The Father of Geology

wasn't the only great man produced by Churchill.

William Smith was born there in 1769, into a family of smallholders. He had little formal education, but taught himself geometry, surveying, and mapping, alongside a continuing passion for collecting fossils.

At eighteen, he became an assistant surveyor. By the age of 25, he had toured the entire country, and had acquired the experience to undertake major projects (like the Somerset Coal Canal) in his own right.

Surveying canal routes required detailed understanding of the rocks through which the canal would cut. Smith combined this close attention to rock types, with his own interest in fossils. He discovered that the fossils found in sedimentary rock always lay in a particular sequence - from top to bottom. What's more, the same sequence could be identified in similar rocks elsewhere - even on the other side of England.

He proposed the "Principle of Faunal Succession" - that the layers of sedimentary rocks in any given location contain fossils in a definite sequence; the same sequence can be found in rocks elsewhere, and hence strata can be correlated between locations.

This principle is familiar to anyone who paid attention during their geology classes, but it was revolutionary at the time. And, at the time, it was largely ignored. However, Smith's work was one of the foundations upon which Charles Darwin built his "Origin of the Species".

But Smith remained a practical man. He advised on the restoration of the Roman Baths of Aquae Sulis (Bath in Somerset). He also began to express the results of his investigations into rocks and fossils in geological maps.

Smith was not the first to make geological maps, but he was the first to use the principle of fossil sequencing to correlate rocks in different places. Previous mapmakers had simply described what they saw.

Above all, no-one had attempted to produce a geological map of the whole of England and Wales. This, Smith resolved to correct.

It was a mammoth task - not least in the fund-raising - but Smith completed the necessary surveys in thirteen years. It took a further three years to turn this data into a completed map (paid for by subscription with 400 subscribers). This was 1815, the year of Waterloo.

Once again, Smith's efforts were largely ignored by the scientific community. His lowly birth and meagre education were held against him. It wasn't until 1831 that the Royal Geological Society granted him full recognition and honour.

Fellow-geologist Adam Sedgwick presented Smith with the first Wollaston Medal, with the words:-

If, in the pride of our present strength, we were disposed to forget our origin, our very speech betrays us: for we use the language which he [Smith] taught us in the infancy of our science. If we, by our united efforts, are chiselling the ornaments and slowly raising up the pinnacles of one of the temples of nature, it was he that gave the plan, and laid the foundations, and erected a portion of the solid walls, by the unassisted labour of his hands.
Hastings and Smith - not bad for one little village.

In fact, there was one other famous man associated with Churchill - John McTimoney. But he's only famous amongst chiropractors - and I'm not sure that counts.

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