The map that changed the world

William Smith geological map
William Smith geological map
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Written by Jeanie Swales

It’s ‘the map that changed the world’ – William Smith’s astonishing masterwork, the first geological map of England, Wales and parts of Scotland, and still influential today.

In the late 18th century Smith – known as the ‘father of modern geology’ – solved one of the great puzzles of the age.

He was the first to recognise the sequence of rocks and correlate them on the basis of the fossils they contain. This discovery is still the basis of all mineral and oil exploration today.

Smith used two methods to share his new knowledge - maps and geological collections. His maps showed the newly ordered rocks as he found them exposed in Britain, with each unit of rock coloured to match its natural colour. His collection of fossils was ordered according to the layer of rock from which they had been obtained.

The Rotunda Museum, with its fossils displayed in the order of their strata, physically represented Smith’s ideas - he was living in Scarborough at the time, and acted as a ‘clerk of works’ on the building project. It’s the only building in the world to commemorate his invention of ‘fossil-ordered stratigraphy’, and opened in 1829.

Smith (1769-1839) had a chequered career. His origins were humble, and his work was much plagiarised. He spent time in debtors’ prison in London, and had to sell his beloved collection of fossils to secure his release. His arrival a few years later in Scarborough, with his nephew John Phillips, himself also a noted geologist, inspired geological activity on the Yorkshire Coast culminating in the building of the Rotunda, now known as ‘the William Smith museum of geology’.

The very first of the edition of Smith maps pictured here is on display in London’s Burlington House, the headquarters of The Geological Society, the UK’s learned and professional body for earth scientists, with over 10,000 members worldwide. But a second map from that original run can be seen in the Rotunda. Such is the esteem in which Smith and the Rotunda are held that the president of The Geological Society is a patron of the museum and, in recognition of its significance, the Society has recently agreed to institute a biennial public lecture in the town.

The first of these lectures will take place at Scarborough Library on Thursday December 5 from 6.30pm, when current president David Shilston will present Landslides and Subsidence: Engineering Geology in an Age of Austerity – a topic of particular interest locally. The lecture is open to all, and entrance is free. Doors will open at 6pm.