Fathers of datavisualization: William Smith 1769-1839

William Smith was an English Geologist who was often fittingly referred to as “The Father of English Geology.” In 1815, he published a geological map of England, the first of its kind, which was subsequently copied many times and served as the base for countless other maps of a similar nature. Though he received great praise later in his life, his work was often plagiarized, often causing him trouble.

William Smith was born March 23, 1769 in the village of Churchill, Oxfordshire to John Smith, a local blacksmith. At the age of 18, he became the apprentice of surveyor Edward Webb, where he quickly learned and showed great promise for future growth in the trade. During his work as a surveyor for the Somerset Canal Company, Smith reached his famous hypothesis, The Principle of Faunal Succession. This idea states that rock layers are organized in predictable vertical ways that can be determined by the fossils that were found in that layer. Older fossils will not be found in the same strata, or rock layer, as younger fossils.

In 1799, Smith published a geologic map of Bath and its surrounding area. Though he had little prior knowledge on how to draw the rocks in an area vertically, he quickly learned using references from the Somerset County Agricultural Society. With these newly developed skills, he sketched his first geological map of England or “The Map that Changed the World.” Unfortunately for Smith, this particular work was often plagiarized and he became bankrupt in 1817.

Smith did eventually garner the broad recognition that he deserved when he received the first ever Wollaston Medal for contributions to geology in 1831. Later, in 1838, Smith was selected to be one of the commissioners tasked with deciding what stone to use for the Palace of Westminster- also known as the Houses of Parliament. Smith died in the town of Northampton in 1839, and is buried near St. Peter’s Church. His map of England is still on display at the Geological Society in London.