In 1769 in a little town in Oxfordshire, England, a child with the very ordinary name of William Smith was born into the poor family of a village blacksmith. He received rudimentary village schooling, but mostly he roamed his uncle's farm collecting the fossils that were so abundant in the rocks of the Cotswold hills. When he grew older, William Smith taught himself surveying from books he bought with his small savings, and at the age of eighteen he was apprenticed to a surveyor of the local parish. He then proceeded to teach himself geology, and when he was twenty-four, he went to work for the company that was excavating the Somerset Coal Canal in the south of England.
This was before the steam locomotive, and canal building was at its height. The companies building the canals to transport coal needed surveyors to help them find the coal deposits worth mining as well as to determine the best courses for the canals. This job gave Smith an opportunity to study the fresh rock outcrops created by the newly dug canal. He later worked on similar jobs across the length and breadth of England, all the while studying the newly revealed strata and collecting all the fossils he could find. Smith used mail coaches to travel as much as 10,000 miles per year. In 1815 he published the first modern geological map, "A Map of the Strata of England and Wales with a Part of Scotland," a map so meticulously researched that it can still be used today.
In 1831 when Smith was finally recognized by the Geological Society of London as the "father of English geology," it was not only for his maps but also for something even more important. Ever since people had begun to catalog the strata in particular outcrops, there had been the hope that these could somehow be used to calculate geological time. But as more and more accumulations of strata were cataloged in more and more places, it became clear that the sequences of rocks sometimes differed from region to region and that no rock type was ever going to become a reliable time marker throughout the world. Even without the problem of regional differences, rocks present a difficulty as unique time markers. Quartz is quartz-a silicon ion surrounded by four oxygen ions-there`s no difference at all between two-million-year-old Pleistocene quartz and Cambrian quartz created over 500 million years ago.
As he collected fossils from strata throughout England, Smith began to see that the fossils told a different story from the rocks. Particularly in the younger strata, the rocks were often so similar that he had trouble distinguishing the strata, but he never had trouble telling the fossils apart. While rock between two consistent strata might in one place be shale and in another sandstone, the fossils in that shale or sandstone were always the same. Some fossils endured through so many millions of years that they appear in many strata, but others occur only in a few strata, and a few species had their births and extinctions within one particular stratum. Fossils are thus identifying markers for particular periods in Earth's history.
Not only could Smith identify rock strata by the fossils they contained, he could also see a pattern emerging: certain fossils always appear in more ancient sediments, while others begin to be seen as the strata become more recent. By following the fossils, Smith was able to put all the strata of England's earth into relative temporal sequence. About the same time, Georges Cuvier made the same discovery while studying the rocks around Paris. Soon it was realized that this principle of faunal (animal) succession was valid not only in England or France but virtually everywhere. It was actually a principle of floral succession as well, because plants showed the same transformation through time as did fauna. Limestone may be found in the Cambrian or-300 million years later-in the Jurassic strata, but a trilobite-the ubiquitous marine arthropod that had its birth in the Cambrian-will never be found in Jurassic strata, nor a dinosaur in the Cambrian.