William Smith, the father of English geology was born on March 23, 1769 in Churchill, Oxfordshire England. His family was not wealthy, and his formal education was limited to the village school. Smith became an assistant to master surveyor Edward Webb in 1787 and began travelling throughout England.
In 1793, at the age of 24, Smith's interests turned to the stratification of fossils while he was employed as a surveyor on the construction of a canal between Bath and High Littleton, England. In order to build a canal, careful attention must be paid to the types of rock being dug through. It was this careful attention that led Smith to propose the idea of the principle of fauna succession: fossils in sedimentary rock are always found in a specific sequence no matter where the rock might be located, and so the strata can be used to determine the age of the rock.
Smith continued working on canals around Bath, and eventually wrote The Table of the Strata near Bath in 1799 which detailed his observations of the fossil layers. That same year, Smith was let go from the Canal Company and he subsequently took on odd jobs around England and Wales as an engineer which allowed him to continue his geological observations with the eventual goal of producing a geological map of England and Wales.
By 1815, Smith's A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with Part of Scotland, a wall-sized geological map based on fossil stratifications, was finally published. Although the map was completed in 1812, it took three years to raise the funds needed to publish the work. Due to Smith's lack of formal education, the work was not well-received at the time by the British scientific community and largely ignored. A few years later--due to his own fiscal mismanagement--Smith had to spend ten weeks in a debtors' prison in 1819.
Finally in 1831 the Geological Society of London officially acknowledged Smith's contributions, awarding him the society's first Wollaston Medal for outstanding achievement in geology. The president of the society, Adam Sedgwick, proclaimed Smith the "Father of English Geology." Smith died on August 28, 1839 at the age of 70.