The strange and enchanting beauty of geological maps


  • Science is often accused of making the world less “magical”, but geological maps prove otherwise.
  • William Smith and William Maclure produced amazing geological maps of Britain and the United States, respectively.
  • Their pioneering work is still important – and enchanting – today; but one William’s legacy surpasses that of another.

  • William ‘Strata’ Smith with some of his fossils and part of his map: from a short video from the British Geological Survey. Credit: YouTube

    Here is one of the worst raps in science: it disenchanted the world. Literally disillusioned by replacing magic with measure. And so, he reduced the miracle of life to the banality of being.

    There is a lot of falsehood in this assessment, but nowhere is it more false than in the field of geology. Earth scientists have given eloquent voices to the mute mud and dumb rocks beneath our feet. They have pieced together the deep history of the underworld – older and more violent than one might have imagined. And they produced weirdly beautiful cards like these.

    Weird, because these colors and borders resist identification with subdivisions with which we are more familiar, such as political entities, climatic zones or types of land use. No, geological maps erase all these modes and deal only with the non-ephemeral: the origin and nature of the earth itself.

    Smith single-handedly mapped an area of ​​over 175,000 km2 (67,500 square miles). Eventually, only about 400 copies of the completed map were published in 1815. About 40 survive today.
    Image: Natural History Museum

    Perhaps the most famous map in the history of geology is this one, published in 1815 by William Smith, showing the stratification of England, Wales and part of Scotland. For the first time, this map presented a detailed overview of the geology of an entire country.

    He set the standard for all subsequent geological maps. And this has made geology a “practical” science, helping industrialists locate exploitable coal seams, for example. Indeed, it was “The Map That Changed the World”, as described in a bestselling book by that title.

    The book, by Simon Winchester, focuses on the fascinating story of the cartographer’s life. Nicknamed ‘Strata’ Smith, the modest surveyor noticed how the fossils lay in predictable layers on the side of a freshly dug canal. He had the idea of ​​a layered geological past and spent the first decade and a half of the 19th century surveying most of Britain to prove his theory.

    Smith’s map was accompanied by a cross-section of the country, from Snowdon (left) to London, showing how the strata of southern England dip south-east. It was indeed the first “functional diagram”, now a standard feature of geographic cartography. Credit: Natural History Museum

    Smith’s map is remarkably similar to current geological maps of Britain, proving the accuracy of his work. But he struggled to convince his contemporaries – which was at least in part due to class differences: The Geological Society of London was a gentleman’s club, not the natural environment for a blacksmith’s son.

    In his fight against social ostracism and professional plagiarism, Smith was forced to sell his fossil collection to the British Museum, lost his home and ended up in debt prison. Free again but still homeless, he worked as a traveling surveyor, until one of his employers recognized him for his work and named him Land Steward on an estate near Scarborough.

    Smith went on to design the Scarborough Rotunda, one of the oldest purpose-built museums in Britain. It was not until 1831 that he was recognized by the Geological Society as the “father of English geology”. His work was an inspiration to Charles Darwin.

    Bedrock map of the UK and Ireland, showing the current understanding of the science of island geology.Credit: Geological Survey Ireland

    William Smith’s original map can be viewed at the headquarters of the Geological Society at Burlington House in London, where it hangs side by side with the geological map of England and Wales by George Greenough, the first president of the Geological Society and Smith’s cartographic rival.

    Smith is an impressive story of rags to fame, and his accomplishments are now widely recognized, thanks in large part to Simon Winchester’s book.

    However, Smith’s shining star of fame somewhat obscures the work of one of his American colleagues. In 1809, six years before Smith published his map, William Maclure produced a geological map of the United States. Although inevitably dubbed the “father of American geology,” Maclure did not receive as much fame (admittedly, especially posthumously) as Smith did.

    Geological map of the United States, by William Maclure (1809). Maclure used an existing map from Samuel G. Lewis as the base map for his color-coded observations. Image: David Rumsey Card Collection, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    What a difference a star biographer makes. Because the story of Maclure’s life also sounds like material that turns the pages. A prosperous Scottish merchant, Maclure was wealthy enough to retire at 34. Settling in Virginia but traveling back and forth to Europe, he devoted the remainder of his life to science and philanthropy – an example of the latter was his introduction to Philadelphia of educational courses based on the principles of philanthropy. Swiss innovator Pestalozzi. He later also helped establish a utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana.

    Maclure had been bitten by the geology virus during a trip to France. In 1807 he personally began mapping the geology of the then United States, crossing and re-crossing the Allegheny Mountains no less than 50 times. The monumental work took him two years. Although he used a different classification system than Smith’s, subsequent investigations confirmed the general correctness of Maclure’s observations.

    In 1817, he became president of the new Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which he remained almost until his death. His failing health forced him to abandon the attempt to create an agricultural college in Indiana. He died in Mexico in 1840. In his will, he provided for the creation of 160 workers’ libraries.

    The United States is much larger than in Maclure’s day, and the geology is much more advanced; yet the current map still draws on some of the observations he made in the early 19th century.
    Image: USGS

    Strange Cards # 1046

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