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The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology [Hardcover]

Simon Winchester , Soun Vannithone
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (156 customer reviews)


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Book Description

August 7, 2001 0060193611 978-0060193614 1st
From the author of the bestselling The Professor and the Madman comes the fascinating story of William Smith, the orphaned son of an English country blacksmith, who became obsessed with creating the world's first geological map and ultimately became the father of modern geology.

In 1793 William Smith, a canal digger, made a startling discovery that was to turn the fledgling science of the history of the earth -- and a central plank of established Christian religion -- on its head. He noticed that the rocks he was excavating were arranged in layers; more important, he could see quite clearly that the fossils found in one layer were very different from those found in another. And out of that realization came an epiphany: that by following the fossils, one could trace layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell -- clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world. Determined to publish his profoundly important discovery by creating a map that would display the hidden underside of England, he spent twenty years traveling the length and breadth of the kingdom by stagecoach and on foot, studying rock outcrops and fossils, piecing together the image of this unseen universe.

In 1815 he published his epochal and remarkably beautiful hand-painted map, more than eight feet tall and six feet wide. But four years after its triumphant publication, and with his young wife going steadily mad to the point of nymphomania, Smith ended up in debtors' prison, a victim of plagiarism, swindled out of his recognition and his profits. He left London for the north of England and remained homeless for ten long years as he searched for work. It wasn't until 1831, when his employer, a sympathetic nobleman, brought him into contact with the Geological Society of London -- which had earlier denied him a fellowship -- that at last this quiet genius was showered with the honors long overdue him. He was summoned south to receive the society's highest award, and King William IV offered him a lifetime pension.

The Map That Changed the World is, at its foundation, a very human tale of endurance and achievement, of one man's dedication in the face of ruin and homelessness. The world's coal and oil industry, its gold mining, its highway systems, and its railroad routes were all derived entirely from the creation of Smith's first map.; and with a keen eye and thoughtful detail, Simon Winchester unfolds the poignant sacrifice behind this world-changing discovery.



Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Once upon a time there lived a man who discovered the secrets of the earth. He traveled far and wide, learning about the world below the surface. After years of toil, he created a great map of the underworld and expected to live happily ever after. But did he? Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) tells the fossil-friendly fairy tale life of William Smith in The Map That Changed the World.

Born to humble parents, Smith was also a child of the Industrial Revolution (the year of his birth, 1769, also saw Josiah Wedgwood open his great factory, Etruria, Richard Arkwright create his first water-powered cotton-spinning frame, and James Watt receive the patent for the first condensing steam engine). While working as surveyor in a coal mine, Smith noticed the abrupt changes in the layers of rock as he was lowered into the depths. He came to understand that the different layers--in part as revealed by the fossils they contained--always appeared in the same order, no matter where they were found. He also realized that geology required a three-dimensional approach. Smith spent the next 20 some years traveling throughout Britain, observing the land, gathering data, and chattering away about his theories to those he met along the way, thus acquiring the nickname "Strata Smith." In 1815 he published his masterpiece: an 8.5- by 6-foot, hand-tinted map revealing "A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales."

Despite this triumph, Smith's road remained more rocky than smooth. Snubbed by the gentlemanly Geological Society, Smith complained that "the theory of geology is in the possession of one class of men, the practice in another." Indeed, some members of the society went further than mere ostracism--they stole Smith's work. These cartographic plagiarists produced their own map, remarkably similar to Smith's, in 1819. Meanwhile the chronically cash-strapped Smith had been forced to sell his prized fossil collection and was eventually consigned to debtor's prison.

In the end, the villains are foiled, our hero restored, and science triumphs. Winchester clearly relishes his happy ending, and his honey-tinged prose ("that most attractively lovable losterlike Paleozoic arthropod known as the trilobite") injects a lot of life into what seems, on the surface, a rather dry tale. Like Smith, however, Winchester delves into the strata beneath the surface and reveals a remarkable world. --Sunny Delaney

From Publishers Weekly

Winchester, whose previous effort was the bestseller The Professor and the Madman, tells the remarkable story of William Smith, whose geologically correct map of England and Wales, dated 1815, became the bedrock for the modern science of geology. Winchester's strength is his ability to meld into compelling narrative a host of literary conventions, such as foreshadowing and fictionalized, internal dialogue. With descriptive contemporary visitations to places significant to the story and well-chosen historical detail, he makes immediate not only the magnitude and elegance of Smith's accomplishment, but also the thrill of each of the moments of genius necessary to reach his ultimate conclusion. But intellectual discovery is only half this story. Winchester writes with verve and conviction when relating the class and cultural wars that enveloped Smith soon after the publication of his map. It was plagiarized, stolen through the intrigues and machinations of George Bellas Greenough, an immensely wealthy gentleman and a founding member of the Geological Society of London, which, in a spectacular embrace of injustice, initially denied Smith membership. After a brief incarceration in debtor's prison, Smith left London and its scientific circles, not returning until his reputation was resurrected years later, when he became the first recipient of the Wollastan Medal, geology's Nobel Prize. Smith's life provides a terrific plot to frame his contribution to science. Winchester's wonderful account does credit to it. 60 illus. not seen by PW. (Aug. 14) Forecast: HarperCollins will roll this out with the fanfare due an undoubted bestseller, including a nine-city author tour, 15-city NPR campaign and national advertising. The crowning touch, however, is the dust jacket, which unfolds into a full-color replica of the notable map. The first printing is 125,000.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 329 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (August 7, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060193611
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060193614
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.7 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (156 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #340,083 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford and has written for Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. Simon Winchester's many books include The Professor and the Madman ; The Map that Changed the World ; Krakatoa; and A Crack in the Edge of the World. Each of these have both been New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. Mr. Winchester was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by HM The Queen in 2006. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
129 of 137 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Principle Of Faunal Succession September 7, 2002
Format:Paperback
In the last unit of my semester earth science class at an Orange County, California high school, I frequently come face to face with fundamentalist Christian views of the geological time scale. I'm told that the scale is a fiction made up to support the theory of evolution. I explain to my students that the pattern of strata and fossils that guided [and still guide] the building of the geological time scale is very real and exists independently of the explanation of the pattern. I explain that people like William 'Strata' Smith and others who followed him established that the pattern exists years before Charles Darwin convinced the scientific world that evolution happened. I don't want to kill their faith, but I won't lie to them. Now Simon Winchester has given us a book that I can hand to my students and say, "here's how William Smith figured it all out."
In The Map That Changed The World, Simon Winchester [in a very British and somewhat hyperbolic fashion] tells engagingly of the life of William 'Strata' Smith, surveyor, self-taught geologist, and maker of the first geologic map. I've known of Smith since my days as a student geologist [I can't recall that my professors ever mentioned the great map; their emphasis was always on Smith's discovery of the principle of faunal succession, or as Winchester writes in the book, "In his opinion, he wrote, all the rocks that had been laid down as sediments at a particular time in a particular place are laid down in a way that has much the same characteristics, and most particularly just the same fossils, and always appear in the same vertical order, in the same stratagraphical order, no matter where they are found.
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80 of 87 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What a Presentation... September 4, 2001
Format:Hardcover
This is a potentially fascinating book for readers who like biography, geology, landscape, England, rocks, or fossil ammonites. All right, I admit I was suckered by the cover: the hb dust jacket unfolds into a single large geological map of England, Wales, and southern Scotland! It is The Map That Changed the World in 1815 by revealing the rock strata beneath an entire country: the existence of time and order, of coal beds, building stone, ores, and soil types, all now made predictable. The fact this 1/13th size version of the immense hand made and coloured original by William "Strata" Smith won't stand magnification might have warned me about the text within. Once beyond the exciting promise of the clever jacket and quality presentation I was increasingly disappointed.
Winchester's biographical construction of Smith's life, while chronological overall, casts Smith's remarkable rise from the farm, and his wonderful scientific observation and insight, as a morality play against 18th century class prejudice and religion ("the blind acceptance of absurdity"!) taken quite out of historical context. Aside from Smith never having been involved in religious controversy (see pp. 195-96), the authorial tactics make it hard to follow Smith's story rather than Winchester's arch exegesis. Despite the frequent assertions of how earth-shaking was Smith's map, the book is such a farrago of description, quotation, flashforward, biography, travel, snide remark, foreshadowment, reconstruction, admiration, speculation, flashback, asides, suggestion, British nostalgia, coincidence, and digressive (but not scholarly) footnotes that the revolutionary consequences of Smith's innovations in stratigraphy, fossil assemblage, and mapping are buried and never come across coherently and convincingly.
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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remembering Forgotten Genius September 9, 2001
Format:Hardcover
I first read Simon Winchester when I came across his book The Professor and the Madman. This wonderful book is the story of the development of the OED. Now he has written a book on William Smith, the man who developed many of the ideas of rock stratification which laid the foundation for modern geology. The ultimate expression of Smith's genius was the production of the world's first geological map which gives this book its title.
Smith's story is a fascinating one and Winchester tells it well. Smith, a rural blacksmith's son, is orphaned and works his way up to being what in today's language we would call a civil engineer. As he works on the construction of coal mines and canals he see the strata of rock and collects fossils, coming to the understanding that the relationship between these things tells us about the age of the rock layers. This concept will have far-reaching repercussions in science.
Winchester also tells us of Smith's struggles to get his work recognized in a class-stratified world of gentleman-scholar-scientists. Along the way, Smith overextends himself financially and finds himself in debtors' prison. After that, he and his reputation seem to fade away only to be resurrected near the end of his life when he begins to reap some of the honors for his work in a field which has since passed him by. Then he fades away again.
Winchester is beginning to make a habit of writing stories bringing to light forgotten people making important discoveries and doing important work that has changed our world. I hope it is a habit he continues. I am already looking forward to the next gem he digs up. He and Dava Sobel are a one-two punch of brilliant modern writing on scholars and scientists who deserve to be remembered.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great story from one of my favorite authors.
Published 4 days ago by Auntie Di
5.0 out of 5 stars Winchester Weaves His Magic Yet Again
Fantastic story. The writer who can make history real and come alive is truly one to be treasured and Winchester does it again with this book. Highly recommended. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Lee Wright
2.0 out of 5 stars Poor writing
Poor writing: stultifying, haphazard storytelling; unbalanced black-and-white portrayal of the protagonists; inconsistent level of English; far from “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” as... Read more
Published 2 months ago by E. Hanslick
4.0 out of 5 stars The father of geology.
Simon is a very good story teller. This is one of those stories that you want to own and retell yourself. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Gregory C. Kail
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved this book!
This book is a joy to read! I've always loved geology, but never studied it formally, so this book about the founder of geology was informative and written in a engaging way.
Published 3 months ago by Elisabeth M Hinshaw
5.0 out of 5 stars Most interesting
I was never interested in rocks until I read this book. What an eye opener. I would love to travel and see this map in person. What a great work.
Published 4 months ago by Lucinda M. Stevens
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superbly Eloquent Chronicle
I enjoy any work of writing that stimulates my thought processes and demands of me to understand more than just facts. Mr. Read more
Published 4 months ago by David M. Baker
3.0 out of 5 stars Not upn to the quality of other works by Winchester
I have held off on purchasing the Kindle version of TMTCTW. I had hoped to find a hard copy of it, as I have a library of SW's books. I finally broke down and Kindled it. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Edward Alfred Woods
3.0 out of 5 stars Map Quest
An interesting tale about a forgotten plebeian English scientist whose groundbreaking contribution - the first geological map of England - was overlooked in his lifetime because he... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Change is good!
An excellant read, whether you are a student of geology or history, or human nature; a great view into the growing pains of a fledgling science, struggling to find truth in a time... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Amazon Customer
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