Happy 250th William Smith

Today is the 250th birthday of the remarkable English geologist William Smith, creator of the first geological map of England and Wales – ‘the map that changed the world’. Here Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant, tells us more about Smith’s achievements and his relationship to the Museum.

William Smith (1769-1839)

William Smith (1769-1839) began his career as a land surveyor’s assistant in his home village of Churchill, Oxfordshire. He soon travelled the country working on mining, canal and irrigation projects. This gave him the opportunity to observe the patterns in layers of rock, known as strata, and to recognise that they could be identified by the fossils they contained. This would earn him the name ‘Strata Smith.’

Smith’s observations of strata over hundreds of miles led to the ground-breaking 1815 publication of his map A delineation of strata of England and Wales (pictured top) that ultimately bankrupted him.

Smith’s map set the style for modern geological maps and many of the names and colours he applied to the strata are still used today. While Smith’s accomplishment was undoubtedly remarkable, he was only officially recognised for his discoveries late in life. His lack of formal education and his family’s working class background made him an outcast to most of higher society at the time.

Geological Map of Bath, 1799. This map is considered to be one the earliest geological maps ever created. It demonstrates an early use of Smith’s ‘fading’ colouring technique which emphasised the outcrops of each stratum. The yellow tint represents the Bath Oolite, the blue marks the base of the Lias, and the red the base of the Trias.

It wasn’t until a few years before he passed away that Smith received any recognition for his contribution to the science of geology, receiving a number of awards, including the prestigious Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London in 1831, and an honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin in 1835.

A bust of William Smith is on display in the Museum’s court

His legacy lived on with his nephew John Phillips, one of our Museum’s founders and Professor of Geology at Oxford. Recognising its importance, Phillips left Smith’s archive to the Museum on his death in 1874. Thanks to generous funding from Arts Council England a few years ago, the Smith collection has been catalogued, digitised and is available online to the public.

Few men in the history of science contributed as much, but are as little known, as William Smith. He was a hardworking and determined man who dedicated his life to understanding the world beneath us. So here’s a big Happy 250th birthday to William Smith – the ‘Father of English Geology.’

A small display, Presenting… William Smith: ‘The Father of English Geology’ 250 years on, is running in the Museum until 2 May 2019.

Layer upon layer


Handwritten in Stone
9 October 2015 – 31 January 2016

Today sees the opening of our new special exhibition – Handwritten in Stone – celebrating the life and work of William Smith on the bicentenary of his publication of the first geological map of England and Wales.

Dubbed ‘The Map that Changed the World’ in Simon Winchester’s book of that title, the beautifully hand-coloured map revealed a three-dimensional arrangement of rock layers, or strata, along with a fourth dimension – time.

This work earned Smith the moniker ‘the father of geology’, an accomplishment all the more impressive given that Smith achieved it single-handedly and with very little formal education.

This 1799 map of Bath, on display in the exhibition, is the oldest geological map in the world
This 1799 map of Bath, on display in the exhibition, is the oldest geological map in the world

The Museum holds the largest archive of Smith material in the world. Alongside the famous 1815 map, shown at the top of the article, are personal papers, drawings, publications, maps and geological sections, most of which are being displayed for the first time. With these we have some fossil material from the collections: Smith realised that particular combinations of fossils were unique to different rock formations and could be used to date the strata.

Design work on the 'drawing board', created by Claire Venables at Giraffe Corner
Design work on the ‘drawing board’, created by Claire Venables at Giraffe Corner. Photo: Claire Venables

Handwritten in Stone, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is the first show in our new special exhibition gallery on the upper east side of the building. Working out how to use the space was a learning process, and the final, elegant design is the work of local consultancy Giraffe Corner.

To bring the final exhibition together we collaborated with writer Rebecca Mileham, an installation team from the Ashmolean Museum, and more than 50 volunteers. Look out for more about the volunteers’ contributions on this blog soon.

Applying the graphics in the gallery
Applying the graphics in the gallery. Photo: Claire Venables

The 1815 map itself takes centre-stage in the exhibition, flanked on one side by the history of Smith’s work building up to its publication, and on the other by the legacy of his techniques, which are still used today.

To discover the full story of William ‘Strata’ Smith head over to the upper east side of the Museum before 31 January.

And don’t forget to look out for our What’s On programme which includes lots of William Smith and geology-focused events, including a public talk by author Simon Winchester on 13 October.

Scott Billings – Public engagement officer