Happy Birthday William Smith!

William Smith

Today marks the 244th birthday of William ‘Strata’ Smith, a very important figure in the history of English geology and to the Museum, so we thought it only appropriate that we mark this day.

Despite being born to humble beginnings in Churchill, Oxfordshire in the late 18th Century, Smith single-handedly mapped the geology of Great Britain and created the first geological map of England and Wales, which was published in 1815. He managed this amazing feat through his observation of the layers, or strata, beneath the earth and the fossils found within them. His work as a Land Surveyor and Engineer for both Mining and Canal companies proved to be the perfect opportunity to complete his work, allowing him to travel the country to complete contracts and still make his observations.

While this accomplishment was undoubtedly remarkable, Smith unfortunately didn’t receive the recognition for his work he so deserved until 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. It wasn’t until just a few years before he passed away, in 1839, that he received any recognition for his ingenious contribution to the science of geology, receiving a number of awards, including the prestigious Wollaston Medal and an honorary degree.

William Smith map

We are very fortune to have a large number of Smith’s papers here at the Museum, and to have recently received generous funding from Arts Council England to catalogue and digitise his collection. As uncle, guardian and teacher to the Museum’s first keeper John Phillips, Smith’s papers have long been housed within our archive and are an important resource into the history of geology and geological mapping in Britain. This funding will give us the opportunity to make them available online to the public for the first time.

William Smith project

A work experience student helps to process scans of original documents in the Smith archive

William Smith Online will be available early next year, but work is well underway behind the scenes. The website will launch a number of events over 2014 through to 2015, to celebrate the bicentenary of Smith’s geological map of England and Wales, both here in the museum and around the country. Watch this space, or follow us on twitter to keep updated on this exciting project!

Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections

1 thought on “Happy Birthday William Smith!

  1. Pingback: A puzzle of maps | Darkened not dormant

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