Biostratigraphy: William Smith
At the end of the eighteenth century, geologists still had a confused perception of the rocks they studied. Steno had shown in the 1600s that rocks could form in horizontal layers over time, which might later be carved away to expose old rock once again. But geologists had great difficulty reconstructing the original order of the layers by looking at the surviving rock. That began to change around 1800, thanks in large part to an obscure British canal surveyor named William Smith (above left).
Smith, who had little formal education, traveled throughout England as a surveyor and spent six years supervising the digging of the Somerset Canal in southwestern England. Along the way he became well acquainted with the rocks through which he cut the canals. He was surprised to find that the fossils in the layers often were arranged in the same distinctive order from the bottom to the top of the rocks. And as he traveled across England, he discovered the same sequences of fossils in rock layers. Each type of animal, he realized, had a widespread existence for a particular span of time, a span that partially overlapped with that of other animals. That made it possible for Smith to recognize the order in which rocks had been formed throughout much of England.
Smith began to make the first geological map of England. It took sixteen years to publish it, but the geologists of his day, drawn from the upper classes, spurned this unpolished pioneer. For years after publishing his map, Smith lived in anonymous poverty. Only in 1831 did a new generation of geologists appreciate Smith's contribution. In that year the Geological Society of London awarded him the Wollaston Medal, their highest prize.
Triggering a revolution
Chapters in the history of life
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