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University celebrates the ‘Father of English Geology’

Image of a detail from William Smith's 1815 map

Detail from Smith's 1815 map showing part of the Bristol Channel

Press release issued: 1 October 2015

A celebration to mark the bicentenary of the publication of the very first geological map of England and Wales – created by local canal engineer and surveyor William Smith (1769-1839), known as the ‘Father of Geology’ – takes place this October at the University of Bristol.

Smith, who worked for many years on the Somersetshire Coal Canal near Bath, was one of the forefathers of geological mapping.  His 1815 map, which covered the whole of England and Wales and parts of Scotland, was the first to show the distribution of rock strata and associated mineral resources at a time of great significance to the Industrial Revolution.  Its publication profoundly changed the study of the Earth.

Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences has its own 1815 copy of the map which will be restored and re-displayed in a publicly accessible part of the Wills Memorial Building to mark the bicentenary. [Images available – see link in Notes to editors below.]

The map will also form the centrepiece of a public exhibition showcasing some of Smith’s original atlases and other maps bequeathed to the University by Joan M. Eyles and now housed in the University of Bristol Library, Special Collections.  The exhibition will open to the public from Wednesday 7 October.

Bristol-based artist Rodney Harris is currently in residence in the School working with staff and students to create a contemporary interpretation of Smith's original geological map.  The finished artwork will be unveiled at the end of October following a series of four free public lectures on Smith’s life and legacy by well-known scientists and writers.

Geologist, Professor Iain Stewart will reveal the hidden story of underground Britain (7 October); writer, journalist and broadcaster, Simon Winchester will describe how Smith’s map changed the world (14 October); project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, Professor John Grotzinger will talk about geological mapping of Mars (21 October); and palaeontologist Professor Richard Fortey will discuss Smith, fossils and the British landscape (28 October).

The lectures, sponsored by local engineering firm Hydrock, will take place each Wednesday in October from 7pm in the Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building and be followed by a book-signing by the speaker.

Organiser of the events, Professor Jon Blundy said: “When Smith first published his map, he was shunned by the scientific community of the time.  It was only much later in life that he received the recognition he deserved.  Now, two hundred years on, we’re delighted to have this opportunity to celebrate Smith’s life and work and explore how it changed the way we understand the rocks beneath our feet today.”

More information and booking for the lectures (admission free but tickets required).

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