Just as the French reign of terror was beginning, in 1793, an English canal digger and drainage engineer, the son of a blacksmith, named, rather prosaically, William Smith, experienced a stunning revelation. He discovered that, by following the placement of fossils as he excavated mines and cuts or perused surrounding cliffs, a pattern emerged which was everywhere the same. The layers of ancient rock dipped and rose as strata, uniquely different and invariably ordered bands, and therefore, he came to comprehend, could be charted and mapped. The entire subterranean hidden world could be exposed and understood. From the moment of this epiphany, William Smith dedicated the next 22 years to the enormous undertaking of creating the first-ever geological map — a geological map of the entirety of England. He completed his work in 1815, just as Napoleon’s dictatorship was crushed:
“It was a work of genius, and at the same time a lonely and potentially soul-destroying project. It was the work of one man, with one idea, bent on the all-encompassing mission of making a geological map of England and Wales. It was unimaginably difficult, physically as well as intellectually. It required tens of thousands of miles of solitary travel, the close study of more than fifty thousand square miles of territory that extended from the tip of Devon to the borders of Scotland, from the Welsh Marches to the coast of Kent
“The task required patience, stoicism, the hide of an elephant, the strength of a thousand, and the stamina of an ox. It required a certain kind of vision, an uncanny ability ti imagine a world possessed of an additional fourth dimension, a dimension that lurked beneath the purely visible surface phenomena of the length, breadth, and height of the countryside, and, because it had never been seen, was ignored by all customary cartography. To see such a hidden dimension, to imagine and extrapolate it from the little evidence that could be found, required almost a magician’s mind — as geologists who are good at this sort of thing know only too well today.
“And yet this was as yet a wholly unknown area of imaginitive deduction — there were no teachers, no guidebooks. Just one man, doing it all by himself, imagining the unimaginable.”
Simon Winchester’s The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology relates the history of this extraordinary scientific discovery and the travails of the discoverer himself. For anyone interested in the origins of modern geology, the history of cartography, or the intellectual history of British scientific thought in the decades leading up to the Darwinian revolution, this book is imperative reading.