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.
See all Editorial Reviews