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Library & Archives

August 24, 2010

William Smith (1769-1839), a National Treasure!

Our Library blog will give us the opportunity to highlight some of the gems in our collections, particularly those which are large or delicate and therefore difficult for us to bring out for visitors to the Library.

One of the largest items in our collections is the William Smith geological map.


Aug 10 Smith 1.JPG

First published in 1815 under the title: A delineation of the strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland: exhibiting the collieries and mines, the marshes and fen lands originally overflowed by the sea, and the varieties of soil according to the variations in the substrata, illustrated by the most descriptive names.

Smith revolutionised the study of geological time as the first person to use fossils as a tool for determining the strata of rocks, rather than their composition. As a result he earned the nickname William 'Strata' Smith and the 'Father of English Geology'. His work as a land, mine and canal surveyor enabled him to see below the surface and study to structure of the ground.

The map was produced in a number of formats: in sheets, mounted on canvas and rollers or spring rollers (with or without varnish), or on canvas in a travelling case. Our edition of the latter has kept the best, due to light and dirt being kept away. Many of those who bought the full sized copy and mounted it onto the wall, over time the colour faded, making the geological map pretty useless! The image below shows a section of our best copy put alongside the same section of our faded edition. This section includes the Bristol area which Smith knew very well.


Aug 10 Smith 3.JPG

Smith oversaw the hand colouring of each of the maps, signing and numbering each one (see image below). It is believed that around 400 may have been produced and that only 100 may still exist. The map was the first of its kind for this country and a ground breaker internationally. Today’s modern geological maps still owe a lot to William Smith.


Aug 10 Smith 2.JPG

Due to its size and fragility we only get Smith’s map out in all it's glory a few times a year, but keep your eyes on the Nature Live events page, the Library regularly teams up with the Palaeontology Department to do a William Smith talk. This also includes a chance to see some of the specimens collected by William Smith himself.


Winchester, Simon (2001) The map that changed the world: the tale of William Smith and the birth of a science. London : Viking.


Morton, John L (2004) Strata: the remarkable life story of William Smith, the father of English geology. Horsham : Brocken Spectre.

There are more images of the map available via the Picture Library.




Further suggested reading:


We've just had the pleasure of showing 41 teenagers (16-19yrs old) behind the scenes in the Library. Each year the Museum takes part in the Young Graduate for Museums and Galleries (YGMG) programme and we are always really impressed by their reaction when they see some of the special material we get out for them in the Library. The project gives high-achieving young people from different backgrounds the chance to see behind the scenes in Museums and Galleries across the country. They go to seminars, workshops and open days and are given the chance to complete a two week internship in the institution of their choice.

This year we displayed a mix of gems from our collections including Charles Darwin's manuscript pages of Origin of Species, the Library's oldest book (dated 1469) and designs for terracotta figures drawn by the architect of the NHM, Alfred Waterhouse.



It is always really interesting to see how the group react when they are presented with our treasures and what kinds of questions they ask, and this year was no exception. They were fascinated with the cover of the old book rather than what it contained, particularly the vellum covering and metal hinges, and took pictures with their mobiles! When we showed them the designs by Waterhouse of the Museum building, they promised to make sure they’d have a good look at the animals in the architecture as many of them hadn’t noticed them when they arrived. With the Darwin material, there were many comments on the state of his handwriting.

At one point we had a discussion about how many of them kept personal diaries and how today's 'Darwin' was probably tweeting, blogging and emailing, and therefore in the future there could be less handwritten notes and sketches as they saw in front of them.

A really bright group of teenagers and as always a pleasure to show round (especially when they gave us a round of applause!).