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Visiting the William Smith Map

grand staircase at burlington house with william smith map on wall

In our hallway hangs a copy of William Smith’s (1769-1839) map ‘A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland, exhibiting the Collieries and Mines, the Marshes and Fenland, originally overflowed by the Sea, and varieties of soil according to the Variations in the Substrata, illustrated by the Most Descriptive Names…’ published by John Cary (1815).

Considered to be the first geological map of a complete country ever made, Smith’s innovation was to attempt to classify rocks according to age and manner of deposition—that is stratigraphically. Fundamental to the production of the map was Smith’s recognition that particular fossils were associated with specific strata, thus enabling rocks to be correlated across country. During his travels up and down the country working as a surveyor and engineer, Smith recorded the rocks that he saw. Much of the geology on his map is therefore from first hand observations.

Beside Smith’s map is another geological map produced under the authorship of the Society’s first President George Bellas Greenough (1778-1855). As it was published not long after in 1820 (although the date engraved on the map is November 1819), it has been described as a rival to Smith’s map notably in Simon Winchester's book 'The Map that Changed the World' (2001).  

Much has been written about to what extent Smith’s Map influenced Greenough but the reality is far more complicated. Greenough’s map is actually more accurate because he used multiple sources, whilst Smith, strictly bound by his stratigraphical theories, would add strata in areas where he presumed they must be but did not in fact exist.

Both maps can be viewed Tuesday-Thursday, 9.30am-5pm. No appointment is necessary.

Smith map
  Greenough map
Find out more about William Smith's Map   Find out more about Greenough's Map