Explanatory Notes

Geological Table of British Organized Fossils 2
Which Identify the Courses and Continuity of the Strata in their Order of Superposition
as Originally Discovered by W. Smith, Civil Engineer,
with Reference to His Geological Map of England and Wales

William Smith’s Geological Table is a summary of the paleontology, lithology, topographic expression, location, and useful products of the strata of England and Wales. Smith’s great Geological Map of England and Wales and Part of Scotland of 1815 was one of the first if not the first geological survey in the modern sense, and a paradigm for the geologic mapping of the globe for well over a century. The map in 15 sheets was an 8'9" by 6'2" condensation of Smith’s observations and measurements over a lifetime of work in the field. The Geological Table was a part schematic and part text outline in a single sheet of the results he had obtained and the conclusions he had reached and had expressed so beautifully with the great map. In a broader context it may be considered as the prototype of the modern Geological Column.

William Smith’s new geology first came to light about 1799. One evening after dining with two friends, the Rev. Benjamin Richardson and the Rev. Joseph Townsend, Smith, then in his 30th year, was persuaded to dictate what he had learned of the strata and their embedded fossil contents in the vicinity of Bath. Twenty-two strata from Chalk at the top to Coal at the bottom were listed in order as the first column of a table with parallel columns of their thicknesses, their peculiarities such as springs, their fossil contents, and their descriptions and locations. The two clergymen, Richardson and Townsend, were knowledgeable collectors of fossils and the first naturalists to realize the significance of Smith’s work. They were in a position to supply Smith with both the names and the biological identifications of his fossils and they introduced him to the literature of natural history.

Many ‘organized’ fossils (i.e. organic remains) had already been studied and grouped biologically according to their affinities with living specimens by the end of the 18th century. Smith’s addition of a definable stratigraphic order brought this early biological science into geology and at the same time added the dimension of time to the science of biology (although it would be years before the import of adding the dimension of time to the ladder of life implicit in Smith’s work would be grasped). The concept of biostratigraphy was so simple and so obvious a truth as to stun these learned scholars. The implications were far reaching. Since the strata of Smith’s Table were in the order of upper to lower, the fossils they contained were in the same order. The order of upper to lower was also the order of younger to older therefore the fossils they contained were of the same relative age. Smith’s geological column implied a scale of time as well as position. Other geologists and collectors of fossils had known since the time of Robert Hooke and Edward Lhwyd that fossils were the ‘hieroglyphics’ (Hooke’s word) of nature and the key to the "cause and reason of the configuration of the earth’s surface." Now Smith had shown how to read this history of the world written in the rocks. After his insight, every use of fossils to identify strata would be a confirmation of the validity of a new historical geology. With Smith’s willing assent, Richardson and Townsend undertook to disseminate his Geological Table in Britain and abroad.

Smith’s "tabular view of the main features of the subject" was to develop into the Geologic Column and the Geologic Time Scale of classical geological science. By 1812 it had become a formal Table to serve as an annotated legend - a detailed index to Smith’s great map of England, Wales and part of Scotland, then in preparation. Each stratum was represented by a distinctive color usually characteristic of the rock in the field (the color scheme of the map, and also of Smith’s later maps of individual counties). Smith’s manuscript notes are replete with sketched diagrams of outcrops showing carefully measured sequences of strata at specific locations, with notes on their fossil contents, lithology etc. He had combined such cross-sections from the whole of the southern half of Britain into a single column. Recognizing the considerable variation within well defined strata, he shaded the coloring of each stratum from lightest at the top to deepest at the bottom-a coloring device that enabled him to represent the order from top to bottom within each stratum as they were exposed in the field. This device also enabled Smith to suggest the topography and even the dip by the depth of the color on the map. The strata dipped away from the darkened color and toward the lighter shade giving the map something of the appearance of a relief map. It was an ingenious device that was copied by English geologists,William Buckland for one, for sometime afterward.

According to his nephew and biographer John Phillips3, Smith continued to refine his observations during the preparation of the great map and in 1815 and 1816 he drew up an improved version of the table specifying and numbering 34 strata-essentially the version reproduced here. Phillips also refers to revised tables appearing with other work published in 1817. Joan Eyles has identified two separate plates for this Table that she dates as "1817(?)" 0, but Smith’s publisher, John Cary continued to print and sell it at least into 1829.

The Table shown here is an engraving measuring about 15" x 18". It was originally sold for 1s.6d. There are four principal columns of textual data with a central column of strata water-colored by hand. The successive strata are in the same order as Smith had arranged them "on the shelves of the Geological Collection" that he had sold to the British Museum. The first text column lists the fossil contents of the matching strata of the central column. The second text column lists the names of the strata on the shelves of the collection. The central column shows thirty-four numbered and colored strata, from the London Clay (No.1) at the top to No. 34, "Granite, Sienite, & Gneifs,(sic)" at the bottom. The fourth column is the name [as it appeared] "in the MEMOIR and the PECULIARITIES of the" stratum. (The MEMOIR of 1815, was Smith’s text explanation of his map). The fifth column lists the uses and products of each stratum. Brackets to the second column identify the topographic expression of each group of strata, as "Plains", "Chalk Hills", "Clay Vales" etc. Brackets to the fourth and fifth columns select other groupings of adjacent strata such as "Mine and Mineral Districts". Finally, below the table itself Smith listed 42 counties in alphabetical order in 6 columns, each with a string of numbers identifying the strata found in that county.

When this table first appeared, Smith was in the midst of continuing the "Strata Identified..." (cf. above). He advertised that the "Strata Identified..." was to cover the full column in seven parts, to be issued monthly, but two years later he had only published Part 4 (through to the Fuller’s Earth Rock) before his debts overwhelmed him. His rivals for the claim to the discovery of the principle of faunal succession, Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart, enjoyed lavish support from the Crown of France and their work was published at the expense of the state in magnificent volumes.

Cecil J. Schneer Professor Emeritus of Geology and the History of Science
The University of New Hampshire

Postscipt and Acknowledgments

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0 Eyles, J., Item 16 B in; Jour.Soc.Biblphy.nat.Hist.,(1969) 5(2): 87-109, vide pp.97-98.

2 Courtesy of the William Smith Collection, University Museum of Natural History, Oxford University.

3 Phillips, J., Memoirs of W.S., 1844.
Eyles, J. op. cit.

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