By Bethany Dotson
My name is Bethany Dotson, and I’m a market development manager here at Gale – and, for today, your featured guest blogger on Nineteenth-Century Nitty Gritty. My background is in English and Spanish literature, and I love all things Victorian.
I have recently discovered the joys of audiobooks on my commute—with the complication that the four miles I drive to work lends itself to only a few pages at a time. For the last few weeks, then, I have been enjoying (I can’t say devouring at this pace) Simon Winchester’s The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, about—well, about the birth of modern geology.
I am, by education, more literary- than history-focused, with no science background to speak of, but I find the sociological, religious, and economic consequences of one man’s work on rocks—and the fossils within—of all things, fascinating. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, increasing thought and investigation of the earth and how it developed put standard religious thought into question—perhaps the world wasn’t created on October 23, 4004 BC at 9 AM as originally thought (honestly)—and also provided better and more efficient ways to locate coal and iron deposits by tracking the layers of the Earth and what they contained. It is this work, as well, that Darwin built on (as well as the work of many others) in developing his theories of natural selection and evolution.
William Smith is considered the founder or modern geology, and the originator of the term “strata” and, thus, “stratification.” I did a quick search in NewsVault and Gale Artemis: Primary Sources—below are just a few of the fascinating and enlightening pieces that I discovered.
19th Century British Newspapers uncovered this first nugget—a very early (1806) mention of “stratification” from Mr. Smith himself in Norfolk! It also lists an early publication that wasn’t mentioned in the book – Observations on the Utility, Form, and Management of Water Meadows, and the Draining and Improvement of Bogs. Scintillating bedtime reading. It is interesting, though, that it was Mr. Smith’s early works in water management—key after the enclosure acts in the UK—that allowed him to investigate and dig across England, Wales, and southern Scotland.
What I mentioned earlier—the importance of efficient location of coal and why Smith’s work was so important—is elucidated further in this clip from the Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany in 1807. The key part here? “Regarding it as destitute of coal, much labour and expence to no purpose, might thus be prevented.”
Although not by the great Mr. Smith, this early geological survey by Henry Bristow and J.W. Lowry in 1858—almost 40 years after the publication of William Smith’s famous geological map and almanac in 1815—is a fascinating look at the science and the art that went into producing complex geological charts and maps. One of the greatest puzzles that Smith solved was not only to discover the extent and location of rock and mineral formations across the island, but to determine—with help from partners—how to display that meaningfully in a 2-d illustration.
Here, in 1806, even before the publication of Smith’s master work in 1815, he is well regarded for his already-extensive “master work” on the stratification of England, Wales, and part of Scotland. My favorite part of this excerpt? The exclamation point. These chalk formations are exciting!
And, of course, it wouldn’t be true science and discovery if there wasn’t scandal, disagreement, and public argument about who first came up with these ideas, who can take credit, and whose name is attached to this doctrine. Here, in 1818, Thomas Tredgold seems to intimate that Mr. William Smith has a lesser claim to the doctrine of stratification, which “so nearly coincide(s) with the doctrine of formations” belonging to Mr. Werner.
About the Author
Bethany is an avid reader, coffee enthusiast, and travel maven. She’s a proud UMich alum with a BA in English & Spanish. While currently working on her MBA, she looks forward to graduating so she has time for hobbies again!