The dazzling map that changed the world
2015 marked the 200th anniversary of the first geological map of England and Wales, created and painted by a humble Oxfordshire surveyor, William Smith.
I worked with the expert team at the Natural History Museum of Oxford University, helping to tell the little-known stories behind Smith’s archives, for a new exhibition Handwritten in Stone: how William Smith and his maps changed geology.
William Smith spent his childhood collecting fossils, and his career travelling the country as a surveyor. But how did he make the leap to representing the Earth’s three-dimensional rocky layers, or strata, so vividly on a two-dimensional sheet of paper? This is what we wanted to explore using the museum’s collection of rare maps, personal papers, fossils and tools.
The exhibition looked at the work and life of Smith, the ‘father of stratigraphy’ – and examined how Smith still influences geologists today as they unlock the Earth’s secrets. As I wrote the text, I was able to pick the brains of Kate Diston, the Museum’s Head of Library and Archives, and geologist Paul Smith, the Museum’s Director and the first person to map Greenland. I also interviewed Mike Searle, who is uncovering the geology behind Everest and the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal earlier in 2015. Mike told me: “I still map the way William Smith would have done: map, compass, hammer and hand lens. I do carry GPS but you don’t really need it if you can read a map.”
As background research I also spent a splendid day with Richard O Smith and Bill Snow, exploring William Smith’s home village of Churchill, where there is now a memorial to his achievements as well as a heritage centre open in the summer months. Richard and I are now working on a podcast about Smith’s ground-breaking discoveries, digging deeper into his story with the help of the Museum archives – and an enormous sandwich.
During most of his lifetime, Smith’s breakthroughs were overlooked by a snobbish establishment, as Simon Winchester explained in his lecture accompanying the exhibition.
There’s plenty to delve into, discuss and learn – so that in the future William Smith’s discoveries can be remembered in the glowing colour they deserve.
Handwritten in Stone: How William Smith and his maps changed geology.
Ran from 9 October 2015 to 31 January 2016 at OUMNH.