The Map that Changed the World Bicentennial

This spring marks the 200th anniversary of the first publication of William Smith’s stratigraphic map of the England. It was, as geologist and splendid writer Simon Winchester titled his 2001 book, “The Map that Changed the World.” The remembrance is getting a low-key acknowledgement in both the U.K. and U.S., to my chagrin.

In this country, Stanford University, a locus of great geology science and geological teaching for many years, hosted an event on March 31. It got little attention, as best I could tell from following it online. Three years ago, I asked my friend Tom Sharpe, curator of the various William Smith geological maps at the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff, whether the U.S. geology community had any plans for a celebration of the Smith anniversary. He said he had not heard of anything planned for this country, although there were some events for a commemoration in the U.K. in train. (Sharpe is giving a talk April 21 at Cardiff University.)

I then contacted the various geology interests in the U.S. – the Geological Society of America, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the like – and found, much to my dismay, that they had nothing planned to commemorate the birth of modern geology with the publication of the first national geological map. As best I can tell, neither GSA nor USGS has given even a nod to the event.

Tom Sharpe told me that Simon Winchester was putting together some sort of recognition of Smith’s achievement, which may be behind the Stanford event. In any case, thanks to Stanford for recognizing Smith’s work, which the British science establishment denigrated at the time. Smith was dismissed as a serious geologist by the Royal Geological Society in England because of his lower-class origins.

Smith made clear to those who chose to see it that earth has a history far beyond the limited time span that the clerics insisted upon. He did it by linking rock strata with fossil evidence across vast areas of the country, while serving as a consulting engineer in the siting of canals and coal mines. His observations cast him as a heretic. He didn’t even get much recognition in England until Simon Winchester’s book.

Several years ago, my wife and I, while in London on the way to a bird watching trip in India, tried to see Smith’s astonishing map of the English rock strata. We located the Geological Society’s headquarters — Burlington House at Piccadilly — and entered the lovely structure. We then asked the clerk at the entrance where we could see the Smith map.

She pointed to a wall high on a narrow stairway, hardly an auspicious location, where the map was hanging. It was a glorious piece of scientific art. But it was difficult to read the legend from several feet below the map. We asked the clerk if there was a brochure or some other publication that would make the map easier to read. She handed us a postcard, which was simply a reduced photographic image of the map and even harder to decipher than the real map.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed our visit to the map that changed the world by elucidating the fundamentals of geology.

And the Geological Society’s web site has highlighted the Smith bicentennial, recognizing a figure the aristocratic group failed to properly honor in his time. As for the U.S., it appears that the Stanford event is the only recognition of William Smith and his seminal map.

Smith Map March 15 Homepage 710 x 280

Ironically, last month Geological Society archivists in London uncovered a previously thought to be lost first edition of Smith’s map, which “has been digitised and made available online in time for the start of celebrations of the map’s 200th anniversary, beginning with an unveiling of a plaque at Smith’s former residence by Sir David Attenborough.” The event occurred March 23.