal mines and along canals he was hired to survey west of Bath. Unlike anyone in the world before him, he recognized that the rock layers (sedimentary rocks) were continuous across the region, always occurred in the same ordered stack, and each contained a unique set of fossils. That was The Great Epiphany from which all the rest of geology sprung. He took this new understanding and tested it by attempting to make a geologic map -- the First geologic map -- of the Bath area in 1799, and see whether his hypothesis made sense. It did, and he spent the next three decades walking across England to create and update the first geologic map of the country -- of any country -- which he first published in 1815.
We still rely on William Smith's foundation today. Without the understanding of Earth that he originated, we would not be able to explore systematically for underground resources like coal, metals, petroleum, groundwater, and even building stone and gravel. Without it, our ability to deduce the history and age of the world would be stunted, as would our understanding of the development of life on Earth. We would not have ever developed Plate Tectonics, the grand unifying theory of Earth. In short, William Smith's work was the essential springboard needed for Geology to become a rigorous and lasting science!
Bath: Geologic Foundations
One of William Smith's early jobs in the Bath area was as surveyor in the Mearns coal mine, located near High Littleton, in the hills west of Bath. Here, he developed the world's first stratigraphic column -- a graphic depiction of the ordered stack of rock layers (strata). It has been an essential tool of Geologists ever since. He recognized that both mines, though miles apart, had the same rock layers in the same order and with the same fossils in them. Nothing visible remains of the mine workings, but this is a picture of the site. Location: 51.328155, -2.501001
During his work in the coal mines and canals, William lived here at Rugbourne Farm and began to collect his immense and important fossil collection here. It's private property today and not visible from the road, so I did not enter...
Smith recognized that the canals in the area passed through the same strata in the same order, and he began to project the layers from canal to canal and into the coal mines. He was the first person in the world to recognize that the layers are consistent across broad areas -- a revolutionary concept so profound and yet so foundational that we take it for granted today. But it is the basis of everything in understanding the surface of the Earth!
I think it curious that the British government and scientific societies have not preserved these historic homes and opened them to the public. They are important scientific landmarks the likes of which other sciences and other governments have set aside to preserve.
More weathering of variably resistant depositional layers.
When you visit, be sure to pay the fee to climb to the roof and tower!
You'll cimb up hundreds of stone spiral steps like these. It's a bit claustrophobic!
I am enamored with flying buttresses! They were a brilliant stroke of genius from the minds of medieval builders that allowed walls to get taller without buckling outwards.
This is a historically monumental view! William Smith brought two interested members of a canal committee (a notable post in 1794) named Palmer and Perkins here, where for the first time he publicly proclaimed and tested his hypothesis about continuity and predictability of strata. Looking northward to the Yorkshire Moors hills, William predicted what rock layers he would find there based on his hypothesis -- not just one layer, but the whole stack of layers and the details of what they would find in each one, and how they compared to the ones he had mapped in canals and coal mines far away near Bath. Traveling to the hills, they discovered William was right, and word began to spread of his amazing work. The arrow points to the ancient Kilburn white horse.
Yorkshire Museum's William Smith Display
The display is intriguingly extensive, and follows the fascinating series of observations that led to Smith's revolutionary ideas.
As a veteran geologist, I'm amazed at William Smith's three-dimensional understanding of the bedrock! He was many decades (if not more) ahead of everyone else.
But wait, there's more! The Geological Society, of which William Smith was an early member, displays a copy of his great geologic map. The Society is located with other scientific societies just outside of Picadilly Circus in London. I happened to be there the week an NFL football game invaded.
In summary, William Smith was one of the most significant scientists of the 19th century. He invented the science of stratigraphy (the study of strata), which is a core of Geology, and his work catapulted geology forward like few have done since. His work was the essential foundation for later important work by Lyell, Darwin, and others.
"The Map That Changed the World" by Simon Winchester, available at book sellers everywhere. Highly recommended!
You can purchase a copy of William Smith's geologic map at the British Geological Society: https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discoveringGeology/geologyOfBritain/archives/williamsmith/publications.html#map1815