William Smith's 1815 Map
William Smith’s 1815 Map

 “The question is not what you look at, but what you see. We must look for a long time before we can see”. Thoreau.

This  entry in Henry Thoreau’s Journal in 1851 is so Zen that you could plausibly add the epithet, “grasshopper” to the end of the quote without corrupting its tone.

It is also a fantastic piece of advice for beekeepers : looking alone will not help you with your bees. Granted, looking at bees is a rewarding occupation in its own right, but a deeper dimension of looking is deciphering – or “reading” – the condition of the hive from surveying the underlying comb and from the behaviour of the bees is the key to actually understanding what is going on inside a beehive.

To illustrate this notion in a real-world context, next time you are strolling along Piccadilly, knock on the door of the Geological Society (nb this doesn’t work if you just land on the yellow “Piccadilly” square on the Monopoly board!) and ask nicely to come in. Smile winningly and ask to see the “William Smith map”.

The receptionist will eagerly unveil for you (the delicate watercolour tints to the engraving are preserved behind some rather grand curtains) two remarkable early geological survey maps of the UK. For me, William Smith’s 1815 map entitled “A Delineation of the Strata : England and Wales with part of Scotland”, the earlier of the two maps on display, is a treasure.

The map is on a scale of five miles to an inch and consisted of 15 sheets. Published by the mapmaker John Cary to Smith’s topographic specifications, it was meticulously hand coloured using 20 tints to represent the different strata, and shading to represent depth. This information was designed to assist mineral extraction and canal-building (and later, presumably, the building of the railways).

The map is a work of art from the Industrial Revolution. Its swirling, psychedelic pinks and pert yellows and greens, fringed with blues and greys penetrate the underlying composition of the UK’s territory, usurping the childhood certainty which carves the country into neat, conventional counties on traditional maps.

In Smith’s survey, we see below the surface, we gain a fresh perspective. It is even a little uncomfortable to observe, since it powerfully contradicts that cosy image of the U.K. which we have carried forward from the cradle. But that is the whole point !

So let your eye be still and open your mind to see. Piccadilly or SE1, Zen Buddhist or Industrial Revolutionary, 1815 or 2013, geologist or beekeeper, William Smith’s legacy helps us to transform plain sight into insight.

2 Replies to “Insight”

  1. I was lucky enough to go on a tour of the Geological library recently and saw this map, along with several others. They have a map librarian who sits alone in a room absolutely packed with maps from floor to ceiling.

    You can read one of Paul the map librarian’s posts about the Smith county maps on the Geological Society’s blog here:, and all his posts on maps are here:

    1. Hi Emily, Thank you for sharing your even more profound insights about this wonderful and largely undiscovered cartological treasure trove!

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