Term Paper: Geology it Was a Work of Genius

Pages: 5 (1519 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Geography  ·  Buy This Paper

Geology

It was a work of genius," author Simon Winchester asserts, "and at the same time a lonely and potentially soul-destroying project. It was the work of one man...bent on the all-encompassing mission of making a geological map of England and Wales," (192). In the eighteenth century, while he dug canals for the burgeoning industries of England, William Smith discovered the earth's "wonderful order" of fossils and sedimentary rock strata (Winchester 120). His genius earned him respectable positions working under private tutelage and eventually as the first surveyor for the Somerset Coal Canal company. Throughout the course of his relatively successful career working as a surveyor, Smith was able to corroborate his theories regarding rock stratification. Although his initial ambition might not have been specifically to draw the first geological maps of England and Wales, geological cartography is precisely what Smith did. Besides being remarkable landmark creations in and of themselves, Smith's maps utterly changed the world. The Map that Changed the World describes how William Smith, a simple man from yeoman stock, indelibly changed the face of geological science. Although he received little personal recognition during the course of his life and was in fact ostracized and isolated due to unscrupulous business and academic practices, William Smith has been immortalized in science through the implications of his theories. Simon Winchester's biography and treatise summarizes Smith's life, his achievements, and the impacts that Smith made on the scientific community as well as on the world at large.

William Smith's early fascination with fossils began in his youth in Oxfordshire, England. Born into a peasant class farming family, Smith was able to develop close connections with the geological underpinnings of his home and its surroundings. What farmers saw as mere rocks or as weights used to measure their goods for sale at market, William Smith saw as keys that would unlock the secrets of Earth's history and evolution. Arising directly out of a backwards religious doctrine that declared the origin of the earth to be merely six thousand years ago, Smith's ideas were not immediately embraced. The Church had a centuries-long stronghold over the social, political, and cosmological consciousness of its subjects. Fossils, according to religious doctrine, were reminders of God's glory, symbols of God's creation. Christians were not supposed to question the age of the earth or speculate as to its non-spiritual origins. Therefore, throughout William Smith's youth and early career, he remained quiet about his theories and discoveries.

Smith had a talent, however, a talent that could be harnessed by the budding business community. Coal mining, railroads, textile and paper mills, factories, and all other manner of industry blossomed in England during the eighteenth century and workers like Smith were needed to further the interests of business. In particular, canal diggers were hired to restructure England's transportation systems to permit the free flow of capital goods. Smith was first hired by a private patron named Edward Webb, of a town called Stow. Yet the mining industry also needed the expertise of men like William Smith, who could more accurately pinpoint geographical areas worth developing. Smith became the first surveyor to work for the Somerset Coal Canal Company.

His early work with canal digging companies and within the mining industry enabled William Smith to become more aware of what lie beneath the surface of the land. There could be no better situation for a man who loved geology in the eighteenth century than being paid to dig deep under the ground. Thus, his professional work offered him a private pleasure and a convenient means by which to formulate, develop, and prove his theories. On his own, while he traveled as a surveyor for the Somerset Coal Canal Company, Smith observed how sedimentary layers of rock were arranged in patterns across the land. Somerset Coal Canal Company was not so much interested in the scientific implications for Smith's findings as in their financial implications. For instance, when he was first hired, Smith noticed how English villages rest on top of "a score of complex, broken, twisted, and contorted seams of coal," (Winchester 60). For Smith, his work meant unlocking some of the earth's deepest secrets.

During the late eighteenth century while he traveled with Somerset and gobbled up textbooks related to geology and earth history, Smith documented the geology of England and Wales. In 1794, with Somerset colleagues Samborne Palmer and Dr. Richard Perkins, Smith went on a two-month canal expedition project that covered over nine hundred miles of England and Wales. The journey afforded Amith the ultimate opportunity to survey the entire nation and find out whether his earlier theories about sedimentary stratification held up. In his journals he noted the "gentle downgrade" of some slopes of rock strata, as well as the sudden folds that "contorted and thrust" in the earth's surface (Winchester 66; 67). Smith's interest in fossils remained as well and served as further fodder for his geological theories: in fact, Smith felt that "fossils would be the key" to understanding earth history and evolution (Winchester 105). While at home in the Tucking Mill House in Bath, Smith was able to compile some of his findings into cohesive theories.

Some of his initial assumptions were outright wrong, but while he may not have mapped England's geology with total accuracy, Smith's early maps proved "utterly remarkable," according to Winchester, and "little short of a miracle," (145). Smith's preliminary suspicion that fossils served as time records evolved into full-blown geological theories and later, into stunningly accurate geological, stratigraphical, maps. The first geological map made by Smith was of Bath and its surrounding areas. The map, reproduced on page 126 of Winchester's book, depicts bath at the center of a circle, various canals and roads emanating from it. The entire map was only fifteen inches in diameter. Influenced by other cartography and on extant atlases, Smith devised special colorization systems for his geological maps. When Smith embarked on the ambitious project of mapping out the entire country, he used the indexes of John Cay's atlas to organize his work. The map of Bath only had a few strata listed. The new maps of Britain would contain six to seven different strata, each with its own color code. Moreover, Smith painstakingly faded each color according to the depth of a particular layer. The seven strata that Smith depicted in his first three prototypical geological maps of Britain included the following layers: Chalk; Coral Rag; Clunch Clay; Oolite Freestone; Lias-Carboniferous; Red Ground; and various Carboniferous Strata.

At first Smith's prototypical maps earned him respect and permitted him to superficially escape the confines of his class. Smith's discoveries landed him several new positions surveying for wealthy landowners and companies. Moreover, as Enlightenment values spread across England and challenged Church doctrine, Smith's maps and their implications arrived in a timely fashion. Too timely, for gradually and insipidly, Smith's ideas, theories, and his maps were usurped, plagiarized, and outright stolen. Class conflict was largely to blame for the tragedies that were to befall William Smith. He was snubbed by English high-society snobs and left off the lists of organizations that should be welcomed him with open arms and accolades. When word got out that Smith had developed such useful geological maps, Smith also forged political and business ties that would turn out to be detrimental.

Smith hoped for far more recognition than he was afforded: "He wanted to be immortalized," (Winchester 196). His maps were published during his lifetime, but what should have been the high point of his life marked the beginning of a downward spiral. Many of his personal and professional relationships fell apart. Smith took an apartment in London, which would eventually cause him to accrue enormous amounts of debt. The geologist still maintained a residence at Tucking Mill as well as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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