Sunday, July 29, 2012

William Smith

How many Bill Smiths have there been in the world?  That's like counting how many jelly beans in the jar.  This William Smith (1769-1839) is the most important Bill Smith I never heard of until I began reading Simon Winchester's book, The Map that Changed the World. This William Smith was an ordinary English man who became interested in fossils and then in the strata of the earth -- he did an early stint in a coal mine.  His curiosity and observation made him not just one of the many fossil collectors of the late 1700s when they were just interesting stones and no one knew they would turn the information in the most commonly used Bible in England upside down. That Bible, I learned, had a precise date and time when the earth had been formed and annotated all the events in the Bible (in the margins) with their "exact" dates.

A practical man, Smith became a canal builder and had more opportunity to look at the stones under the "emerald isle."  Eventually he realized that different fossils were found in different strata, thus certain kinds of rock was older than others. He dated the strata by the fossils found therein.  He became known as a person who could find coal or water on other people's land and was hired to do so.  He began working and wandering all over England and decided to make a map showing how the various stones lay under the earth -- in short, he invented geology. And he created a map of all of England showing what lay beneath each part of it. 

At that point things started getting rough for Bill Smith. He was doing fairly well, was acquainted with some of the intellectual lights of the day some of whom began to think of geology as an area of study.  But Bill Smith was very much a commoner although as he did well financially he bought nice houses.  A group of titled, educate, an elitist men began a geological society but Smith wasn't invited.  In fact, his writings and his maps were plagiarized quite openly.  He was not only marginalized but had been over enthusiastic about his income and wound up in debtors prison for some months. Then he left London in despair, managed to get along somehow but was, happily,  "discovered" in his 60s, honored for his discoveries, his map and writings and even made an honorary doctor.

This whole story, with much, much more is told by Winchester in solid, although not,  fascinating prose and is finally heart warming.  It's wonderful to read a life story of someone with real achievements, unrecognized or marginalized, who is finally recognized.  I love finding books like this and discovering something I didn't know.  A year or so ago I read about a contemporary of Smith, William Hershel, who not only discovered the planet Uranus but wrote music which is still played. Best of all, from my point of view, he had a brilliant sister who discovered more comets and other heavenly bodies than did Hershel himself.

This is not what's usually considered "summer reading," but then I don't read what's considered summer reading anyway.  Why titillate myself with mysteries or romances when I can read true stories and learn about things like geology or astrology at the same time?



I so enjoy books like you review in this post. True life can be more interesting than novels. Good review -- barbara

June Calender said...

Thanks, Barbara. I truly enjoy discovering people like Smith who did so much and is so nearly forgotten.