Timeless order:: William Smith (1769–1839) and the search for raw materials 1800–1820
Published:January 01, 2001
Hugh S. Torrens, 2001. "Timeless order:: William Smith (1769–1839) and the search for raw materials 1800–1820", The Age of the Earth: From 4004 BC to AD 2002, C. L. E. Lewis, S. J. Knell
Download citation file:
Smith first described himself as ‘land surveyor and drainer’ in his 1801 Prospectus but then as ‘engineer and mineralogist’ in his first book of 1806. His several careers are discussed with an attempt to shed new light on his pioneering career as ‘mineral surveyor’ (a term invented by his pupil, John Farey, in 1808). The trials for coal with which he was involved can be divided into two: those in which he used his new stratigraphic knowledge in positive searches for new coal deposits; and those where his stratigraphic science could often negatively demonstrate that many such searches were doomed to failure. These latter attempts were being made in, and misled by, repetitious clay lithologies, which resembled, but were not, Coal Measures. Smith was the first to show how unfortunate it was for such coal hunters that the British stratigraphic column abounded in repetitious clay lithologies. It was also unfortunate for Smith that many of the founding fathers of the Geological Society were unconvinced of the reality or the utility of Smith’s discoveries. Its leaders at first did not believe he had uncovered anything of significance and then simply stole much of it. The development of Smith’s stratigraphic science in the world of practical geology remains poorly understood, but the legacy of his method for unravelling relative geological time and space was one of the most significant of the nineteenth century.
Figures & Tables
The Age of the Earth: From 4004 BC to AD 2002
The age of the Earth has long been a subject of great interest to scientists from many disciplines, particularly geologists, biologists, physicists and astronomers. This volume, The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002, brings together contributors from these different subjects, along with historians, to produce a comprehensive review of how the Earth’s age has been perceived since ancient times. Touching on the works of eminent scholars from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, it describes how concepts of the Earth’s history changed as geology slowly separated itself from religious orthodoxy to emerge as a rigorous and self-contained science. Fossils soon became established as useful markers of relative age, while deductions made from geomorphological processes enabled the discussion of time in terms of years. By the end of the nineteenth century biologists and geologists were fiercely debating the issue with physicists who were unwilling to give them the time needed for evolution or uniformitarianism.
With the discovery of radioactivity, attempts to calculate the Earth’s age entered a new era, although these early pioneers in radiometric dating encountered many difficulties, both technical and intellectual, before the enormity of geological time was fully recognized. This effort affected both the theory and practice of geology. Geochronology was largely responsible for it maturing into a professional scientific discipline, as increasingly refined techniques measured not only the age of the rocks, but the rate of processes which now elucidate many aspects of the Earth’s evolution.
Even today the Earth’s chronology remains a contentious topic — particularly for those dating the oldest rocks — and it is implicated in debates surrounding our hominid ancestors, the origins and development of life, and the age of the universe.
The Age of the Earth: from 4004 bc to AD 2002 will be of particular interest to geologists, geochemists, and historians of science, as well as astronomers, archaeologists, biologists and the general reader with an interest in science.