The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

by Simon Winchester; Book Review and Highlights

Bath is full of plaques showing where famous people have lived.  I was intrigued to find this one at 29 Pulteney Street:

William Smith blue plaque - 1
“In this house, William Smith, the Father of English Geology, dictated “The Order of the Strata” December 11, 1799.” According to the Geological Society, the event actually happened June 11. It was the house of Reverend Joseph Townsend (1739-1816).

So, during Jane Austen’s lifetime, William Smith, the “Father of English Geology,” discovered the order of the strata of the earth–the regular layers of different types of rocks that are consistently found.  Who was this man?

Simon Winchester’s The Map that Changed the World (NY: HarperCollins, 2001) shares the fascinating story of William Smith’s life, and Smith’s creation of the first geological map of all of England and Wales (and part of Scotland).

Humble Beginnings

William Smith was born in 1769 (six years before Jane Austen’s birth), at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution; the same year James Watt patented the first condensing steam engine, and Richard Arkwright “made the first water-powered cotton-spinning frame” (p. 17). Winchester’s second chapter gives an overview of the huge technological changes going on at that time. He also points out that many in the church at the time were using Bishop Ussher’s dating system, which postulated that the world was created on Monday Oct. 23, 4004 B.C.  Such views of the age of the earth were beginning to be questioned. It was a time of great social, scientific, and religious change.

Smith came from the lower ranks of society. His father was a village blacksmith and mechanic. He died when William was eight years old.  William was then brought up by his uncle, a farmer.

Early on, William Smith was fascinated by rocks and fossils. He examined the “pound stones” used for weighing butter–these appeared to be sea urchins made of solid rock. He and his friends used small round fossils, which they called lamp shells, as marbles. He learned all he could about rocks and waterways.


At this time, wealthy people were enclosing the “commons” of many villages in order to farm them more efficiently (enclosures are mentioned in several Austen novels).  A surveyor, Edward Webb, came to help with enclosures in Smith’s village. Webb hired William Smith as an assistant, and trained him in basic skills.

Smith and Webb traveled together, doing work for coal miners, canal builders, and others. They also worked on landscaping Warren Hastings’ estate. (Hastings was a friend of the Austen family. He had been governor-general of India. At that time he was being tried for cruelty and corruption, but he was eventually acquitted.)

Smith soon became an expert surveyor in his own right, helping design the burgeoning system of canals throughout the country, finding veins of coal for the coal mines, and advising land owners on the minerals under their property.  As he traveled around the country and went down in mine shafts deep into the earth, he carefully observed all that he saw.

William Smith’s geological map of England and Wales and part of Scotland, published 1815. The original is huge, about 8 ft by 6ft.
Observations and Discovery

William Smith discovered that there was a series of layers (strata) under the earth which generally came in the same order (unless upheavals had caused the layers to be upside down). Certain layers and types of rocks always contained certain types of fossils.  He developed the first diagram of the order of the strata.

Over years of traveling the country, Smith then created the first geological map of England, showing the types of rock covering each area, with a smaller diagram of the strata.  However, he faced many challenges in getting his map published and in receiving recognition for his discoveries.

Some copied his maps and diagrams and published them without giving him credit. The newly-formed Geological Society (founded 1807) for some years did not allow him to become a member, because of his lowly background. Many of the members were wealthy men who collected rocks and fossils. They refused to get their hands dirty in the field, digging and observing the locations of rocks and fossils, as Smith did.


Smith also made bad investments, as he tried to act the part of a wealthier man than he was.  He went deep into debt to buy a small estate, and then to rent an expensive flat in London.  He loved to display his extensive collection of fossils, arranging them in layers like the layers of the earth they were found in. However, at one financial low point he had to sell his whole collection to the British Museum, who paid him much less than he thought they were worth. Smith also made an unwise marriage to a poor, uneducated woman who was mentally unstable. Eventually he was arrested and thrown into debtor’s prison, where he remained for about six months. His home and his famous map were confiscated by creditors.

When Smith was released, he and his wife and his nephew, who he was training, moved to the north of England and settled there. His map was finally published. Eventually the Geological Society and others recognized his great contribution to the budding science of geology and showered him with honors.  He received a government pension which allowed him to live out his old age in peace.


Map that changed world cover
The Book: The Map That Changed the World

Simon Winchester tells an engrossing story of William Smith’s life, gifts, and trials.  He paints the background of the times richly and clearly. We even briefly meet Mary Anning and another woman geologist, Etheldred Bennett, who studied the fossils of Wiltshire (p. 110). The most difficult parts for me to follow explained the rocks and fossils in more detail than I needed, but those with more background in geology may find them fascinating (chapter 11). Also, the story was somewhat rambling and would have benefited from a timeline of Smith’s life.

Winchester obviously accepts the theory of evolution and he unfortunately makes some negative remarks about the church and Christianity. He gives dates for the layers of the earth which Smith, of course, would not have used. Winchester does tell us, though, that some of the earliest geologists, or “fossilists,” were clergymen, including some who supported and encouraged Smith.

At the occasion described on the plaque in Bath, Smith first dictated his list of 23 strata to two clergymen, Rev. Joseph Townsend and Rev. Benjamin Richardson. Some of the strata had never before been named. Smith described each layer by position, thickness, fossils found in that layer, and other descriptions. The three men made copies and shared the information with others, laying the foundation for Smith’s place in science and in history (p. 128-136).

The book is gorgeously illustrated, with intricate drawings of fossils. The fascinating story tells of the rise of a brilliant man, from humble beginnings, who helped to form and establish the science of geology.

William Smith was not only brilliant, he was dedicated, hardworking, and painstaking.  His competitors traveled around the country and asked what locals knew about the rocks. Smith examined the rocks himself. He did his paid work well, but also used every moment of his travels to expand his knowledge, then shared his discoveries with the world. Are there areas of our lives where his example might challenge us to do more with the opportunities we have? 

For Further Exploration

“William Smith’s Geological Map of England”

“Smith Plaques—Spot the Errors!”


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