Field of Science

March 23, 1769 William Smith - Pioneer of applied Geology

"It´s all there locked in the stone,
the truth is told in fossilized bone."

"Fossils have been long studied as great curiosities, collected with great pains, treasured with great care and at a great expense, and shown and admired with as much pleasure as a child's hobby-horse is shown and admired by himself and his playfellows, because it is pretty; and this has been done by thousands who have never paid the least regard to that wonderful order and regularity with which nature has disposed of these singular productions, and assigned to each class its peculiar stratum."
William Smith, notes written January 5, 1796

William Smith was born March 23, 1769 in the village of Churchill, in the county of Oxfordshire, into a respectable farming family. His father died when he was seven, so his mother brought him to the farm of his uncle.
And just here the young William makes an encounter that will change his life. In these parts of Oxfordshire, for the “long pound” - a weight standard of ca. 600g - are used not the common iron weights, but strange rounded stones. They are commonly found in the nearby quarries. Smith is fascinated of this stones - why they resemble the sea urchins, that he has seen in the books or on the coast of the sea, distant more then 160 kilometers from the place where they are now found? If these are remnants of animals, why are they petrified.  Why some of them resemble animals that no scholar has ever seen? Puzzled by this mystery, he starts to collect minerals and fossils. He is an enthusiastic autodidact; studying the landscape he quickly learns geometry, surveying and mapping,  hydraulics and hydrology.

At the age of eighteen he became an assistant surveyor, learning his trade from the master surveyor Edward Webb. Surveying required Smith to travel all over England; in 1794 and following years he toured the entire country. Detailed maps were essential to plan and construct streets and canals for the industrial revolution -  good surveyors were requested workers.
Here Smith can apply his knowledge, the job of surveying canal routes requires detailed knowledge of the rocks through which the canal was to be build.
In 1792 he works for the rich coalmine owner Elisabeth Jones in Somerset. He lives in a property of the lady – Rugbourne Farm - that he will later call the birthplace of his geology, because of his habit to sit in a niche of the house and study his rocks.
He notes that the coal-bearing layers are over- and underline by a characteristic succession of sandstones and marls. Always is the coal formation overlain by marine and then non-marine rocks. Always is the coal stratum underline by a grey clay – the ancient soil on which the coal forming giant ferns and horsetails grown, millions of years ago.
Even more important, Smith observed that the fossils found in a section of sedimentary rocks were always in a certain order from the bottom to the top of the section. This order of appearance could also be seen in other rock sections, even those on the other side of the British island - maybe on the entire world there is a certain order of strata and whoever can read it will quickly discover the coal-formation – the black gold of the 18th century.

". . . each stratum contained organized fossils peculiar to itself, and might, in cases otherwise doubtful, be recognised and discriminated from others like it, but in a different part of the series, by examination of them"

This is the statement of the "principle of faunal succession": The layers of sedimentary rocks in any given location contain fossils of a definite age in a definite sequence; the same sequence can be found in rocks elsewhere and hence the strata with the same fossils can be correlated between various locations. 
The principle of deposition, a stratum that lays below in a succession is older, and vice versa, was not new. But Smith was the first to proof this hypothesis by using guide fossils. Geological maps before Smith mapped and catalogued rocks by their inorganic characteristics - like sandstones, marls and chalks. Still further differentiation was only possible maybe by colour or other minor properties. This classification was very restricted and it showed no apparent pattern. Smith discovered and applied  an ulterior classification scheme, a scheme that can differ rocks with no doubt, even if they look very similar.

Fig.2. Ammonites, characteristic fossils for the Mesozoic and the most appreciated fossils by Smith.

In 1816 he publishes his observations in form of a book and a map, describing for ever strata of the United Kingdom the characteristic fossils:

Fig.3. A diagram of 1888, showing the sequence of strata and their characteristic fossils. Notice that at this date, the recently proposed Ordovician (1878) System had not yet been accepted, nor the Paleocene (1874) or Oligocene (1854) as epochs of the Cenozoic. Instead of “Precambrian” or “Primary” this scale uses the term “Laurentian”, since the studies of Precambrian rocks had made the most progress in the Laurentian region of the Canadian Shield.


SMITH, W. (1816-1819). Strata identified by organized fossils, containing prints on coloured paper of the most characteristic specimens in each stratum. London: W. Arding.
WINCHESTER, W. (2001). The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. New York: Harper Collins.


  1. Hello David

    I stumbled across your blog looking for some illustrations for one of my blogs "Earth's Internet: A Layman's Guide to Installation and Maintenance" and I found your blog here.

    The specific subject page of your's dealt with a Swiss Researcher who tried to explain some of the geological and hydrological phenomena for the Biblical Deluge. I also have a very specific separate blog on that subject. It's not so much from the perspective of Christendom myths and fables (which I'm not so interested in) as looking for historical clues in the account itself and real world findings and discoveries today.

    I like your historical take on what others in the past have written about and how it compares with what we know today. My background is Botany and environmental restoration. Originally I was obsessed with plants, but as time goes on you can not help but see interconnection with other componants around them, even geology and hydrological issues.

    On the point of reading & studying how ecosystems work, it's tough in these modern times to get an actual picture of how they SHOULD work because humans have altered things so much that they do not behave as originally observed in the historical times past. That's why a couple of decades ago I started looking into historical journals/dairies of individual Explorers like Juan Bautista de Anza or even naturalists like John Muir. Their first hand accounts of observational scenery they actually wrote about no longer exist today. John Muir speaks about the Yosemite Valley and how they use to race horses through the trees. Today it is so vegetatively dense and over grown that this would be impossible. Much like modern European Forests, it is so different from the observations of Austrian Forester/Physicist Viktor Schauberger. Schauberger's work is also the focus of my blogs and I attempt to explain natural observations Schauberger had a difficult time explaining other than vague terms with his own personal encrypted script. When you do a Google of his name, the total tonage of information dealing with individuals invoking the existance of aliens, spirits, mystical powers, UFOs etc. So I've taken a different approach to add some normalcy to his observations.

    I'll bookmark your blog and check back from time to time.

    Thanks again - Kevin

  2. Simon Winchester has a nice chronicle about William Smith's work and life and misfortune in his book "The Map that Changes The World". It appears more like a lively novel than a dry history but everything about William Smith and his surroundings, especially being discriminated as having a "rustic background" are fully told.

    I like the introduction bringing readers into the era and background that William Smith's story happened:-

    "The inevitable collision between the new and rationally based world of science and the old ecclesiastical, faith-directed world of belief was about to occur – and in the vanguard of the new movement, both symbolically and actually, was the great map, and now this equally enormous atlas that John Cary of the strand was about to publish, and the revolutionary thinking that lay behind their making."

  3. William Smith
    Never saw a coccolith
    But using macrofossil data
    He ordered all the English strata

    This is a "clerihew" -- I wonder if other readers know of other examples on famous geologists?


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