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

Simon Winchester
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 18 2002

In 1793, a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in his excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell -- clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world -- making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside of the earth. Determined to expose what he realized was the landscape's secret fourth dimension, Smith spent twenty-two years piecing together the fragments of this unseen universe to create an epochal and remarkably beautiful hand-painted map. But instead of receiving accolades and honors, he ended up in debtors' prison, the victim of plagiarism, and virtually homeless for ten years more. Finally, in 1831, this quiet genius -- now known as the father of modern geology -- received the Geological Society of London's highest award and King William IV offered him a lifetime pension.

The Map That Changed the World is a very human tale of endurance and achievement, of one man's dedication in the face of ruin. With a keen eye and thoughtful detail, Simon Winchester unfolds the poignant sacrifice behind this world-changing discovery.

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From Amazon

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 the Audio Cassette edition.

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First Sentence
The last day of August 1819, a Tuesday, dawned gray, showery, and refreshingly cool in London, promising a welcome end to a weeklong spell of close and muggy weather that seemed to have put all the capital's citizens in a nettlesome, liverish mood. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Look At Modern Scientific History Nov. 20 2009
I was riveted by this book, which shows the power of one man who challenges established thought on how the earth was made and realises that there was more to it than seven days. William Smith's observations in the mines and while building canals contributed greatly to the theory of evolution. Smith constructed a geological map that is not so very different from those in use today. If you are interested in geology or map making you will enjoy this read.

Additional biographical information shows how Smith struggled with life, fame and debt along the way.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Deadly dull May 1 2004
I'm sorry, but not even Simon Winchester's earnest enthusiasm and lyrical prose can save this tale. It's just too dull. I got through about halfway, and couldn't finish.
Winchester is a glorious writer in his twin histories of the Oxford English Dictionary. But here his subject is just too obscure and trivial, and try as he might, Winchester can't make it seem interesting.
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It's a matter of taste, but I'm mystified by people who find Winchester's writing "charming." The author's cardinal rule seems to be: "When in doubt, slather on another thick coat of adjectives, adverbs, and clichés." This kind of prose is too politely described as turgid, florid, and repetitive.
I wouldn't normally review a book after reading 1/4 of it, but I feel about this one the way I do after watching 20 minutes of a movie, and the direction, acting, and story are already tired and weak. It's usually a waste of time to stick it out on the off chance of an improvement.
Given that, I can't comment on whether the underlying story will come close to living up to its grandiose title, but I can say that I have a hard time trusting an author on the big picture once I've seen him get the details wrong in areas that I am intimately familiar with (e.g. coal mining in this case).
As several other readers suggested, John McPhee is an incomparably better writer and researcher, on geology or any other topic he cares to tackle.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great science, great history Nov. 24 2003
William Smith learned how to read the layers of rock beneath Great Britain and created the world's first stratigraphic map. He did indeed "change the world", because his map became the basis of so much fundamental research in geology and literally place the engineering of mines, bridges, canals, and skyscrapers on a sound basis. I enjoyed Winchester's description of England in the early 1800's, particularly the agricultural revolution resulting from the enclosure laws. Smith was known as the "drainer" because he advised landowners on the usefulness of their fields, based on his knowledge of the strata beneath them.
Smith based his identification of strata on the fossils they contained. He found that sedimentary layers invariably contained fossils, that the fossils were characteristic for a given layer. Although he didn't spend much time speculating about it, Smith discovered evolution. If you are occasionally annoyed by Creationists who say that "evolution is just a theory" you'll find this book a delight and a resource.
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Simon Winchester, the author of the deservedly best-selling *The Professor and the Madman*, writes in *The Map that Changed the World* about William Smith, who was dubbed in 1831--a bit belatedly--The Father of English Geology by the then president of the Geological Society of London. Smith's great work was an enormous--some 8 x 6 feet--geological map of England, the data for which Smith had spent a considerable part of his lifetime collecting single-handedly. The map, which delineates in splendid color the various strata of rock that underlie England, was the first of its kind. Smith himself was a maverick intellect for his understanding of both the implications of the strata for the history of the Earth and the importance to the rocks' identification of the fossils that could be collected from them.
Smith also had an interesting personal history in that his great efforts for science were so unremunerative that he landed for some eleven weeks at the age of fifty in one of London's great debtors' prisons. Winchester makes much of this great irony in his book, that a monumental figure should be so ill-treated and so long unrespected during his lifetime.
For all Smith's merits as a subject, however, Winchester's narrative is a bit of a slog. His emphasis is very often on the science of geology rather than the personality of Smith. This is reasonable enough given the subject matter of the book, but I, at least, frequently found the author's discussion difficult to follow. Winchester may, as a one-time student of geology at Oxford, have had too high an opinion of his layman readers' capacities. (Or I, of course, may not have been the proper audience for the book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Zero to Hero...for Real Aug. 14 2003
Simon Winchester successfully and masterfully spins this non-fiction biography with the twists and turns of a well-plotted fiction. It is clearly evident that Winchester left no stone unturned (pun intended) when researching the story behind the story of William Smith, the father of geology.
Our main character and "hero", William Smith, the orphaned son of a blacksmith, is the first person in history to discover and record the different layers of earth (in England) and the rocks and fossils within them. Smith spends most of his adult life literally walking across England to accomplish this allthewhile creating words and concepts (a language, if you will) that we now associate with geology and civil engineering.
According to the class strata and clashes of his day -- rich v. poor, educated v. uneducated, royal v. peasant -- our hero begins, not only his geological journey, but his life, as an underdog and should have no right or chance to succeed at his goal.
Our "villians" (some of the rich and educated and royals I mentioned above) try to discredit, discourage and disallow Smith's work nearly from the moment he started it (and they succeeded some of the time). In the end of the story (and of his life), our underdog is recognized, honored and rewarded by (literally) King and country. He is given the now-a-day equivalent of a pension until his death and the priceless, timeless title of the Father of Geology.
Simply said, this is a wonderful tale of zero to hero. Enjoy the read!
Matthew Munyon
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great story only occasionally mired by some overly dramatic writing.
Published 1 month ago by Jeffrey R. Fish
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and entertaining
Simon Winchester has rather made a name for himself taking offbeat and obscure topics and making them accessible and entertaining for the casual reader and I think this may be one... Read more
Published on Nov. 24 2010 by C. J. Thompson
1.0 out of 5 stars pass on this title
I had many hours of flying ahead of me and this was the wrong book to have taken. The fact that it was the only book I had gave me great incentive to like it. I didn't. Read more
Published on Nov. 25 2003 by Rick Fisher
3.0 out of 5 stars Hyperboyle in the title
Stacey gave me this book last year for Christmas. It is written by Simon Winchester, who also wrote The Professor and the Madman, which was a fascinating book about the creation of... Read more
Published on Sept. 18 2003 by M. Griffith
2.0 out of 5 stars Why was this a best seller?
Disappointing sums it up for me. If I wasn't interested in geology already I would be even more disappointed. Read more
Published on Sept. 1 2003 by John R Laferriere
4.0 out of 5 stars English eccentrics
What is it about England and its wonderful eccentric scientists? From Darwin and Newton to Harrison and Smith, these folks are just amazing - their love of what they did and their... Read more
Published on Aug. 19 2003 by portledgesteven
5.0 out of 5 stars A Serendipitous Pleasure
My wonderful book club is fond of taking field trips, and so when one member suggested "Longitude" we knew that a trip to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich was... Read more
Published on July 21 2003 by Mary S. Holt
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