1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Smith, William (geologist)
SMITH, WILLIAM (1760–1839), English geologist, appropriately termed “the Father of English geology,” and known among his acquaintances as “Strata Smith,” was born at Churchill in Oxfordshire on the 23rd of March 1769. Deprived of his father, an ingenious mechanic, before he was eight years old, he depended upon his father’s eldest brother, a farmer at Over Norton, who was but little pleased with his nephew’s love of collecting “pundibs” (Terebratulae) and “pound-stones” (the large Echinoid Clypeus, then frequently employed as a pound weight by dairy women), and with his propensity for carving sundials on soft brown “oven-stone” of his neighbourhood. The uncle was, however, better satisfied when the boy, after studying the rudiments of geometry and surveying, began to take interest in the draining of land; and there is no doubt that William Smith profited in after life by the practical experience he gained with his relative. At the age of eighteen he became assistant to Edward Webb, surveyor, of Stow-on-the-Wold, and traversed the Oolitic lands of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, the Lias clays and red marls of Warwickshire and other districts, studying their varieties of strata and soils. In 1791 his observations at Stowey and High Littleton in Somersetshire first impressed him with the regularity of the strata. In 1793 he executed the surveys and levellings for the line of the Somerset Coal Canal, in the course of which he confirmed a previous supposition, that the strata lying above the coal were not horizontal, but inclined in one direction—to the E.—so as to terminate successively at the surface.
On being appointed engineer to the canal in 1794 he was deputed to make a tour of observation with regard to inland navigation. During this tour, which occupied nearly two months, he journeyed to York and Newcastle and returned through Shropshire and Wales to Bath; he carefully examined the geological structure of the country, and corroborated his generalization of a settled order of succession in the strata. After residing for two or three years at High Littleton he removed in 1795 to Bath, and three years later purchased a small estate at Tucking Mill, Midford, about 3 m. distant from the city, where he engaged in the last duties he performed as resident engineer to the Coal Canal (1738–1799). His numerous journeys had, satisfied him of the practicability of making a map to show the ranges of the different strata across England, and in 1794 he coloured his first geological map—that of the vicinity of Bath.
At this time he made acquaintance with the Rev. Benjamin Richardson (d. 1832), from 1796 rector of Farleigh Hungerford, who possessed a good collection of local fossils, but knew nothing of the laws of stratification. He had a sound knowledge of natural history, and he greatly aided Smith in learning the names and true nature of the fossils, while Smith arranged his specimens in the order of the strata. By this new friend Smith was introduced to the Rev. Joseph Townsend (1738–1816), rector of Pewsey, and on a notable occasion in 1799 Smith dictated his first table of British Strata, written by Richardson and now in the possession of the Geological Society of London. It was headed Order of the Strata, and their imbedded Organic Remains, in the neighbourhood of Bath; examined and proved prior to 1799. In 1813 Townsend published, with due acknowledgment, much information on the English strata communicated by William Smith, in a work entitled The Character of Moses established for veracity as an historian, recording events from the Creation to the Deluge. Meanwhile Smith was completing and arranging the data for his large Geological Map of England and Wales, with part of Scotland, which appeared in 1815, in fifteen sheets, engraved on a scale of 5 m. to 1 in. The map was reduced to smaller form in 1819; and from this date to 1822 twenty-one separate county geological maps and several sheets of sections were published in successive years, the whole constituting a Geological Atlas of England and Wales. Smith’s collection of fossils was purchased in 1816–1818 by the British Museum. In 1817 a portion of the descriptive catalogue was published under the title of a Stratigraphical System of Organized Fossils. Prior to this, in 1816, he commenced the publication of Strata Identified by Organized Fossils, with figures printed on paper to correspond in some degree with the natural hue of the strata. In this work (of which only four parts were published, 1816–1819) is exemplified the great principle he established of the identification of strata by their included organic remains. In January 1831 the Geological Society of London conferred on Smith the first Wollaston medal; on which occasion Sedgwick in an eloquent address referred to Smith as “the Father of English Geology”; and the government conferred upon him a life-pension of £100 per annum. The degree of LL.D. he received from Dublin, at the meeting of the British Association in that city in 1835. In 1838 he was appointed one of the commissioners to select building-stone for the new Houses of Parliament. The last years of his life were spent at Hackness (of which he made a good geological map), near Scarborough, and in the latter town. His usually robust health failed in 1839, and on 28th August of that year he died at Northampton. He was buried at St Peter’s church, and a bust by Chantrey was placed in the nave. In 1891 the earl of Ducie erected a monument to his memory at his native place, Churchill.
His Memoirs, edited by his nephew, John Phillips, appeared in 1844.