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British Industrial History

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William Smith (1769-1839)

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William Smith (1763-1839), civil engineer and geologist, "father of English geology"

1763 born in Churchill, Oxfordshire, the son of John Smith, the village blacksmith, and his wife, Ann.

1787 Smith became assistant to the land surveyor Edward Webb at Stow on the Wold

1791 Surveyed estates at Stowey in Somerset. Smith became involved in underground surveys of the local coal measures, which set him thinking about the succession of strata in the area.

Local landowners asked him to survey routes for the Somerset coal canal, to take land-locked coal to the sea and, via other canals (i.e. the Kennet and Avon Canal), to London.

1793-99 Engineer on the Somerset Coal Canal.

1795 Canal excavations started, which allowed Smith to compare the strata of one branch of the canal with those of the other.

1796 he recorded his key observation that some of the strata contained fossils, which could be used to identify them - the first time strata with similar lithology had been distinguished from each other, which was a major geological breakthrough.

1799 After the failure of his scheme to use a caisson instead of a lock, he was dismissed from the company.

Established partnership with Jeremiah Cruse (1758–1819), as a land surveyor in Trim Bridge, Bath

1801 Issued a prospectus for his intended book Accurate delineations and descriptions of the natural order of the various strata that are found in different parts of England and Wales, to be published by John Debrett. Smith knew that his stratigraphic ideas had great economic potential since they revealed where coal, iron, clay, and other minerals should be sought. He started travelling around the country in search of commissions and data concerning the ordering of strata. Also worked on draining land.

1803 Set up office in London

1807 Became responsible for his nephew John Phillips (1800-1874) on his parent's death

1812 London map-maker John Cary (1754–1835) offered to publish Smith's Geological Map.

1815-18 Enforced sale of his fossil collections to the British Museum.

1819 he was imprisoned for debt, due to an unfortunate investment in a quarrying concern near Bath.

1824 he and Phillips lectured in Yorkshire.

1828 became land steward to Sir John Johnstone at Hackness, Yorkshire, where Smith produced his last masterpiece, a detailed and accurate geological map of the Hackness estate.

1831 the Geological Society awarded Smith the first Wollaston medal

1837–8 Smith was a member of the commission which sought stone for the new houses of parliament.

1839 Died on 28 August at the house of George Baker in Northampton.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  • The Canal Builders by Anthony Burton. 1972/81. ISBN 0 7153 8120 2
  • Biography of William Smith, ODNB