William Smith

On this date in 1769, William Smith, known as the “Father of English Geology,” was born in Oxfordshire. Smith, who trained as an apprentice surveyor, single-handedly produced the world’s first geological map in 1815 of England, Wales and part of Scotland, spending 15 years on the project.

Smith, “whose agnosticism was well known,” according to biographer Simon Winchester, produced a “map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science … a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin.”

In “The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology” (2001), Winchester wrote: “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 the planet.”

He also noted that “For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity.”

Smith went bankrupt in 1819, spending several weeks in a debtors’ prison, then worked as an itinerant surveyor for many years. The Geological Society of London recognized his achievements by awarding him in 1831 its inaugural Wollaston Medal, the society’s highest honor. It’s named after William Hyde Wollaston, who discovered the elements palladium and rhodium and developed a process to turn platinum ore into malleable ingots.

Smith’s fossil collection is housed in the Natural History Museum, formerly part of the British Museum, in London. He died at age 70 in Northampton. (D. 1839)

Freedom From Religion Foundation