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March 23, 1769: William Smith – Pioneer of Applied Geology

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William Smith
Never saw a coccolith
But using macrofossil data
He ordered all the English strata” An anonymous clerihew dedicated to W. Smith

William Smith, born March 23, 1769, introduced in his “Strata – Identified by organized Fossils” (1816) the “principle of faunal succession” into stratigraphy. Geological maps before Smith mapped and catalogued rocks based only on the inorganic properties, like chemical composition or colour. This classification was very restricted and confusing. Smith discovered and applied a classification scheme that can identify sedimentary rocks of the same age with almost no doubt.

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 (1796)

Using this principle he compiled one of the first “true” geological maps in history, useful also to track the – at the time of the Industrial Revolution – much valuable coal seams.

Map.1. “A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales….” by William Smith (image in public domain). The colours are based on the colours of the mapped rocks, coal appropriately shown in black. However Smith uses the characteristic assemblages of fossils to further subdivide similar looking rocks – providing a valuable tool to show the stratigraphic order of the underground.


WINCHESTER, W. (2001): The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. New York: Harper Collins: 352

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Ungolythe 4:15 am 03/24/2013

    And to think that just the other day there was a “special documentary” on some religious channel that was investigating whether or not there literally was a Noah’s Arc. They did of course find it a likely event noting that pillow basalts and hydrated crystals found on the tops of mountains must mean that the sea level must have been that high.

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  2. 2. M Tucker 2:10 pm 03/25/2013

    When Smith did his mapping of England and Wales geologists were very interested in finding proof of Noah’s flood. Smith, not being a geologist and not interested in publishing a book on geology, was not interested in attempting to provide evidence of a world wide flood. He was a surveyor by training and a naturalist by temperament. He immediately saw an economic advantage in producing an accurate geologic map of England and Wales to aid the mining industry. Unfortunately his work was plagiarized and the copies were sold for less than he could afford to sell his maps. Smith ended up in debt and spent two years in a debtor’s prison. Upon release he discovered his home and property had been seized.

    He then spent many years making his living as a surveyor. Finally one of his employers recognized who Smith was and what he had achieved with his “map that changed the world.” Smith was then given the opportunity to build a museum of geology in Scarborough, England. It is called the Rotunda Museum of Geology and opened its doors in 1829.

    Finally in 1831, when Smith was 61, the Geological Society of London awarded Smith the very first Wollaston Medal and the President of the society, Adam Sedgwick, named Smith “the Father of English Geology.” It is interesting to note that in the same year Sedgwick finally denounce the notion of a world wide flood. He had been slowly coming round to that conclusion but after Charles Lyell’s publication of his first volume of “Principles of Geology” (a three volume set published between 1830 and 1833) he finally admitted his previous descriptions of geologic evidence for Noah’s Flood were wrong. Another interesting event for 1831 is that Charles Darwin became one of Sedgwick’s students.

    The museum in Scarborough has been completely refurbished and is now called The Rotunda – The William Smith Museum of Geology.

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  3. 3. David_Bressan 4:56 pm 03/25/2013

    @Ungolythe: Yes indeed, considering that already Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) had some good arguments against a worldwide flood

    “If you should say that the shells which are visible at the present time within the borders of Italy, far away from the sea, and at great heights, are due to the Flood having deposited them there, I reply that..”

    But I noted that some people (not creationists) still get it wrong when explaining the origin of marine rocks on land, as not the water covered the mountains, but the rocks where pushed from the ocanic basin into height

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  4. 4. David_Bressan 5:03 pm 03/25/2013

    @M Tucker: Thanks for the intersting addition to Smith´s life, indeed Smith didn´t offer a geo-theory for his observations, but empirical evidence and application of his method. This – so one interpretation – was one reason that gentleman – geologists (interested to establish the principles of geology as science) at the time didn´t consider Smith´s work very interesting.

    Did George Bellas Greenough (first president of the Geological Society of London) “steal” William Smith’s geological map ? – an idea popularized by Winchester’s book “The Map that Changed the World ” (2001).
    The free available paper by KNELL 2009 argues that the situation was much more complicated – Greenough worked already on a map for the Geological Society when Smith published and Greenough compiled it from various sources, notes and communications, not always with appropriate credit. However this approach was tolerated as the map was regarded a “in the making” work and many bits of information in fact not yet published and citable.
    Smith’s “rehabilitation” and Greenough “damnation” in later years have also a possible background in political interests of the later Geological Society.

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