William Smith's kaleidoscopic 1815 geologic map of England was the bedrock of many modern land-based industries.

William Smith's 1815 map (The Geological Society)

There's a good chance your last encounter with a geologic map was in 8th grade science class, and your memories of it are sandwiched between awful puns about minerals (I'm not gneiss, I'm full of schist).

But you should care about geologic maps, because they aren't merely arcane tools for those who study earth sciences. They're essential to anyone who uses the earth's resources or builds on it. By visualizing the age, makeup, and relationships of rocks along a given swathe of the earth’s surface, geologic maps are the best, simplest way decision-makers can "identify and protect valuable resources, avoid risks from natural hazards, and make wise use of our land," according to the Idaho Geological Survey. They are the reason your house isn't perched atop an ancient landslide area, and the reason Halliburton fracks where it fracks.

Wider literacy about their function and history is in order. Fortunately, a new exhibit at the Geological Society of London presents a great starting point: A rare, first-edition print of William Smith’s 1815 Geological Map of England and Wales, the first true geologic map of a nation ever produced.

Where previous attempts to map geology had only described rocks by type (here's gneiss, there's schist), Smith, a canal-digger-cum-"Father of English Geology," was the first to visually classify rocks according to their age and how they were deposited. His brightly colored, now-200-year-old document, which shows the stratigraphy of England, Wales, and part of Scotland, became the bedrock of geologic cartography—as well as of the modern world's industries around coal and oil, gold mining, highway systems, and railroad routes, as Simon Winchester describes in his 2001 book on Smith. Long thought lost, the particular copy now on display at the Society (both online and in the flesh) was rediscovered in the archives just last year.

Close-up of Gloucestershire (The Geological Society)
Close-up of London (The Geological Society)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.

  2. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.
    Coronavirus

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

  3. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.
    Coronavirus

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?

  4. Equity

    The Last Daycares Standing

    In places where most child cares and schools have closed, in-home family daycares that remain open aren’t seeing the demand  — or the support — they expected.

  5. photo: a bicycle rider wearing a mask in London
    Coronavirus

    In a Global Health Emergency, the Bicycle Shines

    As the coronavirus crisis forces changes in transportation, some cities are building bike lanes and protecting cycling shops. Here’s why that makes sense.

×