William Smith

The geological map of the UK is now available as an app. The first version was created by William Smith and was considerably more difficult to obtain.

The geological map of the UK is now available as an app. The first version was created by William Smith and was considerably more difficult to obtain.

Apologies for the lack of blog articles, but it has been a busy and difficult summer and despite my best efforts, anxiety levels have been high.


News that the Earth has entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene – should cause us all to reflect a little.


Personally, the news adds to my general sense of anxiety.

But the news reminded me of my summer holiday this year, spent in rural isolation near the lonely village of Churchill, in Oxfordshire.

The village was the birthplace of the astonishing William Smith, the man who created the first geological map of England.

On our first day of adventuring  we came across a small museum dedicated to his memory. By chance they had the very readable biography (The Map that Changed the World) for sale.

One of the pleasures of the biography was to read about a topic so profound, and one of which I was so profoundly ignorant.



I had been dimly aware of the map previously. I had noticed it when I was honoured in November 2014 to address the London Petrophysical Society  at the Geological Society’s premises in Burlington Arcade.

The map hangs on the wall to the right of the main hallway beyond the reception desk. I was so impressed that I asked for a copy for Christmas that year, but I think my wife thought it might be a bit too big 😦

Just seeing the map, I had enjoyed its grandeur. But reading about its creation was awe-inspiring.

Smith worked as a surveyor and was fortunate enough (!) to descend down shafts in mines separated by just a few miles.

He noticed that the very obvious strata which the miners used to locate the coal were similar in different mines, but that they occurred at different depths.

He was then employed to build a canal, and was amongst the first people to cut open a slot in the Earth many miles long. This time he noticed that surface rocks changed from one location to another.

Piecing these experiences together allowed him to realise the three-dimensional layer structure of the Earth beneath the surface of England.

He realised that the strata were originally laid down horizontally, but were now slightly tilted, and that this explained both the surface and sub-surface observations.

There was one more clue that helped him piece together the confusing strata encountered in different places: fossils. He realised that the type of fossil in each layer formed a unique identifier for that layer.

With these insights, and a prodigious amount of energy, he travelled the length and breadth of the country constructing his grand map, the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The map is in someways akin to the periodic table.

The periodic table contains chemical information, but more importantly than the information it contains, it provides a structure and a context that gives meaning to all chemical information.

Similarly, William Smith’s map contains geological information, but more importantly it provided a framework for understanding all geological information.

Imagine discovering that the fossils collected at Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast were of the same type as those collected in Lyme Regis on the South coast!

Who would have connected the two places before Smith traced the layer of rock across the whole of England? But after he had made the connection, and after you have seen the map, the connections seem almost obvious.

As I read of William Smith’s travails, I reflected that despite the enclosed fields and the robotic harvesters, the countryside hereabouts would probably have been recognisable to Smith if he could re-visit now.

And I wondered how he would react to news that the Anthropocene layer had begun.


P.S. The Geological Map is now downloadable as an app called iGeology.


[August 29th 2016: Weight this morning 72.9 kg: Anxiety: Very High]



4 Responses to “William Smith”

  1. drb42 Says:

    By coincidence, Michael, I downloaded the Geology app last week on Gordon’s birthday – I had given him a book on Geology and another on rocks and crystals to take on our walks in Somerset and Wales in September. I think we’ll be using the app too. It looks very interesting and useful – I’ll let you know…

  2. ghumph Says:

    Dear Michael, I love geological maps even if they are not my cup of tea. Why are you anxious though? Geology puts us into perspective, in the sense that there is no need for humanity to be eternal, but just a passing phase. I say so but should not speak as a few weeks of voluntary solitary confinement can give me their fair dose of anxiety peaks! I think it has to do with getting older… Giuliano (the one you gave hospitality to in BBC library in the summer 1988 I believe)

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Thank you for your kind thoughts. The inconceivable slowness of geological time is indeed a cause for reflection. But I think anxiety in general, and my anxiety in particular stems from more proximate causes.

      The ultimate causes of my anxiety lie in my early life in which I experienced the most terrible loss imaginable. The proximate causes arise from the constraints I experience at home and at work, which at times feel overwhelming.

      Giuliano – I am struggling to our previous encounter – if indeed it was me you encountered – but I look forward to our next encounter.

      Every best wish


      • ghumph Says:

        Dear Michael, I used to say that in order to keep electronic exchange to a human level one has to wait for some time before replying… so it took me three weeks this time!

        I too struggle to recall events from almost thirty years ago, and perhaps I am even imagining to remember! Anyway, I think I just showed up at Birkbeck and met you, then you told me professor Bohm was working there and perhaps I even saw him when we were in the Library.

        A couple of years ago I met Bohm ideas and remembering this event I was trying to remember your name. Until some way or another have found some of your work on the internet.

        I am pretty sure it was you!

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