William Smith and the First National Geological Map

Friday was the last day of teaching term here at the University of Sussex. Aided by the general winding down of things I managed the unusual feat of geting up to London in time to catch some of the monthly discussion meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, which was on A Critical Assessment of Cluster Cosmology. Usually I only just manage to get there in time for some of the Ordinary Meeting which follows the specialist meetings at 4pm. And sometimes I only get there in time for the drinks reception at Burlington House followed by the RAS Club dinner at the Athenaeum!

I may write something about Cluster Cosmology if I get time before Christmas, but I thought I’d post an item now inspired by one of the talks in the Ordinary Meeting by Tom Sharpe of Lyme Regis Museum and Cardiff University. This talk was timed to mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of the first ever geological map of England and Wales in 1815. To make it even more topical, the talk was given in the lecture theatre of the Geological Society of London where an original print of the Map is on permanent display:

William Smith Map

The person responsible for this map, which was the first to show nationwide geological strata, was a chap called William Smith who surveyed England and Wales on foot and on horseback, travelling over 10,000 miles to make it. It was a remarkable achievement which, among many other things, led the way to great changes in the understanding of geological time. Unfortunately his work didn’t have much impact when it was first published. Smith, who was evidently not a very astute businessman, eventually went bankrupt and spent some time in a debtor’s prison.

The map itself is extremely beautiful as well as very clever in the way it uses colours and shading to represent three-dimensional information on a two dimensional surface.

Anyway, there is a book  entitled  The Map that Changed the World  written by Simon Winchester which tells the story of William Smith and his map. I haven’t read it but I’m told it’s excellent. I’ll probably buy a copy with the book tokens I inevitably get for Christmas!






7 Responses to “William Smith and the First National Geological Map”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Great heads-up! I’ve ordered the book.

  2. There is a current exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History – Handwritten in Stone: How William Smith and his maps changed geology From 9 October 2015 to 31 January 2016

  3. I’m afraid to disappoint you but William Smith’s map is not “first ever geological map”. There was a geological map of the Auvergne region of France produced in 1771 and William Maclure produced a geological map of all the states in the Union in 1809 predating Smith by six years. Smith’s map in the first geological map of Great Britain and is considered the first national geological map.

  4. I don’t know what is correct but definitely a new info for me. I will also try to check which one is correct as thonyc says above. thanks for sharing from shareofheartblog.wordpress.com

  5. I read the book back in 2002 while on holiday in Sweden. Certainly worth a read! Not only is the topic interesting, but Winchester is an excellent writer and the book is a real page turner (and I usually find geology to be one of the more boring sciences).

    While I am at it, let me mention The Fourth Part of the World, which similarly sticks in my mind. If you are even remotely interested in history or maps (I am quite interested in maps, but that wasn’t the main attraction of the Winchester book, by the way), you should definitely read this. (Those familiar with historical maps can appreciate my pleasure at having lived just a few kilometres from Ebstorf for many years.)

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’ve all but finished this book and have enjoyed it very much but am increasingly wondering how accurate it is. On p190 it discusses a unique type of stone mined at Stonesfield in Oxfordshire, a village it states is “not more than a couple of miles from [the village of] Churchill, where William Smith was born.” It is eight miles distant (a friend lives in a village in between). On p245 it is mentioned that a particular oolitic limestone was “then being used to refurbish Henry VIII’s tomb in Westminster Abbey”. King Henry VIII was interred in St George’s Chapel, Windsor and is still there. What other, more important, errors have I missed?

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