Born in 1769, William "Strata" Smith was the eldest of five children of a Oxfordshire blacksmith. He had only a basic education but became fascinated by local fossils when he began work on his uncle's farm. His flair for geometry inspired him to learn surveying which led to his career.
By 1794 he was supervising the building of the Somerset Coal Canal, and was travelling around the country to visit other canal sites. He observed that the same fossils were always found in the same strata and that different species came in a specific order of the strata. He discovered that this pattern was repeated in different parts of the country. Before long he was astonishing the gentlemen fossil collectors by his ability to tell them what formation any of their fossils came from.
Smith began to map the distinctive rock formations and their fossils and in 1815 he published the world's first geological map of England. Before his death in 1831 he was hailed as "the Father of British Geology". He never attempted to to offer theological explanations for what he observed, he simply documented the pattern of change as an empirical fact about rocks. His work became the basis for mapping and correlating strata all over the world.
Other paleontologists in France were beginning to make similar discoveries. Baron Georges Cuvier was recording layers of changing species and extinctions in the rocks and he felt the need to reconcile this with his Christian beliefs. He proposed an antediluvian world that had been created and destroyed before the events of Genesis.
As the evidence continued to accumulate further creation events were needed to account for the facts. By 1842 twenty seven rounds of creation and destruction of previous worlds were required to accommodate the record in the fossils. Cuvier and his colleagues admitted defeat and gave up trying to reconcile the fossil record with the bible. They remained devout christians and, living before Darwin's work was published, continued to accept the creation account of Genesis.
The work these men began has led to the science of biostratigraphy that fuelled the industrial revolution. Without the realisation that the sequence of rocks covering millions of years of geological history can be identified by a totally predictable pattern of fossils there would be no oil or gas industry. Billions of dollars every year are invested in the truth of biostratigraphy.
Evolution is a Fact #21 - Footprints in the Sand
Footprints at Laetoli show our Australopithecus afarensis ancestors were bipedal 3.6 million years ago.
Evolution is a Fact #22 - The Hillocks of Hiss
A vestigial feature if the human ear shared by 10% of the population demonstrates our evolutionary history