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The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology Paperback – April 28, 2009


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 Reprint edition (April 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061767905
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061767906
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (160 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,447 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

As he did in The Professor and the Madman, Winchester chooses an obscure historical character who is inherently fascinating, but whose life and work have also had a strong impact on civilization. Here is William Smith, the orphan son of a village blacksmith, with lots of pluck and little luck until the end of his life when this pioneering first geological cartographer of the world beneath our feet was finally and fully recognized. Smith's life illustrates the interconnectedness of early 19th-century science, the industrial revolution, an intellectual climate that permits a look beyond religious dogma, and the class biases that endlessly impede his finances and fortunes. Published in 1815, Smith's huge and beautiful map of geological strata and the fossils imbedded in them blazed the way for Darwin and the creation-vs.-evolution debates that rage even day. Winchester is a fine stylist who also has a fine, clear reading voice. He fully engages listeners, not only with the excitement of Smith's life and work, but even with geological explications that would have been pretty dull in science class. Simultaneous release with HarperCollins hardcover (Forecasts, June 4).

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

131 of 139 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Crocker on 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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82 of 89 people found the following review helpful By tertius3 on 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 By Timothy Haugh TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 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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