1902 Encyclopedia > William Smith

William Smith
English geologist
(1769-1839)




WILLIAM SMITH (1769-1839), called "the father of English geology," and among his acquaintances " Stratum Smith," will be generally remembered as the framer and author of the first complete geological map of England and Wales, and as the discoverer of the principle of the identification of strata by their included organic remains. He was born at Churchill in Oxfordshire on 23d March 1769. Deprived of his father, an ingenious mechanic, before he was eight years old, he depended upon his father's eldest brother, who was but little pleased with his nephew's love of collecting "pundribs" (Terebratulae) and "pound-stones " or "quoit-stones" (large Echinites, frequently employed as a pound weight by dairywomen), and had no sympathy with his propensity for carving sundials on the soft brown "oven-stone" of his neighbourhood. William became a mineral surveyor and civil engineer. In the former capacity he traversed the Oolitic lands of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, the Lias clays and red marls of Warwickshire, and other districts, studying their varieties of strata and soils. In 1791 he surveyed an estate in Somersetshire and observed the strata of the district. In 1793 he executed the surveys and completed the levellings for the line of a proposed canal, in the course of which he confirmed a previous supposition, that the strata lying above the coal were not horizontal, but inclined in one direction—to the eastwards—so as to terminate successively at the surface, and to resemble on a large scale the ordinary disposition of the slices of bread and butter on a breakfast plate—an illustration which he was wont to use on all occasions.

On being appointed engineer to the Somerset Coal Canal in 1794, he was deputed to make a tour of observation with relation to inland navigation. During this tour, which occupied nearly two months, and extended over 900 miles, he carefully examined the geological structure of the country, and corroborated his preconceived generalization of a settled order of succession in the several strata, a continuity of range at the surface, and a general declination eastwards. Five years subsequently he prepared a tabular view of the Order of the Strata, and their embedded Organic Remains, in the neighbourhood of Bath, examined and proved prior to 1799. From this period to 1812 he was completing and arranging the data for his large Geological Map of England and Wales, with part of Scotland, which appeared in 1815, in fifteen sheets, engraved on a scale of 5 miles to 1 inch. The map was reduced to smaller form in 1819; and from this date to 1822 separate county geological maps were published in successive years, the whole constituting a Geological Atlas of England and Wales. In January 1831 the Geological Society of London conferred on Smith the first Wollaston medal; and the Government, at the request of several English geologists, conferred upon him a life-pension of £100 per annum. The degree of LL.D. he received from Dublin, at the meeting of the British Association in that city in 1835. At such meetings he was nearly always present. In 1838 he was appointed one of the commissioners to select building stone for the new Houses of Parliament. The last years of his life were spent at Hackness (of which he made a good geological map), near Scarborough, and in the latter town. His usually robust health failed in 1839, and on 28th August of that year he died at Northampton. He once said he was born on the Oolite, and should wish to be buried on it; and so he was, at Northampton.

His Memoirs by Professor John Phillips appeared in 1844.






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