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

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

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

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Editorial Reviews 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.

From Library Journal

Former Oxford geologist Winchester follows up the success of The Professor and the Madman with this story of canal digger William Smith, who first noticed that rocks come in layers with different fossils in each and then proceeded to map all of England geologically.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In the much admired and widely read Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (1998), Winchester told the true and fascinating story of a man who played a key role in the creation of the OED. Now he brings his writerly talents to bear on the tale of another relatively unknown individual who also made a considerable contribution to intellectual history. In the early years of the nineteenth century, William Smith created the first geological map of Great Britain, a time-consuming, solitary project that helped establish geology as one of the "fundamental fields of study." Smith was born of humble origins, the son of a village blacksmith in Oxfordshire, England. While working as a surveyor, Smith was struck by an epiphany as he pondered the striations of rock in a coal mine. The order and regularity of those striations led him to formulate some of geology's key principles. Winchester tells Smith's story, including the dramatic ups and downs of his personal life, in vivid detail. Like the work of Dava Sobel (Longitude, 1995) and Mark Kurlansky (Cod, 1997), this is just the kind of creative nonfiction that elevates a seemingly arcane topic into popular fare. A natural for public libraries. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Winchester brings Smith's struggle to life in clear and beautiful language." (New York Times Book Review)

"Winchester has once again captured the essence of persistence against odds resulting in achievement." (Library Journal (starred review))

"Smith's life provides a terrific plot to frame his contribution to science. Winchester's wonderful account does credit to it." (Publishers Weekly (*Starred Review*))

“Winchester masterfully weaves a compelling history.” (Newsday)

“Smith’s unsung life provides the perfect backdrop for yet another entertaining intellectual history.” (Denver Post)

"A compelling human story" (Boston Sunday Herald)

"Well-researched narrative" (BusinessWeek)

About the Author

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of The Men Who United The States, as well as the New York Times bestselling books The Professor and the Madman, Atlantic, Krakatoa, Crack in the Edge and more.

From AudioFile

Written by the author of the bestselling PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, this is the involving story of William Smith, orphaned son of an English village blacksmith, who single-handedly established the foundation of modern geology. Smith was born in 1769, received only a rudimentary education, and for most of his life was rejected by the establishment of scientists and well-born amateur geologists. Yet he was the first recipient of the Wollaston Medal, the most prestigious award in geology. Englishman Simon Winchester is a trained geologist, who obviously brings expertise to both story and reading. Listening is akin to hearing an articulate scientist reading a paper to a lay audience. It's an authoritative delivery and an enjoyable experience. R.E.K. © AudioFile 2002, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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