"Strata Smith"

After dinner on this day in 1799, the Rev. Joseph Townsend, the Rev. Benjamin Richardson and William Smith, three of the leading figures in 18th-century British geology, created the “Table of Strata” that would became The Map That Changed the World — this the title of Simon Winchester’s 2005 book on the subject. The Table of Strata, a chart of twenty-two stratified layers, from chalk at the top to coal at the bottom, were dictated by thirty-year-old Smith based on his observations of rocks and fossils in Somerset and the surrounding area. In 1815, Smith’s observations were published in map form — the first geological map of anywhere in the world, titled “A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland; exhibiting the Collieries and Mines; the Marshes and Fen Lands originally Overflowed by the Sea; and the Varieties of Soil according to the Variations in the Sub Strata; illustrated by the Most Descriptive Names.” The map transformed “Strata Smith” into “the Father of British Geology” and, says Winchester, changed the scientific, intellectual and economic landscape:

It is a map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science. It is a document that laid the groundwork for the making of great fortunes—in oil, in iron, in coal, and in other countries in diamonds and tin and platinum and silver—that were won by explorers who used such maps. It is a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin. It is a map whose making signified the start of an era, not yet over, that has been marked ever since by the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed man at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma, and to come to understand something certain about his own origins and those of his planet.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.