In the same year—in fact, the same month—that the aristocratic and celebrated Cuvier was propounding his extinction theories in Paris, on the other side of the English Channel a rather more obscure Englishman was having an insight into the value of fossils that would also have lasting ramifications. William Smith was a young supervisor of construction on the Somerset Coal Canal. On the evening of January 5, 1796, he was sitting in a coaching inn in Somerset when he jotted down the notion that would eventually make his reputation.
To interpret rocks, there needs to be some means of correlation, a basis on which you can tell that those carboniferous rocks from Devon are younger than these Cambrian rocks from Wales. Smith's insight was to realize that the answer lay with fossils. At every change in rock strata certain species of fossils disappeared while others carried on into subsequent levels. By noting which species appeared in which strata, you could work out the relative ages of rocks wherever they appeared.
Drawing on his knowledge as a surveyor, Smith began at once to make a map of Britain's rock strata, which would be published after many trials in 1815 and would become a cornerstone of modern geology. (The story is comprehensively covered in Simon Winchester's popular book The Map That Changed the World .)