Prophet of the Rocks

Richard Fortey

  • The Map that Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science by Simon Winchester
    Viking, 338 pp, £12.99, August 2001, ISBN 0 670 88407 3

The birth of almost every science has been achieved with the help of a map. Astronomy began by mapping the stars. Anatomy – and modern medicine – is indebted to those flayed bodies laid out with such excruciating clarity in Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica. Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements gave inorganic chemistry its logic: the famous chart, which used to be posted on the wall of every chemistry laboratory like a sacred text, is as much map as matrix. Even today, in physiology laboratories, the brain is being anatomised in terms of the cortical areas responsible for one piece of sensory integration or another: a subtle mapping that has replaced centuries of speculation – a kind of objective phrenology.

The chart which laid out the rock strata of England in their ‘proper order’ – the first geological map – has a claim to be equally seminal. Geology was a latecomer to the sciences. Human attention turned to the heavens before contemplating the quotidian stuff of rocks. While the sky seemed to be consistent in the disposition of its stars, the logic of Earth-bound stratigraphy was not obvious. There was seeming chaos in the variety of soils, and the stones turned up in fields did not readily fall into a system. Before the end of the 18th century there was no method by which to classify geological strata in sequence. Once again, a map provided the key; it was published by the surveyor William Smith in August 1815 and it provided the framework for the geological time-scale that is still in use today. In turn, this supplied the millions of years required for the operation of organic evolution. A mere map became the catalyst that destroyed Biblical accounts of creation.

That it had such momentous consequences might seem improbable. It is only an outline of England and Wales overlaid with a series of coloured bands which describe the rock outcrops underlying the Chilterns and Cotswolds, the wooded lanes of the Weald, the clay vales around Peterborough. William Smith was above all a practical man, a surveyor of canals and a master of drainage schemes. To him, the great map was essentially a graphic summary of potential economic utility.

Smith was born in 1769 in Churchill in Oxfordshire. Neglected by his mother, he spent much time with his uncle, a farmer. His apprenticeship on the rocks was served in ditches, quarries and mines. A man of great physical strength, he thought nothing of walking sixty miles in pursuit of a few new marks on his template of British geology. He was compelled to seek patronage from the aristocracy to further his research, and there were times when such patronage was in short supply. But in the early years of the 19th century aristocrats were becoming interested in geology; for a while it was the fashionable science. The Geological Society of London was started in the Freemason’s Tavern in 1807, its founding list of members a roll-call of minor aristocrats and gentlemen, leavened with the odd clergyman and a few distinguished foreigners. It was the first society of its kind in the world; many more were to follow. Few of the members soiled their hands with actual fieldwork, although there seems to have been much discussion of the Wernerian Theory of the Earth (the belief that the rocks of the Earth’s crust were laid down by precipitation from the sea) as opposed to the Huttonian Theory (which emphasised solidification from magma). The first President of the Society was a wealthy dilettante, George Bellas Greenough, whose high-handed behaviour towards the low-born Smith would seem disgraceful today. Smith was excluded from membership for many years – a period throughout which he laboured alone to be a true prophet of the rocks.

Simon Winchester has done a considerable service to geology in rescuing Smith from comparative obscurity. It seems extraordinary that Darwin has had several dozen biographies and T.H. Huxley not so many fewer, yet Smith has been celebrated only by his nephew John Phillips in 1844 (Phillips was later to be a distinguished geological professor at Oxford). Since then, there has been a handful of scholarly articles by Joan Eyles, but otherwise Smith seems to have escaped the attention lavished on those who followed and built on his discoveries. Such scholarly amnesia is curious. Maybe it came about because Smith himself wasn’t much of a writer: Winchester tactfully quotes rather sparingly from his diaries and Smith’s attempt at an autobiography is even duller, or at least more clichéd, than Darwin’s, itself so studiedly modest that the impertinent reader soon longs for a hint of vanity. Can it be that a characteristically English snobbery still persists, seeking to minimise the contribution made by such a practical, working-class man as Smith? More likely, the reason for his neglect is that his great product – a geological map – came without any great book to go with it. And it isn’t so easy nowadays to appreciate its novelty, or the extraordinary individual effort required to produce it. If Winchester has his way, Smith’s portrait may yet appear on the £10 note, and the ‘father of English geology’ nudge Darwin off it.

Smith was fortunate to have first studied the strata around Bath, where the rock succession provided a ready key to his understanding. He was also blessed with unusual persistence, which allowed him to expand local observations into national and ultimately international generalisations. He was supported in Bath by a coterie of scholarly and liberal-minded friends, and his successful surveying and draining operations there led to his reputation circulating among the right sort of upper-class agricultural ‘improvers’. They were to be among the patrons of his plan to map the whole country.

The very first geological map of the area around Bath was produced in 1799, and Winchester has brilliantly unravelled the circumstances surrounding this pioneering attempt to plot out what could not be seen by extrapolating from the limited evidence exposed in outcrops. For that is what geological maps are: summaries of the invisible inferred from the visible. Soon, Smith was travelling relentlessly the length of England. He always took a seat on top of the postchaise no matter what the weather, while his travelling companions and fellow surveyors sat inside. During these journeys he leapt off with his tapping hammer wherever rocks were exposed at the surface, and scribbled notes on his master map. In the evenings, his incessant exposition of stratigraphy may have made him a bit of a bore to those who didn’t understand his enthusiasm; certainly, it earned him the soubriquet ‘Strata’ Smith.

As he proceeded, Smith began to realise the importance of fossils as ‘signatures’ of particular strata. Every time he tapped the crumbly limestone known as the Cornbrash he found the same fat-bodied ammonite. This was different from the slimmer ones found in variety in the Lias, and different again from those that swarmed in the Oxford Clay. They proved absolutely reliable as stratigraphical indicators: they recounted the narrative of geological time. Smith’s suite of characteristic fossil specimens is now in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. They aren’t on public display, and even if they were, they wouldn’t make much of an impression among the dinosaurs. Who would guess their importance? The sequence of fossil forms still tallies almost perfectly with modern ideas of the succession of geological time. Smith himself probably regarded the fossil succession as little more than an extraordinary convenience, however. He certainly had no inkling of the part it might play in demonstrating the reality of organic evolution. It is clear from his notes that he understood the succession required long periods of time, but he seems not to have troubled greatly with theoretical speculation. If his clergymen friends saw evidence of the Flood, so be it. Nonetheless, his steadfast and pragmatic assemblage of facts was to be one of the sources of evidence to challenge Biblical veracity that would later cause John Ruskin and others so much angst – the same facts that are disputed by creationists even today.

Smith didn’t receive the credit he deserved when his map was eventually published. Although it briefly attracted attention in the higher ranks of society, Greenough immediately sought to publish the gentleman’s version, in the form of an official map validated by the Geological Society. The establishment that had long spurned Smith now sought to usurp his achievement. In fact, there was little the egregious Greenough could do other than copy and fudge the original. His appeals to geologising clergymen for information on the rocks in their parishes added the odd spot of information here and there, but the conception was almost entirely Smith’s. And Greenough neglected the fossil keys that unlocked the secret of stratigraphical succession. When his map appeared, nearly five years after Smith’s, it added little that was new. But Greenough knew enough about business to undercut the price of Smith’s map by a guinea or so. Smith wrote, in a rare display of emotion, that the Geological Society map ‘seemed like the ghost of my old map … mocking me in the disappointments of a science with which I could scarcely be in temper.’

Worse was to come. On 11 June 1819, Smith was incarcerated in the King’s Bench debtor’s prison in Southwark – the same prison into which Dickens later cast Mr Micawber. Smith had over-stretched himself. Encouraged by the reception his map had received from the great and good, including Sir Joseph Banks, ubiquitous President of the Royal Society, Smith had taken expensive premises in London, while still keeping on his property near Bath. No doubt he expected fortune to follow his brief celebrity. In an attempt to relieve his debts he had already been forced to sell his fossil collection to the British Museum for £100. It was not enough to stave off disaster. When he was released after a few months his assets had been sold. A bitter man, he left London on the night coach that travelled up the Great North Road. He returned to his drainage and surveying in Yorkshire, and for a dozen years lived in obscurity, doing well, as always, the practical things he had mastered before he become entangled with the geological gentlemen of the capital.

Justice was eventually done. The era of the dilettante passed and a new generation of dedicated scholars appreciated the value of what Smith had made. He had to wait until 1831 for due recognition, however, when he was invited to London to be the first recipient of the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society. By then, he was 62, and a little rheumatic. Greenough never really apologised for his plagiarism. The most he admitted was that ‘the two maps agree in many respects, not because the one had been copied from the other, but because both are correct.’ (I wonder if this has ever been used as a textbook example of sophistry.) Geology went on to become a truly scientific discipline, with the map as the guide which eventually led to an understanding of the structure of the Earth.

Smith’s neglect has continued, in lesser part: according to Winchester, even the plaque celebrating his residency at Tucking Mill, near Bath, is attached to the wrong building. It’s still possible to inspect the famous map itself, which hangs in the Geological Society’s premises at Burlington House, hidden behind curtains to protect its delicate colours from the light. Winchester is right to describe it as a thing of beauty; as in those early anatomies of the human body, the aesthetic merges with the scientific. A few yards away is a portrait of Smith himself: balding, stern, with a determined set of the lips, he might be a Nonconformist preacher. On the way to the map a visitor passes the Royal Charter of the Geological Society, with its injunction to investigate ‘the mineral structure of the Earth’, an investigation which Smith did so much to initiate.

Winchester has told Smith’s story with great energy, and a good eye for the developing science. The story has something of the appeal of that of Harrison the clockmaker (of Longitude fame), another master craftsman who was rejected and abused by the toffs, only to achieve belated recognition for his pioneering work. Smith is the less colourful character, perhaps, but he did possess to a high degree the admirable quality of fortitude. Some parts of his life are sketchily known. His wife was evidently mad for at least some of the time, and may (or may not) have been a nymphomaniac – most of the contemporary sources are reticent on the subject. Then there is the curious role of Smith’s old friend, John Farey, who finished up collaborating with the Geological Society on the rival production, not least by showing the fellows much of his mentor’s unpublished work. Yet Farey seemed always to hold Smith in the highest regard, even in the midst of his duplicity, and his apparent faithlessness was not even rewarded with a fellowship of the Society. His motivation was evidently complex; perhaps he believed he himself had had more of a role in unscrambling British stratigraphy than history has accorded him. There must be more to discover about this ambiguous figure.

There are a few trivial errors in the book, of which one relates directly to Smith. The Wollaston Medal was named after William Wollaston (1766-1828), polymath, chemist, physicist, physician, mineralogist and discoverer of the element palladium. Although when Smith was honoured it was struck in gold, since 1841 the medal named in Wollaston’s memory has been manufactured of this rare metal, not gold or platinum, as Winchester says. It is probably the only medal in the world of its kind and a serious expense for the Geological Society. It seems oddly appropriate that geology should celebrate its highest honour in such a distinctive way; laureates of the other sciences get medals made from the noble metals of the classical age, but palladium is less showy and of the earth, just right for geologists.