The Map That Changed the World

The Map That Changed the World

William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

Book - 2001
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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.

Publisher: New York : HarperCollins, c2001.
ISBN: 9780060193614
Characteristics: xii, 329 p., [2] p. of plates :,ill., maps (some col.) ;,22 cm.


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Jan 19, 2021

This is a wonderful book, well up to Simon Winchester's usual standards of being entertaining and informative at the same time.

A caution: I had the large print edition, and the maps and illustrations are very poorly reproduced, making it very difficult to read and understand some of the map references in the book. I expect the regular print edition would have no such troubles.

May 23, 2016

If the history of geology intrigues you then Martin Rudwick's Earth's Deep History is superior to this effort in all respects. Winchester's book suffers two serious defects: he believes in the great men theory of history and argues that William Smith is one, though his text undermines his argument; and, more perniciously, Winchester asserts that religion was dead set against geological inquiry, which was simply not the case. One can easily cheery pick some outrageous comments in support of such a thesis, but Rudwick's account puts the lie to this tired stereotype.

Mar 30, 2015

An entertaining and brisk-paced history/ biography... among the best aspects are the bottom of page footnotes, which include interesting digressions on numerous things, including Korean mythology.

Apr 21, 2013

Interesting and worthwhile topic, but perhaps over-developed: more detail than necessary.

Jun 25, 2012

Simon Winchester is an incredibly prolific writer, considering how thoroughly researched all his books are. Well, this one is about his own field, geology, but still, he had to wade through all the (not easily attainable) material about William Smith, the undeservedly forgotten genius mapmaker. Kudos to Winchester for drawing attention to this remarkable man in his easy conversational style (although I must say that the book could have done with a little trimming here and there).

May 28, 2012


Aug 09, 2011

Simon Winchester is a gifted writer who has entertained us with such books as “The Meaning of Everything...” (the story of the Oxford English Dictionary), and “Atlantic.
In the Map, we are treated to an investigation of one William Smith who overturned to accepted knowledge of geology to develop on an understanding of the science that is still valid today.
As usual, Winchester spins a beguiling tale that entertains and enlightens at the same time. “The Map…” takes a subject that could be vary arid in the hands of another writer and makes the book a pleasure to read.

Mar 26, 2010

I found the author to have a simplistic writing style that I did not particularly care for. I was looking for something with more depth, and this was not it.

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