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Abstract

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.

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