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It changed the way we THOUGHT about the world
on 31 October 2004
Inside the front cover of my edition is a reproduction of 'the map' as produced by William Smith, whereas the back cover has the Royal Geological Survey map produced in 2001. The striking similarity between the two is a testimony to the work of Smith.
Smith did not set out to produce a geological map of the British Isles, but to earn a living in the canal boom years before the advent of the railway era in Britain. The Somerset Coal Canal is another one of his legacies, and he also worked extensively throughput the Somerset coal field, to the South and West of Bath. His true insight may well have been at Mearns Pit, in High Littleton in this coal field. Like many noteworthy discoveries, Smith took many years to work out his ideas, to publish them (and even more to get credit for them).
Geology was at the forefront of science in late 18th century. There were lots of gentleman-scientists, who had rock collections. Slowly, Smith sought to bring order to the series of rocks that were visible in Britain, and he did this by comparing fossils from different locations. His insight was to realise that the order of rocks (in terms of strata) was passed on; if A is above rock B, and B is above rock C, then A must be above rock C. Seen from the 21st Century, that seemed obvious, but at the time it was a real struggle to breakout of the dogmas of the era. At the beginning of Smith's life, Bibles were still printed which declared the date of the earth's creation.
Simon Winchester has written a thoroughly absorbing account of Smith's life and work, and inhabited the pages with snippets of information about the life and times. It is well researched, and uses letters and diary entries of Smith and his contemporaries that survive. Smith cuts a figure of tragedy at times, with disappointment seeming to follow him around. His ideas were all but stolen, he spent some weeks in jail for debt in the summer of 1819, and he missed out on several chances to work abroad, staying for hollow promises of work in London.
I enjoyed the line-drawings of fossils that headed each chapter, and the glossary of geological terms was a useful addition. I also never realised that the house that has an inscribed tablet championing Smith (a little over 4 miles from where I live, myself at the Northern limit of the Somerset coal field) is the wrong house! A very good read, and one of the growing series of history of science books published in the last few years. What Smith's contemporaries failed to do in the early years of the nineteenth century, Simon Winchester has done; hailed a truly remarkable man who travelled the length and breadth of Britain to produce a lasting product; a map. Fortunately Smith was recognised in his lifetime (eventually) and honoured accordingly. Now we can do the same.