Mapping the Earth: the bicentennial of the William Smith map | Shop at the Museum

A great icon of British geology is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. The William Smith map or ‘A Delination of the strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland’ brought revolutionary change to the way we think about the structure of the Earth and vastly advanced the science of geology.

As the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival (1-3 May) approaches, where this giant of geology will be celebrated, the Museum’s online shop takes a closer look at the man behind the map and what inspired him.

200 years old in 2015, the William Smith map changed the face of geology
200 years old in 2015, the William Smith map changed the face of geology

Who was William Smith?

Born in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Churchill in 1769, William Smith was the son of a blacksmith. Even though he did well at school there was never any thought of him attending university due to his family’s poverty.

In his thrilling book The Map that Changed the World, Simon Winchester describes Smith’s early signs of promise.

He had an apparent aptitude for geometry, he could draw more than adequately, and he had a fascination for the rocks among which he lived.

Smith’s diaries reveal his growing eagerness for what lay beneath the greenness of the Oxfordshire fields. It seems to have been the extraordinary colours and qualities of the rocks and minerals that surfaced that first caught his eye. Winchester says:

…he found the whiteness of chalk extraordinary, [he wondered] why there were no stones in the Churchill fields on which he could sharpen a knife or strike a spark. Notes tell how he had collected crystals of fool’s gold – iron pyrites- that workmen found when draining a great pond … he marvelled at some farmers who were using a local blue clay to colour their barn doors.

After leaving education, Smith found work as a surveyor building canals during the time of the industrial revolution. At the time of this great change, Britain needed greater resources of coal and other raw materials. In 1794 Smith started work as a surveyor and prospector on the construction of the Somerset coal canal, which would be used to transport these valuable resources and help the county to trade competitively against the Welsh mines.

The process of building the canal involved cutting into the land revealing what lay beneath for the very first time. This confirmed Smith’s suspicions of being able to identify each strata by the fossils it enclosed. He needed further information, so he collected studies of other regions and fossil catalogues to build his argument.

Unlike many geologists of the time, Smith had to earn his own living. Luckily he was highly sought after as a surveyor. This gave him the chance to travel the country and continue to study the land.

Smith found further luck when the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks was introduced to his work through John Farey, whom Banks had hired to drain his land in Derbyshire. Farey explained to Banks that Smith had made two great discoveries: the ability to record the sequential order of rocks and the ability to identify those rocks by the fossils within the layer. Banks was suitably impressed and sponsored Smith’s work. The map was eventually published in 1815.


The brilliance of Smith’s map was also its downfall. It became a valuable resource for pilferers and plagiarists to create their own works. His own humble background and limited education became an obstacle for him being accepted amongst the learned scientific community.

Despite William Smith revolutionising the geological world, his maps were palgiarised and he ended up in a debtors prison.
Despite William Smith revolutionising the geological world, his maps were palgiarised and he ended up in a debtors prison.

John Farey, who had previously introduced Smith’s work to Joseph Banks, also introduced it to George Bellas Greenough, who then used Smith’s map to create his own. It was eventually published by Longman and distributed by Smith on the Strand (no relation to William Smith). Greenough knew that Smith’s map was not selling well and decided to undercut him on the price of his maps.

Simon Winchester explains:

Undercutting Smith had an immmediate and devastating effct – and it coincided, almost exactly, with his committal to debtors’ prison. The precise nature of cause and effect can be argued over. The coincidence of events, though, was just too cruel.

The Map that Changed the World is Simon Winchester's engaging account of the life and work of William Smith.
The Map that Changed the World is Simon Winchester’s engaging account of the life and work of William Smith.

Why was the map so important?

William Smith became known as ‘Strata’ Smith after he realised the relationship between fossils and the layer of rocks that they lay in. This helped him to create the first geological map that was based on the fossils the strata contained rather than on the composition of rock.

Simon Winchester possibly gives the best explanation of the importance of this particular:

It is a map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science. It is the a document that lay the groundwork for the making of great fortunes – in oil, in iron, in coal, and in other countries in diamonds and tin and platinum and silver – that were won by explorers who used such maps. It is a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin. It is a map whose making signified the start of an era, not yet over, that has been marked ever since by the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed a man at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma, and come to understand something certain about his own origins and those of the planet. It is a map that had an importance, symbolic and real, for the development of one of the great fields of study – geology – which, arguably like physics and mathematics, is a field of learning and endeavour that underpins all knowledge, all understanding.

Gift ideas

Celebrate the work of William Smith with our gift range inspired by the great man. Hone your drawing skills with an artist’s tin or sketch pad; read about Smith’s life or display his iconic design on an eco-friendly tote bag.

William Smith map tote bag available from the Museum's online shop
William Smith map tote bag available from the Museum’s online shop

P.S. We moved to WordPress as a new blogging platform for the Museum during 2015. To see the earlier posts in the Shop at the Museum series, visit our archive.