Before there were rock stars, one man put them on the map. That man was William “Strata” Smith, and his map of the rocks at the surface in England, Wales, and part of Scotland—completed in 1815—was the first major geologic map ever made. Smith wasn’t a wealthy aristocrat, free to pursue his interests. He wasn’t even a trained geologist. He oversaw the digging of canals and drainage ditches. But those who dig discover what is buried.
He saw that the English bedrock was not just a random jumble, but that there was an order to the layers, an order that stretched across the country. And so he gradually put together a map, revealing the record of deep history that lies beneath the soil. Part of his insight was the recognition that fossils could be used to correlate layers of the same age, even if many miles separated the places where they could be inspected.
Given its importance to the history of geology, Smith’s story can be found in many books about the history of science, as well as Simon Winchester’s popular The Map That Changed the World. In honor of the 200th anniversary of his historic map, Tom Sharpe of Cardiff University’s Lyme Regis Museum penned an article about William Smith for the journal Science, which you can read here.